Jonathan Dorf: Playwright – Theatre People
By Mitch Stark
Hello TheatrePeople! Another week, another fantastic individual from the world of theatre. I am so pleased to introduce you to Jonathan Dorf. Jonathan is a remarkable writer with a sharp wit. He has ‘penned’ an impressive catalog of plays, and dedicates much of his time to supporting other writers and teaching his craft internationally.
I hope you enjoy Jonathan’s theatrical musings as much as I did!
What’s a show that inspires you? (explain away!)
As a writer, Angels in America has always blown me away. For one thing, it’s a huge play that manages to make the AIDS crisis intensely personal on one hand, but also sprawling over a massive political landscape on the other. Even the choice to take fictional characters, who are credibly living through their own struggles, and make them collide with larger-than-life historical figures like Roy Cohn and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and characters like the angels, who are operating on a mythological level, just serves to make the world of the play even more huge. And while I love that it’s addressing something so serious and important, it’s also incredibly funny.
What’s one of your happiest moments in theatre?
Last summer–which seems so long ago now–I was brought down to Guadalajara for a production of 4 A.M. the musical in Spanish. Even though I speak virtually no Spanish (though I can sometimes understand a little because I studied French), it was such a great experience, even more so because I’d never been to Mexico before. While obviously this was just one small part of a very diverse country, Guadalajara is a major cultural hub, and many of the things we think of as “Mexican,” like mariachi music, come from this region. The young performers (it was a youth theatre group) were very talented, and everyone involved was so warm and welcoming. You can see some pictures from the show here.
The visit also came with an unexpected perk: As part of the publicity for the show, I did several TV interviews, and at one of them, a food show had just finished filming elsewhere in the TV complex. I managed to get myself introduced to the host and the guest chef, and I got to try some delicious gorditas! (And then have seconds!)
What’s the biggest ‘fail’ or goof you’ve seen on stage? (do tell the story)
Back in the day, this theatre company in Philadelphia wanted to stage a ten-minute play of mine, then named Newt Gingrich at Boys Town (it was eventually published as Newt Gingrich Visits a Residential Youth Facility Not Near Omaha), which had been a finalist for the Actors Theatre of Louisville National Ten-Minute Play Contest. They told me they wanted to build an evening around it, and they asked if I’d write a companion scene to go with it so that it would be a little longer. I didn’t really feel it needed it, but I wrote it. Then, they asked if I’d write a monologue for each character. I REALLY didn’t think this was a good idea, but I was afraid they wouldn’t do the show anymore if I didn’t, so I wrote the monologues but didn’t turn them in (hoping they’d forget) until finally they asked for them. When I got to the Monday rehearsal before we opened, what had been a nice, tight ten-minute play was now running more than forty minutes, with pauses between lines (which apparently the actors couldn’t remember) big enough to drive a truck through. The director saw my sullen post-rehearsal demeanor and reassured me that things would be better by opening. They weren’t. That made for a fun opening night party… They weren’t any better the week after either. By the third weekend, when I couldn’t talk a friend of mine from New York out of coming, I literally sat outside the theater; it was so bad I couldn’t watch it again. On the plus side, it was a great learning experience in terms of standing up for your rights as a playwright and not making/allowing changes with which you don’t agree.
Why do you love theatre?
To me, there’s nothing better than sitting in a dark theater watching an audience participate in a shared experience that began with my words. I watch the actors, and I watch the audience watching the show. Particularly when I’m working on a show, the latter is invaluable to determine what’s working.
Theatre is for…
Theatre helps get us in touch with our humanity, allowing us both to learn and to empathize with others.
More about Jonathan
Jonathan Dorf has authored more than 60 plays with over 2000 productions worldwide, including 4 a.m., Declaration, After Math, Dear Chuck and Me, My Selfie & I. He co-founded publisher YouthPLAYS and is chair emeritus of the Alliance of LA Playwrights. He taught in the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, served as US Cultural Envoy to Barbados, created Playwriting101.com and authored the book YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS 101. He’s been a teaching artist at ITF, the EdTA National Conference, and at festivals and schools from Alabama to Singapore. He serves as a script consultant for writers worldwide. BA in Dramatic Writing and Literature, Harvard University; MFA in Playwriting, UCLA. https://jonathandorf.com