Interviewer: Adrienne Sowers
It has now been almost four months since New York City shut down in response to the Covid-19 virus. In that time, we have seen a pandemic sweep the nation, an increased awareness in the fight for social equity, and the best and the worst in ourselves and our neighbors are we grapple with the complex realities in which we live.
Early in the shutdown, theatre artist Rich Orloff adapted one of his stage plays, Days of Possibilities from a theatrical piece to a Zoom performance. Five theatres produced their own Zoom performances on the evening of May 4, and New Circle Theatre Company has made theirs available on YouTube as well. A collection of recollections that originally entailed a great deal of outer-directed performances, largely in monologue form, Days of Possibilities is a solid choice to foray into online adaptation. Told from the point of view of students, faculty, and community members of Oberlin College in the days surrounding the Kent State shootings, discussions of class, racism, and activism make the subject matter particularly tangible to our current circumstances. Days of Possibilities is an excellent show to check out if you find yourself pondering what has been done before and what we may learn from our past. At a little over ninety minutes and with meaty subject matter, this is a show to stream when you can dedicate time and focus to really take it all in.
Additionally, Orloff has made available a video recording of a reading of his one-man show, It’s a Beautiful Wound, a recollection of experiences utilizing psychedelic therapy. This is a deeply personal piece, one which is autobiographical. Orloff’s telling of his own story is compelling, with charm and radiantly rich language. The journey is personal and specific to Orloff, but the telling of it makes it wide-reaching and grants a feeling of universality of this search for meaning and understanding within ourselves. At just under ninety minutes, It’s a Beautful Wound feels much shorter, and the connection between storyteller and the audience (not only in person at the recording, but also with those of us at home watching on our laptops) is tangible and precious.
Rich Orloff was kind enough to answer some questions for The Reviews Hub’s Adrienne Sowers about process, adaptability, and hopes for post-pandemic days.
Adrienne Sowers: Both Days of Possibilities and It’s a Beautiful Wound were released during covid quarantine. In selecting which of your works to make available online, did the circumstances of the time have any influence upon your choices?
Rich Orloff: The Zoom production of Days of Possibilities is the result of the two thoughts colliding:
I’m part of New Circle Theatre Company, an Off-Off Broadway group of wonderful theater artists, and it occurred to me in late March that we shouldn’t let a little thing like a global health crisis and quarantine to keep us from using our talents!
With all the attention being given to the pandemic, I was concerned that people would ignore May 4, the 50th anniversary of the killing of four Kent State University students by National Guardsman a demonstration against the Vietnam War. To me and those I know, it’s an important date in history.
I realized I had a project that could respond to both of these thoughts! Days of Possibilities is a presentational-style play about student activism in the 1960’s, based on letters I received and interviews I conducted with students who attended Oberlin College during the Vietnam war years. The play, which has had about 50 stage productions, culminates with the campus shutdown in response to the Kent State killings. So I pitched doing a Zoom adaptation of the play to the artistic leadership at New Circle, and they immediately embraced the idea.
As it turns out, so did four other theaters, and on May 4, each of the five theaters presented their own performance of the play on Zoom. It was quite a night. The play was seen by over a thousand people, and I was moved by how deeply people responded to it, especially people old enough to remember that era, who often felt that their courage during that time had been ignored by history.
New Circle’s production is still on YouTube, where another five hundred have watched it so far.
Meanwhile, I watched the video of my January 2020 performance of It’s a Beautiful Wound, my one-person show about my journey in underground therapy with psychedelics. I’ve performed the play 36 times over the last two years, at both theaters and psychedelic conferences, but given the pandemic, I’m not likely to be performing it again for awhile. So I decided to post the video on YouTube so it could reach a larger audience.
Ironically, you can now watch on YouTube my play with the largest cast (Days of Possibilities has 26 actors) and the smallest cast, my solo-show It’s a Beautiful Wound.
AS: Days of Possibilities was a fully-staged production prior to its iteration as a Zoom play. What specific challenges and/or benefits did you discover in translating a staged docudrama to a panel-style webcast?
RO: I did a lot of editing, cutting and revising scenes that needed stage action. Fortunately, a large part of the play consists of direct address to the audience, and so Days of Possibilities was a perfect candidate for adaptation to Zoom. Lost is some of the innate thrill of being in the audience for live theater, but there’s also an intimacy gained which serves the play well.
AS: Now that both works have been available and audiences have gotten to experience them, do you find your relationship with the audience or consideration of them has changed working in these new digital parameters?
RO: Whether on stage, Zoom, TV or film, good theatrical writing depends on smart and engaging storytelling. The main challenge of Zoom (besides the technical ones) is to take advantage of the intimacy of the medium.
AS: Are you working on anything new right now? If so, what is the process like for you under these exceptional circumstances?
RO: I recently adapted my short comedy Can This Marriage Be Saved? to Zoom, and it’s also on YouTube. In the play, the Human Being is tired of being neglected by God and so takes God to Holy Divorce Court to end their relationship. Although the last page of the Zoom version has the same dialogue as the stage version, we changing the staging to take advantage of Zoom, and it really serves the play.
Meanwhile, I’m creating a series of poems, Blessings from the Pandemic, a continuing series that deals with my (and I hope our) journey through this challenging time. I hope the poems will become a performance piece someday.
AS: One day, maybe not right around the corner, but eventually; we will find ourselves able to go back to the theatre and rejoin the tradition of live storytelling. What are your hopes for what we will encounter in post-coronavirus arts and culture?
RO: Mostly, I’m looking forward to hugging people again. A lot of people!
To view Rich Orloff’s shows, please click the links below: