Dominic Orlando (BAPF 2004) has an impressive history with theatre. His work has earned him numerous residences, a CORE membership in the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis, and he has been nationally and internationally produced, most recently in Japan.
He returns to the New Play Institute this April 19th to teach a short but intensive “New Play Boot Camp,” where his unique perspectives and long experience promises to birth a strong and healthy One-Act Play for each of his students.
In an exclusive PF Interview, Dominic talks about how he formed his ideas about theatre, amongst which are his thoughts on the musicality of playwriting:
PF: The class you're about to teach for Playwrights Foundation's New Play Institute will draw on the commonalities between symphonies and plays. When did you start thinking of the two forms as similar, and where do you draw the parallels?
DO: I'm kind of freak when it comes to theatre, which I say because I just started doing it in 5th Grade--writing, performing, directing--and so my outlook on "the form" has always been a little off—sometimes that gets in my way, but good or bad I'm always balancing The Way Things Are Done with The Way I Invented Them In My Head. Which is the long way of saying I've always thought of playwriting as musical--sound and rhythm based. I broadened that idea into symphonies because a symphony is a structural arrangement of sounds, with different themes occurring and re-occurring, bouncing off each other to create a coherent whole.
Ideally, "theme" or "themes" and the way they're developed and executed will be the same in a play. In some ways I believe if you're not working with theme you're not strictly speaking writing a play.
PF: Your class also promises to have each student write a One Act Play. What attracts you to a One Act Play versus a full length and how do you feel about the stigma against short plays?
DO: I think the play itself tells you what to do when it comes to length and content, and you fight with the play at your own peril. Obviously, the one-act idea is somewhat influenced by the duration of the class--if we had a whole semester we could easily do a full-length--and in the event, many students come with works in progress and I don't discourage that--we're not in med school, we're artists, and where you happen to be in your process is almost as important as the work itself. So it's not about The One-Act so much as it is about making sure the students keep writing and that the writing is directed toward the goal of what will eventually be a finished piece. I worry that the emphasis on exercises and monologues is producing too many people who know how to sprint and not enough marathon runners--song writers vs composers. To the extent that there's a stigma against short plays, it's probably because of a cultural memory--theatre used to be an all day event, and then it was an all-night event and now it's become basically what you might do before you go for a drink. There's nothing "wrong" with that, except that we have a secret fear it's really about television and our shrinking attention span more than what we might want or prefer.
PF: You've had plays developed and produced, locally, nationally and internationally. How would you compare the larger theatrical spheres with what you find in the Bay Area?
DO: In many ways the Bay Area is more like NYC than any other place I've worked. I've puzzled over that for a while, because Chicago certainly has a LOT of theatre, and it's closer to NYC geographically, and they're superficially much more alike. But there's something to being a coastal city that I think can't be discounted. I just got back from Japan, and when I was in Kawasaki, which is a suburb of Tokyo, the pictures I took could easily be San Fran. Same with Edinburgh.
Maybe it's a spiritual thing, a sense of openness and adventure—I don't know. Otherwise I tend not to think in terms of large and small--it's more about the quality of the work and the "feel" of making work there. And this a great place to make work.
PF: You've just returned from a playwright exchange in Japan, what was the Reaction to your work over there? How does the role of the playwright in Contemporary Japanese theater differ from here?
DO: Well, the attitude toward writers in most of the dramatic forms can turn anyone into a Marxist since it often seems the person generating the initial impetus for the work is the one given the least amount of power. That's across the board. It was even more extreme in Tokyo, though--the director seemed to feel he could impose a completely inappropriate "concept" on the play and not have to worry about my response (my responses, in case you haven't noticed, tend toward the lengthy, so he was a bit surprised). We had a lot of great work conversations, but there was never any real feeling he was going to change his mind. I define "inappropriate" as an idea that literally works against the play's ideas, in a way that creates not tension but muck. Often "collaboration" is presented to the writer as, "please change your play to suit my idea of your play"--that's present in the US, of course, but it was central to my relationship with the director over there. I've only done the one process, but it also seems they've internalized the idea of the dramaturg as sort of an interpreter between the director and playwright to a far greater extent than we have (and of course in our case she was also the literal interpreter).
Also, I learned you shouldn't put anything called "Chicken With Soft Bones" anywhere near your mouth.
PF: What was the genesis of the Workhaus Collective? What are you plans for it's future?
DO: Workhaus came about because both myself and my friend Trista Baldwin had produced a lot of work in NYC and were starting to chafe at being "just" playwrights. We sat down and had a vigorous discussion (some might call it a "fight") about what a company we co-created might look like. The idea of the writer calling all the artistic shots was a given from the beginning, though the response to the idea locally and nationally has been gratifyingly intense.
The geeky way to put it would be that the Greeks thought of playwrights not a writers but as "playmakers"--that's the basic principle of Workhaus. We're writers making plays--not English majors writing scripts to pop in the mail. Of course we want to grow to a point where sustaining a steady stream of work is no longer a tight-rope work--but just to that point would be fine with me. As long as our ideas disseminate and eventually take over the world.