Next month, eight stand-out playwrights from around the country will visit Ojai to put their newest creations through workshops in the Ojai Playwrights Conference.
Through their plays, the chosen writers will be “addressing some serious issues we’re facing in this culture,” according to the festival’s creative director and producer Robert Egan. Mr. Egan said he’s looking forward to collaborating with the writers and working out all the kinks in their projects before they get staged.
“It’s exciting to be in a room with people who intelligently and creatively address how we move forward,” he said.
Throughout the first half of the two-week conference, the plays will be read by the festival’s creative directors to figure out “dramaturgical questions that need to be answered” before production. The plays will undergo rewrites and start to undergo rehearsals during the second week, culminating in a staged reading with actors.
To Mr. Egan, each stage of the creative process is dependent on the prior one.
“It’s all equally satisfying to me because each phase of the work is informed by the previous phase,” he said.
For seven of the plays, Mr. Egan will serve as artistic director, collaborating with the playwrights in choosing a director best suited to helm their material. The one play on which he will serve as director, “Leave Your Fears Here,” is a one-man play about a father recounting his son’s struggle and ultimate recovery from brain cancer, according to a press release. Mr. Egan is directing the play by request of its writer, James Morrison.
“I’ve known Jim for 30 years and when I called him and asked him to be in the festival, he said, ‘I’d be happy to be in the festival if you’d direct my play,’ ” he said.
The eight featured playwrights will include first-time attendees as well as returning faces. Christopher Gabriel Nunez will be making the latest of many appearances at the festival, having first attended as a boy to see Stephen Adly Guirgis, a playwright he confessed to being a “fanboy” of. When Mr. Nunez was 18 he was chosen for the festival’s Youth Workshop and last attended in 2015 with his play “The Surgeon and her Daughters.”
This year, Mr. Nunez will be presenting his play “Locusts,” which takes place about three months after Piedad, a significant yet never-seen character, is brutally attacked on a subway. When the play begins, a group of her friends throw her a party in an attempt to coax her out of her hiding, but she doesn’t show up. Because Piedad is a prison abolitionist, her friends are left with the predicament of whether to honor her beliefs or find some course of action that will bring her attacker to justice.
Though Mr. Nunez said he goes into the conference with an idea of how his play should be, the creative process of “intimately working with the piece’s text” leads him to discover new ways it can go that he didn’t realize at the beginning.
“You can come in with a plan… But you often discover things in the process that you wouldn’t have thought at the outset,” he said.
For Mr. Nunez, the whole writing process has been one of discovery. The playwright described “Locusts” as a “dialectic on violence” that asks difficult questions about justice. Like the character of Piedad, Mr. Nunez believes in prison abolition and criminal justice reform, but he was in no way satisfied with just writing in favor of his position. He feels “it’s really important to write sincere questions.”
That entailed challenging his position and putting “optimal pressure on the idea” he shares with Piedad. In the story, the offstage character’s friends deal with her zealotry for prison abolition and not all of them agree with her view that the man who attacked her should simply be forgiven. While Mr. Nunez doesn’t think it’s always appropriate to use sexual violence against a woman as a narrative setpiece, he decided using lesser crimes like stealing food or minor drug offenses wouldn’t put it to the ultimate test.
“When we talk about violence and intentional sexual violence, it makes me question my beliefs,” he said.
Among the conference’s first-time attendees will be Kimberly Belflower, whose play “John Proctor is the Villain” takes place in a town in Appalachian Georgia like the one where she grew up. Named after the main character of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” the play follows a group of high school girls who are reading the theater classic in their English class around the time the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment arises. This leads the girls to question not just the behavior of male authority figures in their town, but whether the male literary figures like “John Proctor” are in fact heroes, hence the title.
Ms. Belflower said the idea for the play ultimately came about from the title, which she thought up while thinking about Arthur Miller’s play.
“I had been thinking a lot about ‘The Crucible’ for whatever reason and the phrase ‘John Proctor is the villain’ came into my head,” she recalled.
The writer said she is “over the moon” about her inclusion in the festival and is most looking forward to workshopping her play and collaborating with her fellow playwrights, directors, and dramaturges during its first week.
“I’m really looking forward to being in a room with all of those amazing brains and learn,” she said.The Ojai Playwrights Conference begins Aug. 4. Tickets can be purchased at www.ojaiplays.org.