PICTURED: Michael Shayan has a work featured in the festival. Photo submitted

by Emily Dodi

Vivian Barnes. Photo submitted

The Ojai Playwrights Conference returns with the 25th anniversary of their New Works Festival, onstage at Matilija Auditorium and the Zalk Theater at Besant Hill School from Aug. 7 through Aug. 14. After a quarter of a century, the festival remains the start of something new. OPC has long been an incubator for plays that have gone on to great acclaim Off-Broadway, on Broadway and in regional theaters all around the country, and some have even become Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award finalists, nominees and winners. 

The OPC presents its week-long festival after a series of workshops where playwrights work with actors, directors, dramaturges and OPC’s artistic staff, including artistic director and producer Robert Egan. Special festival events include the opening/intersection presentation, “OPC25: The Legacy Continues” on Aug. 7 as well as the free OPC Intern Show (Aug. 8) and the OPC International Youth Workshop Performance (Aug. 10). The New Works Festival’s 25th anniversary also marks a moment of change for the organization, as Egan will leave OPC at the conclusion of the festival.

Bill Cain. Photo by Jenny Graham

But it’s the exciting new voices and stories that keep audiences riveted every year. You just never know when you’ll be one of the first people to see something truly special when you attend the Ojai Playwrights Festival of New Works.

This year’s slate includes The Sensational Sea Mink-Ettes by Vivian J. O. Barnes, an L.A.-based writer whose plays have been produced at the Humana Festival and in Steppenwolf Theatre’s digital NOW series. The Sea Mink-Ettes, “the hottest dance troupe around,” are getting ready for homecoming, but “petty infighting and the quest for excellence threaten to tear the group apart and then sh*t gets weird. Very weird.”    

Jahna Ferron Smith. Photo submitted

Bill Cain, the author of such plays as Equivocation and Stand-Up Tragedy and an OPC veteran, returns to the festival with God’s Spies, which finds William Shakespeare stuck in the middle of the pandemic — of 1603. The Bard is quarantined with a Puritan lawyer and a prostitute, which leads him to wrestle with “the mysteries of life and death,” and to wonder whether his best years are yet to come.

Peter Kim George. Photo submitted

Running While Black by Jahna Ferron-Smith takes place when “thirty years’ worth of coping mechanisms begin   manifesting uncontrollably.” Protagonist Nicole, a Black Creative living in Brookly, “is finally overwhelmed by the one thing she can’t outrun: change.” A recent graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship at the Juilliard School, Ferron-Smith’s other plays include The Woods and SIR

Peter Kim George is the author of To Red Tendons, which revolves around a group of young actors “who come together to re-enact ‘primal scenes’ from the Los Angeles unrest in 1992.” The play deals with “seething anger turned inward, and a desire for reconciliation.” A Korean diaspora playwright, Peter Kim George is the author of Protest and <em>Men Accumulate, a Bay Area Playwrights Festival finalist.  

Matthew Paul Olmos. Photo submitted

Stephen Adly Guirgis, the author of Motherf**ker with the Hat, returns to the festival with Dog Day Afternoon, “a fierce and fiery stage adaptation of the legendary film.” It is the hottest day of the year in 1972 and three men enter the Chase Manhattan Bank on East Fifth Street in Gravesend Brooklyn and attempt a robbery. Key word: attempt. An award-winning playwright and longtime member of the LAByrinth Theater in New York City, Guirgis is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy.

Zakiya Young. Photo submitted

Other works featured in the festival are Matthew Paul Olmos’s a home what howls (or the house what was ravine), inspired by the communities of Los Angeles’ Chavez Ravine. Avaaz by Michael Shayan takes place during Nowruz, Iranian New Year, when “the souls of ancestors come alive and visit . . . or maybe it’s just the strong Persian chai.”

Suburban Black Girl by Zakiya Young, a 2021 OPC Foundry Project playwright, revolves around a young woman who is “the poster child for racial reconciliation. But when COVID lockdowns put a spotlight on police killing unarmed Black people, everything she suppressed begins seeping out like an infected wound.” Anna Ziegler’s The Janeiad is a play about “longing and hope as well as the myths we tell ourselves in order to get through the day.” Ziegler is the author of Photograph 51 which was produced on London’s West End, as well as The Last Match which was produced at the Roundabout and the Old Globe. In addition, this year’s writers in residence, Zora Howard and Lyndsey Bourne, will “participate in non-public development work of their plays.”

Whether you catch one performance or every single one of them, chances are you will be seeing the start of something amazing that one day the whole world will be talking about.

The 2022 Ojai Playwrights Conference New Works Festival takes place Aug. 7-14. For tickets, full schedule, performance locations and more information, visit www.ojaiplays.org.