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BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations

Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) will be presenting their virtual benefit CONNECTIONS June 12, 2021

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations

Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) will be presenting their virtual celebration CONNECTIONS benefiting their 2021 season June 12, 2021. CONNECTIONS will feature new or adapted works by playwrights: Luis Alfaro, Jon Robin Baitz, Father Greg Boyle, Bill Cain, Culture Clash, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Danai Gurira, Samuel D. Hunter, David Henry Hwang, Julia Izumi, James Morrison and his son Seamus Morrison, Jeanine Tesori and Charlayne Woodard. Performers include Brian Cox, Eileen Galindo, Francis Jue, Rose Portillo, Samantha Quan, John C. Reilly, Israel López Reyes, Nikkole Salter, Jimmy Smits, Samantha Sloyan, Phillipa Soo and A. Zell Williams; as well as some of the playwrights performing their own pieces.

OPC artistic director/producer Robert Egan found some time to chat with me after a morning of recording with John C. Reilly and Jon Robin Baitz and Sam D. Hunter.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Robert!

You have lined up a very impressive list of playwrights to participate in your virtual benefit June 12th. When did you start working on this benefit?

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations 40 years ago. I really am drawing on relationships that I've had for, I think, 40 years, some of them. The intense preparation, probably six months ago, when we started to conceive of a gala. And then I always tried to wrap and fold the playwrights into the planning, because it's such an artist-centric organization. I was getting the advice of Luis Alfaro, Sam Hunter, Robbie Bates, Liza Powel O'Brien, Charlayne Woodard and others, 'What do you think would be an interesting gala season celebration kickoff?' So we came up with the idea that we presently have, which has really been owned, I would say over the last six months, and really intensely over the last four months.

Was it a no-brainer in choosing CONNECTIONS as the theme for this benefit?

I think it was a no brainer for us, Gil. because we are unabashedly and unashamedly politically centric. We are a political, social, cultural mission-driven theatre company. We have seen the dark winds of change coming for probably the last six years, so they've been the themes of our conferences. A lot of the plays that have been written by our writers, embrace our mission, and care and dare to write about the world we live in. They've been pretty stark warnings about where this country is going on a racial pandemic level, on an environmentally-concerned pandemic level, and 'a kind of we're destroying the planet' pandemic level virally. So we thought, now that we've been in the thick of it, and we've come out of it with some vaccinations (both kinds of a political vaccination and medicinal vaccinations) that we should start talking BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations about building alliances, oneness and moving onward together. The theme of CONNECTIONS came up, and how we're connected, how we're not connected, and how we need to create a deeper, more inclusive connection. Everybody rose to the occasion and has written really searing beautiful and somewhat celebratory and sometimes disturbing pieces.

How challenging have the logistics of producing a benefit virtually been?

I would say, the challenge is on the most fundamental and primary level. You have to have relationships with artists, where they trust you, they feel they're in good hands, that they'll be well taken care of. There's only artistic inspiration, artistic motivation, and they're not being taken advantage of in any way shape or form, that we're trying to further the art form. Further the messaging and make this a better world that we live in, so they know that about us.

The rest of it has been technical - how you raise money and the platforming - so it's seamless. It's a show. It's not a bunch of talking heads, It's not me continuing to come back and say, 'Give us money, give us money.' I only appear once briefly, and the rest of it is the artists talking to you, either directly or through their work. The great majority of the writers have written pieces, or in a couple small instances, taken pieces that existed, either in larger plays or in some other format and shaped them for this particular event. But it is the playwrights talking to you, the BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations audience, about why OPC is worthy of support, why they love this theater. That's very brief, but you will hear some pretty heartfelt, complex and deep messaging, a minute at most, and then you go right into the pieces they run. That's basically the run of the show, although we do intersperse with fun little moments from Cultural Clash videos they made for us to share with the audience. The show's a little less than two hours.

You've been OPC's artistic director since 2001. What changes and growth have you seen in OPC's twenty years?

