OC-Centric, Other New Local Plays Take Center Stage at OC Theaters

Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies stars Rayshawn Chism. Photo by Matt Ho

Call it an explosion, a trend, a coincidence or a conspiracy, but something is up with new plays by local playwrights this summer. By the end of September, 15 new or at least original plays by local writers will have been produced at six venues since July. That is unprecedented in the history of OC theater. 

Even if six of those 15 works are staged readings, not fully produced shows, and nine stem from two new-play festivals (one in its ninth year, and the other visiting OC for the first time), it’s still a lot of new work, something the founders of the county’s first and oldest festival celebrating local writers couldn’t be happier about. “This does seem to be a really striking moment, in that you have an exciting plethora of new work this summer,” says Eric Eberwein, who started OC-Centric with Tamiko Washington. “[It’s] a real change from when we started, when [the country] was coming out of the Great Recession and the local theater scene was very risk-averse. But I think there’s been some sort of pendulum swing, with new plays now . . . piquing people’s interest.”

OC-Centric’s three one-acts close this weekend, as does Michael Mejia’s Three Letter Words, the second new work staged by Santa Ana’s the Wayward Artist this summer. Next weekend, two ambitious projects take the spotlight: the inaugural Page to Stage: That’s What She Said, which features staged readings by six women that explore the female voice, hosted by the Brea Curtis Theatre; and Canto de Anaheim, a play by Sara Guerrero in conjunction with the Pacific Symphony and the city of Anaheim based on a historic timeline of the city’s Mexican American community and incorporating some stories written by a cat named Gustavo Arellano.

A scene from Still Moving at OC-Centric. Photo by Matt Ho

Next month, STAGEStheatre will host David Macaray’s two one-acts, Family Matters, and Jeff Lowe’s The Butler Monologues, an Alchemy Theatre production. Meanwhile, the Garage Theatre in Long Beach will stage Terra Taylor Knudson’s one-woman show Willy’s Lil’ Virgin Queen, a coming-of-age story of the playwright and the role Shakespeare’s plays had in it.

Why the sudden intense focus on new plays by local writers? Eberwein and Washington have their theories: the creation of the OC Theater Guild, which gives heads of local theater companies a chance to meet and discuss challenges and opportunities; the rise of MFA playwriting programs, which has “elevated the general tenor of new plays to a level that has never been seen before,” according to Eberwein; and perhaps most important, a serious emphasis on inclusion, with more women and playwrights of color writing plays because theaters want to produce them.

“There is an interest, a vital energy that is surrounding new plays right now,” says Washington. “And I think one reason is that there are so many different voices being heard. We’re not getting one particular kind of style or one kind of writer.”

The more varied the voices, the more disparate the stories, and if there is one link between the three one-acts that are part of this year’s OC-Centric it’s that each tells “uncommon stories,” Eberwein says. 

Joni Ravenna’s Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies is based on a racially charged true story about a beloved university professor who’s fired after a complaint by a white student about his use of profanity in class. This forces him to deal with “all that he loves being taken away in an instant,” Eberwein says.

Still Moving, by 17-year-old Ben Susskind, is about the rocky beginnings of a friendship between a withdrawn quadriplegic college freshman and his abled roommate.

Lydia Oxenham’s Thump In the Night is part of the 2019 OC-Centric lineup. Photo by Matt Ho

And Lydia Oxenham’s Thump In the Night is a dark comedy about the death of an elderly upstairs neighbor that examines “the very humorous irony about the effort of trying to find community among your neighbors,” Eberwein says.

While the ninth-annual festival has a new sponsor in Chapman University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, it has survived and grown thanks to the hard work of Eberwein and Washington. “We were an original festival that had never been seen before [in Orange County],” Washington says. “And I think that kind of helped to promote [the idea] to local theaters to become interested in new plays.”

OC-Centric at Moulton Center Studio Theatre, 300 E. Palm Ave., Orange, (714) 902-5716; oc-centric.com. Thurs.-Fri., Aug. 22-23, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. $12-$23.

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