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Stephen Adly Guirgis: Working with the interns at Ojai

August 13, 2009 |  3:30 pm


Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis ("In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings," "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train") is spending a few weeks in Ojai as part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Today, he continues with his behind-the-scenes report on the happenings at the conference, which runs through this weekend.

The other day, I was given the opportunity to lead a workshop for our interns. Anyone who works with young people probably already knows that most of what you end up sharing with kids is stuff you're actually hoping to remind yourself of, so it was really gratifying to try to share what I could.

I spoke briefly to them about when Peter Sellars -- the brilliant genius and huge-hearted theater and opera director -- came by to visit my theater company, LAByrinth, in our old, condemned, dilapidated, crack-vial-strewn theater space back in 1993. We were all kids back then, and among other things, Peter talked passionately to us about "The Responsibility of the Artist," and he said something like this:

"The Responsibility of the Artist is to be like a tree. The function of a tree is to take in all the toxins and pollution and garbage in the world, filter it through its system, and produce oxygen so that we can breathe. The responsibility of the artist then, is to be like that tree: We are meant to take in all the toxins and garbage and evil nonsense in the world, filter it through our system, and then somehow produce oxygen [art] so that we, and those we would serve [the audiences], might breathe."

I don't know why I remember that quote, but it has served me well in my moments of artistic doubt and despair. The interns seemed to respond to it, and then we moved on and I gave them some fairly personal and challenging writing exercises to tackle, which they did, and then we read them aloud in a circle. I was really impressed, not just by their talent, but also by their willingness and fearlessness and their desire to commit and be open to whatever was thrown at them.

We had a really good time, but we also bonded tighter as a unit. By the end of the workshop, the energy in the room was palpably different than when we had begun just two hours before. We did a lot of talking, a lot of working and writing, and a lot of sharing.

To end the session, I had them sit in a circle and take turns reading a paragraph or two at a time from an essay by Tennessee Williams called "The Catastrophe of Success." It's a tremendously honest and well-written treatise on the nature of life and art and being lost and found by the man who I believe is our greatest American playwright ever. Anyway, we all had a pretty good and moving time, and the interns were so good that I ended up casting all of them in my reading of this other play I'm working on up here that we just did.

The reading went really well, the kids were awesome, and we were aided immensely by Jeanine Tesori, who agreed to add some live piano to the reading. A day like today, it's exactly why I am and hopefully always will be in theater. I just love it.

-- Stephen Adly Guirgis

Related coverage : Stephen Adly Guirgis: At the Ojai Playwrights Conference

Credit: Will Cirocco