When I first went to Ojai back, way back then twenty-something years ago, I went with Lynn Manning. (The great Lynn Manning has since passed on.) And I loved the opportunity to work with Lynn on the one-man show we were developing with him called MIDDLE PASSAGES. But to be honest with you, Gil I went home every night. I drove back from Ojai, back to L.A. because there was nothing going on outside the conference. Having come from the Mark Taper Forum, which was at the height of our engagement with the community, we were a beehive of activity. I mean, huge artistic staff, really diverse. Tons of artists in and out of a building really engaged with community and generating new work. I was the head of the play development at the Taper then. 'There's a lot of projects I can't get on, so let's do them in Ojai,' and Gordon (Davidson) thought it was a good idea. The staff thought it BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations was a good idea. That's a long-winded way of saying what we created over time, was an intensely nurturing and rigorous community. People can't wait to be there. There's activities from the morning. From the moment you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed, you are engaged in community, you are engaged in creativity. You are engaged in what we call the 'City of Joy.' It's all about creation, creation, creation; and the artists love it. They say their artistic gas tanks are filled up. It's gone from four days to a little over two weeks. It's gone from four projects to as many as twelve projects. It's gone from the new play workshops to two community, interactive moments in Matilija Hall downtown where we'll take on a big issue like the environment or contemplating capitalism with the artists. We've grown a lot.

The fundamental thing I wanted to do all of these years I had been doing new play development at the Mark Taper Forum, at the Seattle Rep before that, at Sundance, all over the country; I wanted to create something that was free of institutional constraints. At the Taper, the deal was, we were creating product, product for our stages, the main stage, Taper Too and other stages. that was the deal. And here (at OPC), my only concern is to collaborate with the generative artists, the playwrights to assist them, support them in fulfilling their vision of their plight.

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations OPC's has had many success stories. Can you name just one that you're most proud of?

No! I could name a whole bunch! But I was really proud of FUN HOME by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori because they came to us when they only had the zine, the zine called FUN HOME. At Ojai they met Sam Gold, who became their director, and stayed with him all the way through Broadway, and are still with him. So that was a particular pleasure. Very pleased with the young emerging writers who have never written a play before, like Richard Cabral, to come to us and develop something, and then it goes on to have full productions around the country. You really love those mid-career writers, Aziza Barnes, Sam Hunter, the great Sam Hunter, who is no longer a mid-career writer. And then, I'm really proud of when we meet a Terrence McNally, who came to us. He was an established veteran playwright, and when he came and worked with us at Ojai, he said when I interviewed him on tape, 'This is the best developmental experience I've ever had. And it regenerated me.' The mix in the room of emergent, mid-career and seasoned is just created for a magic. Everybody's on an equal playing field. Everybody talks equally. They're treated equally. You have full freedom of voice. Truth is spoken. Honesty is shared. So, yeah, it's a great, great, great place.

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations Your website www.ojaiplays.org is very comprehensive and detailed in your submissions processes for playwrights; (as well as; directors, dramaturges, actors, interns, sponsors). Already full for this year's two conferences, OPC is now accepting applications for OPC's 2022 season. How many applications do you normally receive each year?

I would say we get upwards to around 600 projects - ideas, plays, plans, visions that are shared with us. We have an incredible reading committee of eighteen people, extremely diverse, very sharp. They come and they read these 600 projects. We meet once a week. And we used to, before the pandemic, met in person at someone's house. We had a great meal, and then we talked about the plays. The vast majority of the plays are read many times. And the last 100 are read pretty much by everybody on the committee. We have a very thorough look at the plays, and really thorough rigorous discussion of them.

How many available spots do you normally take for the spring/summer OPC New Works Festival and the fall OPC Foundry Project?

We're still working out the numbers, but for sure we'll have ten slots in the summer. That will be a workshop, readings, and there'll at least two, possibly more, (we've had up to four so up to twelve total projects) what we call 'writers in residence' who are very early on with their project and want the writing time and the feedback from the community. The Foundry Project will have BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations a minimum of six slots. It's our 25th anniversary season next year. And it's my final season next year. It's a special one for me and for the organization.

How smoothly was last year's pivot from in-person to online conferencing?

