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THEATER: Ventura County

Reading the Audience

Ojai conference will give playwrights a chance to gauge response to their work.


The audience at Ojai's Happy Valley Theater will check out a reading of the new play "Danny Bouncing" on Saturday. Playwright Rick Cleveland, creator of the largely autobiographical piece about life in Los Angeles, will check out the audience.

"It will be a matter of having my suspicions confirmed," Cleveland said. "If, in my heart of hearts, I think something's funny and the audience laughs, that's confirmation," he said. "But there are also nagging suspicions where I'm thinking portions of the script may be dragging a little--if I feel the audience's butts shifting in their seats or hear them coughing . . ."

In most theatrical settings, fidgeting guests would generate little, if any, excitement on the part of the creative artists involved.

But at this weekend's Ojai Playwrights Conference--at which writers will have an opportunity to test their work before it goes to production--audience response of any kind is welcome. It's actually the point of the whole thing.

"The Marx Brothers, before they filmed any of their movies, they took them out on the road for almost a year to work out the bugs," Cleveland said. "That's what I'm doing--road-testing the play, working out the bugs in front of an audience. Until then, you're working in a vacuum."

Cleveland will be joined by five professional playwrights who will throw their work to the critical wolves in readings Friday though Sunday at the Happy Valley School theater and at Ojai's Theatre 150.

The inaugural conference will be co-sponsored by Theater 150 and the Los Angeles-based Echo Theater Company, which will present the readings.

The program will open Friday with a reading of David Lindsay-Abaire's "A Devil Inside." On Saturday there will be presentations of Bernardo Solano's "Wild Life," Cleveland's "Danny Bouncing" and "Betty's Summer Vacation" by Obie Award winner and Tony Award nominee Christopher Durang.

Sunday's lineup will include Neena Beber's "Tomorrowland" and Elroyce D. Jones' "A Thimble of Smoke."

"The thing that is so extraordinary and so exciting is the opportunity to see art at its inception," said Kim Maxwell-Brown, producing director of the conference and co-founder of Theater 150.

"Without words, all of the actors, directors and designers would have absolutely nothing to do. People forget that," she said. "This is a chance to see art in its most pure form. It's like walking into an artist's studio and seeing a blank canvas."

From the time Maxwell-Brown and her husband, Dwier Brown, opened Theater 150 in downtown Ojai in early 1997, the couple promised a schedule of cutting-edge theater. A playwrights conference was in the works even before the theater came to fruition.

"This is exciting, but scary," Maxwell-Brown said. "But that's what theater is all about, isn't it?"

It was Cleveland, a longtime friend of Dwier Brown, who was the link between Theater 150 and the Echo Theater Company. Apparently it was easy to convince both parties that Ojai was a more viable location than Los Angeles for a bunch of playwrights to develop their craft.

"Ojai is the perfect place to nurture," said Chris Fields, director of the Echo Theater Company and artistic director of the conference.

"We get people out of town, away from the hurly-burly," he said.

"We are going to be at Happy Valley School, the furthest thing from New York and Los Angeles."

Fields said for the playwrights and actors involved, the location and the design of the conference serve as creative sparks.

"You start with a community of theater artists and it can become a very nurturing environment," he said.

"The thing is, the playwrights get to meet other writers in a situation that does not have the pressure of a commercial production."

Maxwell-Brown, a veteran of the Los Angeles theater community, onstage and backstage, said choosing between Ojai and L.A. was pretty simple.

"I've been an artistic director of a theater company in L.A., and L.A. is a very different place to do theater--it's film and television industry-oriented. People do theater there so they can have a film or television career," she said.

"Just from the sheer population density in Los Angeles, there are so many theaters, so many talented people, so many wonderful plays, it's hard to get an audience," Maxwell-Brown said.

"In L.A. [the playwrights conference] would be just another play reading."

Though a playwrights conference may appear, by name, to be theater for insiders, or at least for experienced theatergoers, Maxwell-Brown and Fields said that is far from the case.

Both said they are striving to make the weekend program appropriate for anyone willing to give it a try.

"It's like being read a bedtime story," Fields said.

"Hopefully, anyone can walk in off the street and enjoy it. One of my bugaboos is that theater is becoming elitist. This is Cliffs Notes theater."

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