For 15 years, Ojai Playwrights Conference has nurtured playwrights — established and emerging — through the development of their plays in a two-week, retreat-like residency that culminates in public readings of the work. Developed work from the conference ranges from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Motherfucker with the Hat (2009) to Charlayne Woodard’s The Night Watcher (2007).
In this 16th summer of the program, four of OPC’s nine selected playwrights are women from diverse backgrounds, who are each coming to the conference for the first time: Alice Tuan, Jiehae Park, Lucy Alibar and Laura Schellhardt.
With open minds and an eagerness for the work to come, from emerging new voices to seasoned dramatists, these writers are preparing for Ojai by thinking through the personal connections driving the stories of their scripts.
Cock’s Crow by Alice Tuan
A recipient of Center Theatre Group’s 2000 Sherwood Award for emerging theater artists, Alice Tuan first made waves with her play Ajax (por nobody) at the Flea Theater in NYC (2001). Her work has been produced at Los Angeles Theatre Center, by East West Players, and internationally. She teaches at CalArts and has been a visiting professor at Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin,.
As Ojai’s 2013 playwright-in-residence, Tuan will participate in all aspects of the conference and develop her play but without the added pressure of a public performance at the end of the two weeks. With a heavy teaching schedule in recent years, Tuan looks forward to the dedicated time with her script.
“It really is a chance to just…write,” says Tuan. “Which is such a treat for me right now. I’m just ready to be open and see where it goes once I’m there.”
Tuan’s play, Cock’s Crow, tells a modern story about the cross-pollination of business, technology and ethics between Americans and Chinese in a constantly shrinking global economy. Tuan was born and raised in the United States, primarily in Los Angeles, but her Chinese heritage has remained part of her upbringing. She has traveled to China often, living there for a year in 2008-2009 and teaching. It was during this time, while she lived in Shanghai, that Crow began as a first draft.
“The excitement of China has worn off on me,” says Tuan. “The first few times you go there it’s astounding. The mass of humanity, the culture, the overwhelming-ness. But when you really get to live a daily life there, you are reminded that you are in an authoritarian country. Even though you have privileges as a foreigner, if something happened — you’d have no rights.”
Tuan describes the intense day-to-day living among a city of 21 million people while also marveling at Shanghai’s “amazingly efficient subway system”; the eight-lane super-highways that would dwarf the main arteries of Los Angeles while citizens jaywalk across them. Tuan calls herself a Los Angeles-American rather than an Asian-American, citing her affinity to where she’s lived most of her life and the development of her identity within such a diverse city. But she also appreciates her ability to see Shanghai as an American and not as a Chinese citizen.
“Shanghai is probably one of the best places to think about the 21st century and what’s to come,” says Tuan. “The anarchy of how things play out in a mega-city. When you drive down the freeway there it’s just skyline, skyline, skyline…It doesn’t end. I can’t imagine China being democratic. There just isn’t enough room. Freedom needs space.”
While Tuan respects the daring of the Shanghai experience, it is the totalitarianism she cannot stomach with her California, freedom-loving heart. For example, she maintained a blog (Alice in Shanghailand) while living there that would mysteriously encounter technical difficulties without warning or explanation, leaving her unable to post or update material. It was never clear if the issues with her Chinese internet provider were network-related or “purposeful inaccessibility” as a result of carefully monitored free speech.
Tuan knows writing plays takes time. And Crow has had time to develop throughout her years of travel, with readings and additional writing work occurring in Los Angeles. She feels her timing for Ojai is right.
“This is a play I happen to feel is pretty formed now,” says Tuan. “I’ve had a little distance from it, and now I’m interested in feedback from other playwright minds.”
A veteran of the workshop process, Tuan has developed several of her own projects as well as guided the work of others in collaborative environments. She describes the power of writing as a way to reveal individuality in both herself and others.
“The reason I became a writer was to write myself into the culture because I didn’t see myself,” says Tuan. “It was also about the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Between being raised in a Chinese household and going to public schools, I was really excited about the freedom of it.”