It was hard for a whole lot of reasons. We didn't know what to expect at all. We had already committed to our eight writers for the summer, and we were already in plans for our gala, a live and in-person, big, huge gala dinner at the Douglas, and then the pandemic hit. As an organization, we are bold and brave and committed. We called the eight writers and I said, 'We're not leaving you. We're committed to you. You can either stay with us or not, but we're gonna pay you. We're gonna figure out a way to have some minimal development this year, because for sure; we'll be back in person in 2021.' And then we thought, 'Well, we've got to do more. We've got to support more artists, we've got to raise more money.' Our board stepped up. Our great fundraising efforts were increased. We had eight playwrights in the Foundry Project, and the Foundry Project was a three-month online residency for all those writers that you'll see - Anna Ziegler, Robbie Baitz, Bill Cain, Luis BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations Alfaro. And that was incredible. A lot of the writers said, 'It saved their creative lives.' To be in community, we're together once or twice a week for a little over three months, almost four months. They created great work, got a lot done. So we decided we're going to continue the Foundry, where the Foundry is a deep-dive dramaturgy. We're doing five this year. And we'll continue to do it, and it will probably continue to be online, because now we know that, that is a very profitable creatively and fruitful. The Foundry is brand new, a total pivot that came out of COVID. Next summer, I'm certain we're going to be back in person with the New Works Festival. We'll certainly be back with the Foundry Project online. There may be a way where we can find a way to maybe bring some of that live either to L.A., or to Ojai.

Have you seen any advantages to virtual communication in contrast to OPC's two-week in-residence format?

Yes and no. Right now, no. Playwrights need to see things live in space, in the body of the actor. So much of the dramaturgical conversation at Ojai - we have a formal reading and what we call the library read where you hear the community give feedback. It's a guided conversation. But, you know, at lunch, they're having conversation, at dinner, at practice, over a cocktail. You know I would find you, and say, 'Gil, you know, I didn't get a chance to talk to you in the room. Tell me what you thought about this. Tell me what you thought about that.' So they're getting lots and lots of feedback in a very relaxed, but disciplined way that you can't get that online.

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations I tell you one advantage is you can bring people together from all over the world on Zoom. If you have a play that you're still building, you're still working out the script, the language of the play, the imagination, the formal imagination of the play; it's great to be three months with a group of people from all over the world. Lots of time to talk, lots of time to think, lots of time to come back to the Zoom room, and read sections of the play. There's no geographical limitation, that is a plus.

Robert, can I put you on the spot and have you say one word or one line that relates to your CONNECTIONS playwrights?

Luis Alfaro: enormous intellect, more enormous heart, complete commitment to this community, Southern California

Jon Robin Baitz: one of the top five socio-political playwrights in the world

Father Greg Boyle: He walks the talk, a saint. It's the mission that matters.

Bill Cain: spiritual guide to OPC, most produced playwright in our history

Culture Clash: social political satire at its most brilliant, true comrades

Stephen Adly Guirgis: profound poet of the street

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations Danai Gurira: fierce, visionary, international perspective

Samuel D. Hunter: towering voice of the tragic and the hopeful in quotidian America

David Henry Hwang: brilliant form, searing content, voice of the past, the present and the future

Julia Izumi: humorous, deep, profoundly personal, our future

James Morrison and his son Seamus Morrison: survivors, builders, lovers, best friends

Jeanine Tesori: profoundly humane, genius, musical imagination

Charlayne Woodard: electric, world greatest story teller

What's in the near future for Robert Egan? A live play to direct? Another RHEgan Productions project?

I'm doing a Robbie Baitz play. We're doing it at Center Theatre Group sometime coming up. I've got a television project that looks like it's gonna go, that I can't talk about, but it's happening. I'm really excited about some developmental efforts that are coming that are going to happen to development in theater and film and television. I'm starting an artistic community on the East Coast, on an 85-acre farm that my wife and I purchased. So I'm really excited about that too.

BWW Interview: OPC's Robert Egan On Creative CONNECTIONS Post-Vaccinations That's why you're leaving next year.

It's time! You know I've done it for 23 years. It's time for new leadership. And the good news is that it's amicable, it's friendly. And that's the way you want it to be. It's just time for me. The board, they weren't encouraging me to leave by any means. I want to move on to different things now. I want the freedom to just create, create stuff.

Thank you again, Robert! I look forward to viewing CONNECTIONS June 12th.

You'll have fun. I think you'll be moved. The performances that these actors have been giving on Zoom are just incredible.

For viewing tickets for OPC's virtual gala CONNECTIONS June 12, 2021; log onto

www.ojaiplays.org/benefit2021/connections


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