Charlayne Woodard comes from a tough, competitive background in storytelling — her family.
“Sundays used to mean being at my grandfather’s, surrounded by my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my second cousins,” she says. “And my granddaddy would start us off, and he’d tell a story, and I’d be thinking, how am I going to wow him.”
Now Woodard wows audiences with her series of one-woman shows that spin tales of family and growing up. Her most recent play, “The Night Watchman,” premieres in workshop form at this Saturday’s Ojai Playwrights Conference, along with other works in progress from other writers.
“You couldn’t be gentle with your stories around my granddaddy, or you’d be cut off,” she says. “You had to bring it. And my family would jump in with questions, and I’d have to start all over again.”
Woodard doesn’t face audiences that tough anymore, but it gave her the training to stand up for herself and standout. Much later, when she left the world of New York theater for the Hollywood film industry, she found that her storytelling was attracting attention.
“People would keep saying, that’s a great story, you should make it into a movie,” she says. But to Woodard, that was just one tale among many. Actors weren’t storytellers like they were on the East Coast, she realized, and if people seemed enthralled by her yarns, well then ?
Her first one-woman play went into workshop at a church retreat for women, where Woodard stood up in front of 450 women and, as she tells it, “450 women finished my sentences for me. Women were coming up afterwards to say, ‘Thank you for telling my story.’ ”
That play became “Pretty Fire,” a tale of Woodard’s trips from her Albany, New York, home to her grandparents’ home in the Deep South. The play premiered in 1992, and since then, she’s returned to the storytelling format several times, with “Neat” in 1997, and “In Real Life” in 2000, as well as a multi-character drama, “Flight,” in 2005.
Outside her appearances in her own plays, she has racked up a resumé of television appearances (“E.R.” and “Law and Order,” among others) and appearances in films such as “The Crucible,” “Sunshine State,” “Unbreakable,” and “The Million Dollar Hotel.” She also recently finished up a mentally exhausting role as Kate in Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s modern-dress version of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“The Night Watchman” returns Woodard to stories of childhood, but she’s assembling them around a question of the modern life of kids, not her own past.
“(Children) are assaulted with so much information these days,” she says, “and it’s a lot for them to synthesize ? I feel that there’s less and less attention paid to the family unit.
“This is still an infant play, I haven’t really talked it out,” she says. Under Keith Bunin’s direction, Woodard says she’ll be using the chance to perform in Ojai as a way of shaping future incarnations of the play. “The audience becomes my scene partner,” she says. “It’s just between me and 400 folks.”
Other artists at the Ojai Playwright Conference include Neil Patrick Harris, Sally Field, Noah Wyle, Allison Janney, and more. See www.ojaiplays.org for full schedule.
OJAI PLAYWRIGHTS CONFERENCE
When: Readings begin at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dinner and Celebrity Auction 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Matilija Auditorium, 703 El Paseo Rd., Ojai (Readings), and 1105 N. Signal Street, Ojai
(Dinner, Celebrity Auction)
Cost: $65 to $225
Information: 646-6090, www.ojaiplays.org