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It's a Touch of the Taper in Ojai

Theater* Four of the five authors presenting new works at playwrights conference have been represented in events at the downtown facility.


Examining the bill of fare at this week's Ojai Playwrights Conference, regular theatergoers may find the words "Mark Taper Forum" creeping into their brains.

The 5-year-old Ojai organization has a new artistic director, Robert Egan, who also is producing director of the Taper, L.A.'s flagship theater.

Four of the five playwrights whose new works will be publicly read this weekend in Ojai have also been represented by Taper productions, public workshops or readings. One of the writers, Luis Alfaro, is on the Taper staff as associate producer, new play development, and co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative.

Three plays by another writer, Jon Robin Baitz, received Taper main-stage productions, with a fourth scheduled for next season. Lisa Loomer, a writer with two previous Taper main-stage productions and a third scheduled for next year, is Ojai's writer-in-residence.

Even the one Ojai play by a non-Taper-produced playwright--"Discovery of America" by Arthur Kopit--was sold to Taper subscribers as part of the 1989-90 season. But the production was canceled before it happened, because the play wasn't ready.

"I was very concerned that we would become the Taper, Three," said Ojai resident Kim Maxwell-Brown--artistic director of the town's Theater 150, one of the co-founders of the Ojai conference and a board member. She was referring to the Taper developmental series Taper, Too. "I didn't want it to be slick. I wanted it to stay grass-roots."

But Egan eventually won her over. He said there has been "no Taperization" of the conference--he was the only Taper-affiliated member of the play selection committee.

The conference was initially a co-creation of L.A.'s Echo Theater Company and Theater 150. In the first season, in 1998, the six play readings included titles by the well-known Christopher Durang and the soon-to-be-well-known David Lindsay-Abaire.

After two years, the conference became an independent nonprofit. In the third season, Jessica Goldberg's "Good Thing" was read in Ojai; a year later, it was part of the Taper's 2001 New Work Festival.

Echo artistic director Chris Fields was the conference artistic director for the first three years but was then asked to leave by the board. According to co-founder and former Echo company member Becky Arntzen, now the producing co-director of the conference, "The board felt we had too many plays that all sounded the same. We had a lot of black comedies. We wanted to be more rooted in Southern California and a little more diverse ethnically."

Fields disagreed with Arntzen's assessment, citing his inclusion of black playwright Elroyce Jones' "A Thimble of Smoke" and two plays by Adam Rapp that "came from a deep, dark place."

His departure was "not a comfortable leave-taking," he said, so he hasn't kept up with the conference since he left. But the programming this year "sounds very sexy, glitzy, high-end," he said. "I hope it goes well."

Two artistic co-directors, actress Kaitlin Hopkins and dramaturge Robert Menna, filled in last year, but both left for better-paying jobs, Arntzen said. Egan directed a reading last summer, and he was hired last fall as artistic director.

The 24 actors this summer include such names as Dana Delany, Ron Rifkin, Salome Jens, Robert Beltran and Daniel Davis.

The conference takes place on the grounds of Happy Valley School. "It's a theater summer camp," Maxwell-Brown said. Many of the campers "sleep in an overheated dorm with ants and stay up late at night talking."

"It's so beautiful here," Kopit said. "It's not a good place to work if your play is about your unhappy childhood." His play is about Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca.

Kopit said the Ojai conference is "much more protected" from commercial considerations than is the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., which was the original inspiration for the Ojai conference.

"I don't think movie people will jump in their cars to find their next projects here," Egan said. "It's very much about the playwrights' need to work on their plays."

The weekend schedule at the Playwrights Conference includes a symposium on political theater with Baitz, Kopit and Kelly Stuart tonight, readings of "Discovery of America" (Friday), Goldberg's "Katzman and the Mayor" and Stuart's "Mayhem" (Saturday), and Alfaro's "No Holds Barrio" and Baitz's "The Paris Letter" (Sunday), plus a Teen Playwrighting Workshop presentation Saturday afternoon. Information: (805) 640-0400 or

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