Hannah and the Dread Gazebo by Jiehae Park
“I don’t know if I had a whole lot to say in my 20s,” says Jiehae Park. “I’m much more prolific now.”
Park’s play, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, received the 2013 Leah Ryan Prize for emerging women writers. With an MFA in acting from UC San Diego, Park currently straddles an acting career with her work as an emerging playwright. Hannah is only this New York resident’s second full-length play, but Park feels a connection between acting and her writing.
“Acting is a huge part of where I come from [when writing] and how my brain works,” says Park. “I do know that when I write and it feels like it’s going the way I’d like it to go, it doesn’t feel like I’m actively sitting down and trying to write. It feels alive, is the simplest way to say it.”
Her first stop this summer, before Ojai, was the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, where Park was also developing Hannah. Park’s acting gigs are on hold as she spends a good part of her summer developing her writing for the first time with these back-to-back development experiences.
“It’s a messy play,” says Park. “I don’t have a lot of production experience as a playwright. So I don’t know how much of that messiness is a good thing or a bad thing. I know that the theater that interests me is not really tidy. But I feel like the arc of [the script] is where I want it to be.”
Park was inspired to write Hannah when she learned that South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world. Her curiosity led to more research surrounding the “hyper capitalism” that developed in that country over the last 50 years. As a Korean who was raised in New York State with family still living in South Korea, Park admits she was exploring questions of identity.
“I’m also really interested when things are really funny and really terrible at the same time,” says Park. “I like the ripple effect of it and the confusion that results from it.”
In Park’s play, the title character embarks on an odyssey to South Korea, where she learns her grandmother made a suicidal leap from the roof of her retirement home, landing in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The politics of collecting her grandmother’s body become fodder for the play’s comic absurdity.
As a member of the Ma-Yi Theater Company Writers Lab (NYC), Park participates in meetings twice a month with writers sharing pages for feedback. The company’s mission is to develop and produce new plays from Asian-American writers. Park credits the group with giving her a strong foundation as well as an effective space to try new things on the page.
“It’s super low pressure,” Park says. “It’s also really nice to be in a group of Asian-American writers because there are political things that come out of that.”
Park also embraces the development process provided at a concentrated retreat scenario like Ojai, which will give her access to more experienced playwrights responding to her work and time to make revisions.
“I don’t know if I even knew I was writing a play. There were just a few fragments that I started writing,” says Park of the early stages of Hannah. “I’m learning that plays don’t just come out of your head like that…you have to sit down and find it again, each time you try to write.”
Carl the Raping Goat Saves Christmas by Lucy Alibar
Lucy Alibar’s life became a whirlwind when her play Juicy and Delicious was adapted into the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, with Alibar earning her own Academy nomination as co-writer on the screenplay. It was her first time writing for film. While she didn’t snag the Oscar, Beasts received the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the Cannes Film Festival Camera D’Or and accolades from critics and audiences around the world in the great artistic equalizer that is independent film. Before its success, Alibar was an unknown.
A Florida-native living in New York, Alibar’s life has calmed a bit from attending red-carpet events, screenings and audience Q & A’s for Beasts. But the experience in its entirety has not only given Alibar a writing career — she has been hired to write the screenplay for The Secret Garden — it has also given her fodder for the stage project that she’s bringing to Ojai.
“It was incredible. I got to meet some incredible people,” says Alibar of the Beasts experience. “And I got some rewarding work out of it. But it’s also good to be getting dirty again. It feels good to be starting from scratch. This play is really starting at zero again.”
Alibar’s play, Carl the Raping Goat Saves Christmas, is actually a collection of stories told by Alibar. But she’s reluctant to call what she’s doing a one-woman show or even theater for that matter. What she will call it, is hitting close to home. And it all started with her travels and meeting audiences for Beasts.
“I was just so moved by the stories that people would come to me with, either things that happened to them or stories about their own fathers,” says Alibar. “It just made me think about my own family and my own home. I started writing these pieces early in the morning and in hotel rooms late at night after talkbacks. They weren’t even conversations sometimes, just moments of deep revealing. It was so moving to me.”
