Ojai Playwrights Conference and Gala

Ojai playwright festival 1A pinch of words, a drop of insight, a shadow of a doubt, a dust of vision, lots of maybes, countless hopes and endless sentiments. You have the ethereal mist that makes up the alchemy of theatre. It’s magical, because there is no formula that creates great theatre, there’s just dreams. It is most often the right moment with the right people all perfectly stirred together which then explodes into a fragile beauty called a play.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake…
– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act IV, Scene 1

Robert Egan has more than a bit of experience being the alchemist, pulling together desperate bits of magic. While still working as the Producing Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum (1984-2004), he got involved with the establishment of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. The project was originally conceived as a co-operative effort between the Echo Theatre Company and Theater 150. It gave new works a chance to be read, and at least minimally staged. The vision then was to offer opportunity and encouragement for new playwrights. It has grown considerably, and as the artistic director of the conference, Egan has helped establish the ensuing results as an important leg of support for the development of the American Theatre.

Once a year in August, on the campus of Besant Hill School in Ojai, after an exhaustive vetting of approximately 500 submissions from around the world, the selected writers gather for a unique opportunity to work with professional directors, dramaturges and actors for a ten-day workshop which culminates in a stage reading of their works. As an audience, we have an opportunity to see these readings.

Each of the plays, submitted from famous and yet to be published playwrights, is an undeveloped project. And through the years, many of the previously submitted plays have gone on to productions around the world, from the West Coast to The West End and beyond. Some of the productions have won Tony Awards and some Pulitzer Prizes.

The importance of the conference goes far beyond the mechanics of giving new works a leg up, it’s an opportunity for unheard voices to garner attention – to have experienced eyes and voices tackle the words on the page. As Egan so aptly states, especially in these times, the theatre must give voice, must rise and bring to light the challenges of social, political and economic justice. We as a community, as a nation must build the bridges across the great divide that separates our differing visions of life. Only if we have common points of consideration, can we begin to grasp different perspective. Then and only then will we be able to see and celebrate our differences not just judge and condemn those with whom we disagree.

While all of these concerns are vital, it’s also important to note that no voice is silenced. There are no limiting or political agendas, there are no topics that are taboo. It’s only about opportunity and giving strength and clarity to voices already clamoring to be heard, giving life to an opportunity of perspectives.

While the Ojai Playwrights Conference is a non-producing entity, it does take money to organize and support the event. To that end there is an annual fundraising gala. This year the 20th Anniversary Benefit Gala, Celebrating Visionary Voices takes place on April 8th where there will be a show in the afternoon, followed by a sumptuous dinner.

Ojai playwright festival 2The fundraising show is a number of 5 minute plays all focused on the current political climate (Only for this event are topics suggested). The playwrights are all past participants of the conference and have much to offer that will challenge and amuse the audience. Just to give you a few names, Jon Robin Baitz, Robert Askins,  Davis Gaines, Terrence McNally, and Charlayne Woodard are all accomplished and published writers, and the musical direction of Michael Sobie. The best part is that for those supporting the evening, it’s an opportunity to be a tangible part of theatre development. Your donations go directly to helping build new plays.

Theatre is a participatory art. It’s the alchemy of everyone working together to help define our culture. We always participate as an audience; this is an opportunity to participate as a patron.

By attending the fundraiser, and or going to the Conference Festival, we are doing our part to encourage new voices.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
– William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act IV, Scene 1

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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