Oct 5, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 265: Rich Orloff
Hometown: I was born and raised in Chicago.
Current Town: New York City
Q: Tell me about your new comedy SKIN DEEP.
A: Several years ago, one of my plays was produced at the Key West Theatre Festival. At a party one night, I met a guy who worked as the front desk clerk at a local clothing-optional resort. The more he told me about his job, the more I knew there was a play there. A few years later, the festival produced another play of mine, and so I spent a few days - and nights - at the resort. I got a lot of material and a good tan, and it was all a tax-deductible business expense! I love my job.
On the surface, SKIN DEEP is simply a fun sex comedy, which I've tried to tell with clever wit and a few surprises. But I wanted to anchor the story in a way so that it'd be more than just a bunch of funny situations. Without giving away any plot twists, I've striven in SKIN DEEP to create moments in which characters have to face the ramifications of decisions they're both making in the play and made long ago. From the best comedies, I've learned there have to be moments when the laughter stops.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: As soon as I recover from SKIN DEEP (which starts performances on Sat Oct 16th), I plan to return to two unfinished projects:
Although it has lots of laughs in it, MEN OVERBOARD is one of my few plays which I've labeled "a play by" and not "a comedy by". It's about three brothers in their 40's, their elderly father, and the 13-year-old son of the oldest brother, who is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. The play explores the concept of "soul murder". If you see someone commit physical abuse toward a child, society agrees one should interact. But what responsibilities do each of us have when we see emotional abuse? This is the most raw play I've ever written, and I spend as much time not writing it as I do writing it.
To balance, I've also been working on a comedy revue entitled JEST DESSERTS. Inspired by the blackout humor of LAUGH-IN, none of the sketches in JEST DESSERT are more than a few minutes long. It's been great to be able to walk down the street, get an outrageous idea, mull it over and write it down. There's not a moment of character development or depth - this one IS just about the laughs.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I've seen you ask that in previous interviews, and I always think, "Boy, I gotta come up with something!" I can think of two moments that helped shaped me as a writer:
At a New Year's Eve party Maura Kosovski gave during my senior year of high school, Dede Endliss and I snuck into the den and watched A NIGHT AT THE OPERA on TV. I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie before, and I was in rapture. Nobody had ever told me that comedy could be such a relentless and anarchic attack on EVERYTHING, including logic itself.
In my junior year of college, I saw my first Frank Capra comedy, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. After years of only wanting to write comedy as witty and crazy as the Marx Brothers, I suddenly realized comedy could be quiet, about the minutiae of human behavior, and that comedies could charm and touch us through the process of amusing us, instead of stopping to get serious.
I like to think my plays mix those two schools of comedy, the mix varying depending on the play.
One other story, about me as a person:
One summer I was a counselor at a day camp in Chicago, and during a field trip, as all the kids were getting back on the bus, one kid started to run away. I chased after him, and he ran down an alley. I cornered him. There were lots of pebbles on the ground, and he started to throw the stones at me. I kept my distance, so I was unafraid. I didn't know what to do, so I let him keep throwing stones. He kept throwing them and throwing them, until he was exhausted. Then he began to sob deeply.
Ever since then, I've realized that what a person is expressing and what they're feeling underneath can be two radically different things.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Ticket prices! Who can afford Broadway or even Off-Broadway anymore? My friends can't - and most of them work in the theater! I'd love to have a play on Broadway someday - but I'd hate to ask folks to pay Broadway prices for anything I've written!
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes and influences?
A: I think anyone who works in the theater these days is doing a heroic act. The hours are long, the risks are great, and most people (at least in the United States) wouldn't lose any sleep if theater stopped. To continue to create theater (especially if you've done it awhile) takes courage. I feel a deep affection and gratitude towards everyone working in it - regardless of talent.
My influences are way too numerous to mention, but they include the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and a whole bunch of vaudeville comedians; the playwrights George S. Kaufman and his collaborators, Neil Simon, Joe Orton, Ferenc Molnar (best Hungarian comedic playwright ever!), Anton Chekhov, Noel Coward, Michael Frayn, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally; the early films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks; the sitcoms of Norman Lear and James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, etc.); and the sketch comedy of Sid Caesar, Monty Python and the Second City.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: A lot! I have eclectic tastes, ranging from mainstream musical comedy to the Wooster Group. I just want to be engaged and taken on a ride.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write more than one play. Have more than one theatrical experience. Say Yes unless you can think of a damn good reason to say No. Strive high, but constantly let go at the same time.
Some of the above are lessons I've learned; the last one is one I'm still learning.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Thanks for asking! The Foolish Theatre Company presents SKIN DEEP, a comedy without tan lines, from Oct 16 through Nov 6 at Theatre 54 in NYC. Winner of the Larry Corse Playwriting Prize and a finalist for the Sunwall Prize for Comedy, the play had eight readings and workshops around the country before I agreed to have it produced in New York. (I've learned not to rush the process!) As I participated in readings in New York, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and New Jersey, I also gained the confidence that the play works.
Folks can get tickets at http://www.smarttix.com/SearchResults.aspx?GUID=ccc571e4-c0a4-4a4d-97fd-ba6f0feacc28
You can learn more about my plays at www.richorloff.com. You can learn more about me by offering me drinks.