It’s pretty damn unique, even in the esteemed world of theater: a two-week residency in which playwrights of all professional levels spend week 1 developing their respective pieces, and week 2 putting said works on their feet. Welcome to the 19th annual Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC).
This year, participating playwrights include David Jacobi, whose Ready Steady Yeti Go explores the aftermath of a high-school hate crime; Oliver Mayer’s Blue House, a musical depicting Frida Kahlo’s final days; and Zimbabwean Kudzai Sevenzo’s Under the Rubble, addressing her country’s conflicts, traditions and economic blues.
In 2002, Robert Egan took over as OPC’s artistic director. He has seen the conference grow throughout his 14 years. “When I took over, there were four plays in development; it was a one-week process,” he remembered. “Now we have up to 12 projects that are going on. They’re in two-week developments.”
Egan stressed the importance of showcasing works “envisioning a horizon and a way forward because the greatest playwrights, that’s what they’ve done, from the Greeks to the Tony Kushners.”
Returning for his fourth OPC: Robert Askins, Texas-born author of the Tony-nominated and Obie-winning Broadway play Hand to God. At previous OPCs, Askins developed his 2012 Fish Display and Permission, which enjoyed its world premiere off-Broadway in 2015. Now Askins is prepping his one-man show, Our Father. “It’s very much a sermon about sermons,” Askins explained. “It’s about David Koresh, charisma.”
“It’s paradise,” the award-winning playwright said of his Ojai sojourns. “It’s been different things to me at different moments. The atmosphere that they create there . . . some of the people who host us, it gets to feel like family.”
“The playwrights have an opportunity to form their community,” Egan explained. “They know each other’s work. They can collaborate with each other to help each other fulfill their vision of the play.”
One might assume, with so many artists in attendance, that egos, jealousies and petty rivalries might follow. “Categorically, that doesn’t happen,” Egan said. “It’s remarkable how the atmosphere is so free of that. This is all about development. You are in essence competing with yourself.”
In January, a team of 15 readers began selecting this year’s finalists from 500 submissions that displayed “high quality, great diversity: ideologically, generational. Over the years, it gets stronger and stronger as more and more writers know about who we are,” Egan said.
Among 2016’s selected playwrights: Aziza Barnes, author of BLKS (pronounced “Blacks”). Set on a June afternoon in gentrifying Brooklyn, Barnes’ story follows 20-something African American Octavia on her last night out before undergoing lifestyle-threatening surgery.
BLKS marks the first play for the Los Angeles-born Barnes, currently studying in Oxford, Mississippi, and intent on writing for film and television. “I’m not content with [Hollywood] at all. I’m in a state of perpetual discontent. I just wanna make good shit. There’s not enough black and weird and queer in movies. I want to contribute to a more nuanced way of looking at the world.”
One creator she reveres is Lena Dunham. Barnes enjoyed Tiny Furniture and Girls, but also realized that “I live in essentially in the same city as [Dunham], we’re the same generation [with similar education] and our days couldn’t be more different. My day is different from her character. I’m consistently having to think about police brutality. Will someone decide to kill me if I walk outside today? Should I even have a day? It’s the same question but the practical application becomes different.”
Working in the relatively rural Oxford has already exposed Barnes to a calmer creative environment than urban America. “It’s changed the way that I’ve approached writing,” Barnes said. “Being out in nature is so freeing. . . . In a big city, you’re constantly writing against something: time, space, always needing to go somewhere and being in transit.”
Askins, who now divides his time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, found Ojai’s peacefulness conducive to better work. “They do a great job of creating a culture of almost unconditional acceptance,” he said.
Askins has no pretenses about developing his prize-winning works alongside relative novices such as Barnes. Askins remembers how “generous” and “gracious” hero Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) was at OPC toward his Hand to God. Yet he admits to experiencing butterflies and feeling naked and vulnerable when sharing works in progress. “I’m going out on a limb,” he said. “I’m showing people my ass. Every play is the first play you’ve ever written because you’re starting all over again.”
BLKS plays on Saturday, Aug. 13, 1 p.m. Our Father plays on Sunday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m. Both performances will be at Zalk Theater, Besant Hil School, 8585 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai. For tickets, more information and a complete schedule, visit ojaiplays.org.