The Ojai Playwrights Conference, which has provided crucial support for the development of new plays for a quarter century, announced that Jeremy B. Cohen will serve as its new production artistic director. He replaces Robert Egan, who led the organization for more than two decades.
Cohen’s arrival in Southern California comes at a pivotal time for aspiring playwrights and veterans alike. The pandemic drained the money — and the life — of several of the country’s top new-play development programs, including the Sundance Institute Theater Program and Broadway’s The Lark, both of which have quietly shuttered operations in recent years. .
The shrinking field has presented both pressure and possibility for the OPC, as well as the East Coast’s most visible new development program left: the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., which also underwent a huge transition late last year when its artistic director, Wendy C. Goldberg, stepped down after 18 years.
It’s lonely being a playwright. The work is hard, the pay is low and finding time and space to work is often difficult, say those who know the challenges of the vocation.
Cohen, who has spent his career developing new works as a director, playwright and theater manager, is keenly aware of the dwindling support network and wants to focus his energy on creating the best possible experience for participating playwrights. He says he’s excited to continue building a singular experience for playwrights at a time when “these opportunities are less and less for them.”
Playwriting is just one part of a theater ecosystem in transition, says Cohen. To strengthen the foundational art of scriptwriting for the stage, it is necessary and valuable, he says, to question and understand “the ways in which our field, in terms of producing theatre, is experiencing a constriction unlike anything we have experienced before. ”
The American theater has reached a tipping point in the post-pandemic era. The landscape of the art form, who directs it, who writes, performs, produces and directs, who comes to see it, is shifting under the feet of artists. The socio-political turmoil that unfolded during the COVID lockdowns and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has underscored how the demand for fairness, equality and access is more urgent than ever.
Movie theaters have reopened, but audiences are not returning to pre-pandemic levels. The change is necessary, but theaters don’t seem to know how to implement it effectively. In this age of turmoil and transformation, developing new plays is more critical than ever, says playwright Luis Alfaro, who has long worked closely with OPC.
“Writing is changing, and who is writing is changing. And the development of writing has changed,” Alfaro says, adding that fostering lasting relationships within various communities in Southern California is critical and that, happily, Cohen is a “diplomat.”
In order for the playwrights to continue working and the theater to prosper, it is necessary to invite new audiences, says Alfaro. Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million people spread across more than 100 neighborhoods, with more diversity than anywhere else in the country, but he says the local theater has yet to fully investigate and invigorate the Middle Eastern community, for example, or the central region. american community.
“There are so many communities, and each one requires or demands or wants something in their relationship,” says Alfaro, adding that OPC’s work in the future will be, in part, to find and foster new audiences through the creation of new works. . . “There is a potential audience out there. It’s not the audience we have now. And to grow them, they can’t be invited once, they have to be invited to dinner multiple times.”
OPC is well prepared for this challenge, Cohen says, having long championed a diversity of voices. It also seeks to help artists who are exploring contemporary cultural, political, and social issues. Works developed at OPC have enjoyed success and critical acclaim, including Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony Award-winning “Fun Home” and Dave Harris’ “Tambo & Bones,” which had its world premiere last year at a joint presentation. production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
In many ways, OPC is an oasis, a space to get away from the daily stress of living as a working artist. It is a place to find community and fellowship in the written word and a love of the stage. Every year, the organization invites between 10 and 12 playwrights to participate. They spend four to six weeks chatting with other playwrights, directors, and artistic staff before the conference and festival, which takes place over a two-week period.
OPC Board Chairman Mark Helm describes the culmination of the festival, when new works are read before an audience, as magical.
“Just the feeling of excitement when you’re there,” says Helm. “Everyone who attended loves the theater, and all the artists are there, and all the playwrights are watching every play, and all the actors are watching, and the community is so supportive.”
Helm says hiring Cohen for the job after he threw his hat in the ring was a no-brainer.
“We knew he was the one to take us to the next level,” says Helm of Cohen, who served for 13 years as production art director at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. “He has this great combination of embracing our artistic vision and our mission, but also being a seasoned, seasoned art executive.”
Helm feels lucky that OPC is still around when others are not, and says that while the organization is on a strong footing, it was rocked by the pandemic. For now, OPC’s focus, Helm says, will be to build a “strong foundation to make sure we can move into the future sustainably.”