Alibar’s connections with strangers brought out Alibar’s own stories of growing up and the people she knew. And, while Beasts shares a theme of family relationships, Alibar also recognizes that this take on family and its storytelling vessel is not the same.
“It’s very personal and very different than anything I’ve ever written,” says Alibar. “What stays with me is that it’s not about my life as much as everyone else I grew up with. All the people I was really fortunate enough to know.”
Earlier this summer, Alibar attended her first development workshop with Carl as part of The Ground Floor, run by Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work—what Alibar describes as “boot camp meets a really hard-core yoga retreat.”
Working with the team at Berkeley gave Alibar a first chance at refining Carl. She’s now ready to take it to the next level at Ojai. With feet planted in both film and theater writing pools, Alibar draws energy from the challenges each one prescribes.
“I really enjoy figuring out form a lot,” says Alibar. “What the finished story looks like. How is this story unique and special in the container of the stage? Or on the screen for a cinematographer? What can we do on film that you can’t do anywhere else? And the same goes for writing the play.”
Alibar also looks forward to hearing responses to her stories about the South from a part of the country (Southern California) so far removed from it. She also knows she’ll be in good company with the caliber of writers joining her for the two weeks, feeding her own inspiration from the writing of others.
“I always look forward to being around other writers while they work,” says Alibar. “I love seeing the embryonic seeds of plays before they’re plays.”
The Comparables by Laura Schellhardt
“From what I’ve heard, a lot of work gets done [at Ojai] but in a very laid-back way,” says Laura Schellhardt. “And I know from doing these things that it’s all about the atmosphere.”
With several awards, productions and publications to her credit, Schellhardt has been waiting for the right time and the right play to bring her to Ojai. Her script, The Comparables, is a commission from Seattle Rep which started as an adaptation of Genet’s The Maids, but evolved into its own tale of status and power among three women sparring inside the arena of high-stakes real estate. Like Park’s Hannah, The Comparables was part of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival earlier this month.
“There is a unique nature of female cruelty and social status,” says Schellhardt. “It’s a unique kind of combat different from male combat. I’m interested in that, but I’m also interested in infusing a little more humor into that.”
A fan of the workshop scenario for playwrights, Schellhardt blames her research-driven writing style for her need to bring in casts to read and offer fresh perspective on her pages in progress. For this project, she’s particularly excited by the conversations the work itself ignites. She’s curious about how her fellow Ojai playwrights might respond.
“Some of the comments I’ve gotten were, ‘Why aren’t there more conversations about their relationships?’” says Schellhardt. “I don’t know if that’s a question really put on male characters. I’m having a lot of fun seeing how much personal information we can not get from these women.”
While empathy for her struggling female characters is not her priority, Schellhardt is intrigued by the social phenomenon of difficulties in friendships between woman in cutthroat environments, particularly business environments. She has researched the modern workforce and several of the most high-profile professional women in the country, looking for insights on the female species within corporate America.
“My big concern is also to not contribute to the problem,” says Schellhardt. “There are specific ways in which we [women] sabotage ourselves…by virtue of there being fewer of us in some settings, there are behaviors that come out that wouldn’t if we were one of 50.”
Schellhardt admits she believes she’s in the final stretch with Comparables. She hopes her time in Ojai will give her the chance to step back and really see the characters as performed by the actors in her workshop and benefit from the commentary of her fellow playwrights. She has purposely left ethnicity out of her character descriptions so that the play can take on added dimensions depending on casting choices.
Schellhardt offers some words of advice for novice playwrights hoping to find themselves at a development workshop like Ojai or having success of any kind as a new playwright.
“The most important thing is to stick with it,” says Schellhardt. “Just staying in the game is the first thing. Figuring out who you want to work with and why….And develop those relationships. Then I think the conversations you have with these people are really about life, not just plays.”
Ojai Playwrights Conference Summer New Works Festival, Matilija Auditorium, 703 El Paseo Road and Zalk Theater at Besant Hill, 8585 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai. Aug. 7-11. Tickets: $20-25. All Access Festival Pass: $219. Student tickets available. www.ojaiplays.org. 805-640-0400.