Lauren Morelli, a writer on the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black,” recently sat down with friend and fellow Pittsburgher and Winchester Thurston alumna, Kristen Michaels to talk about her journey from theater performer, to dance major, to successful television writer.
Morelli, a North Hills native, will be the featured speaker at the Steeltown Spotlight Series inaugural event on October 15 at 7:00 p.m. at the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh.
Michaels: As a child taking part in Act One and Civic Light Opera programs in downtown Pittsburgh, your dream was a career on the stage. You were very active in dance and theater in middle and high school at Winchester Thurston and majored in modern dance in college. How did you go from focusing on performance to becoming a writer on “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB)?
Morelli: It was definitely a long, meandering road. I majored in modern dance at Marymount Manhattan College, but quickly realized that being a professional dancer isn’t that easy when you have cankles. During my senior year of college I interned at the Village Voice and wrote a few dance reviews for them, which I guess was my first step away from being on stage and toward being in front of a computer. Writing immediately made more sense to me than performing ever did– there was something about it that felt more organic than trying to kick my leg over my head.
So after graduating from college I wandered from job to job, got really good at being a mediocre personal assistant, and eventually started writing scripts to distract me from my lack of direction. After a while, two very charitable people volunteered to be my manager and my agent, which led me to interview for “Orange” in January of last year.
Michaels: This is your first professional writing job – how did you land the position?
Morelli: It certainly didn’t happen in the way I expected. After I signed with my agent, I naively assumed that landing my first job was imminent. A year later, I hadn’t had a single interview. I was told over and over again that no one would hire me until I had experience, and yet, there was no way to gain experience until someone hired me.
I’d started considering taking writing assistant jobs, despite having been an assistant for the previous eight years and feeling discouraged beyond belief that I might have to start over again. In November of 2012, my agent called to tell me that he’d submitted me for a new Netflix show called “Orange is the New Black.” I didn’t know anything about Netflix’s original programming at the time, and I’d also received similar calls from him hundreds of times before, so I didn’t give it a second thought. But then, over the course of the next two months, he kept calling to tell me that I was still in the running for the show. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I knew it hadn’t happened before.
Jenji Kohan, who created “Weeds” and was going to be the showrunner/creator of “Orange,” is well-known for hiring young writers and playwrights without a lot of experience, and I was lucky enough for my script to eventually land in her hands. She apparently liked it enough to call me in for a meeting, which was simultaneously the most terrifying/elating thing that had happened in my writing career. I knew as soon as I sat down across from her that we were cut from a similar cloth. A month later, they called to tell me I got the job.
Michaels: The cast and plotlines of OITNB are overwhelmingly female dominated, do you think the show is empowering to women?
Morelli: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons people have responded so strongly to the show is how different it looks from everything else on TV. Not only is it a huge female cast, but it’s made up of women of all colors, shapes and sizes. The show is telling stories about women that aren’t normally told, and allowing female characters to be strong, smart and nuanced.
Michaels: Despite the mostly female cast, OITNB appeals to a broad audience that includes a lot of men that you might not expect would be into a show that depicts the lives of women in prison. What do you think it is that makes OITNB so appealing to so many?
Morelli: That’s a good question. I know I was very surprised when my fairly conservative father ended up loving it, even though he’s obviously a little biased. I think at the end of the day, we’re telling compelling human stories, and proving that there doesn’t have to be a specific demographic for shows. Our audience is as diverse as our cast, which is really exciting.
Michaels: When I visited you on set of Season 2 of OITNB, the entire video village (the room where the producer, writer and staff watch filming) was full of women, with the exception of the director. I’m no expert on the inner workings of the tv industry, but is this typical?
Morelli: No, it’s not typical at all. I’m completely surrounded by women on the show on every level, from the writer’s room, to the cast, to the crew and producers. It’s truly incredible, and has set a pretty inspiring example for what’s possible.
Michaels: A lot of people have a difficult time landing their first job. You might agree that Jenji took a chance on you by hiring you for OITNB as your first writing job. What do you think it was about your writing that made her identify you as a fit for the show? What advice would you have for people who are struggling to get their first position?
Morelli: I’ve said this before and I really believe it: I went a long time without a single interview for other television jobs because my writing samples were strange and weird, but I felt they were representative of who I am as a writer. Jenji seemed to get me immediately, both in my scripts and as a person. It was a great fit, and I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
I think as a writer or if you are working on any creative endeavor, you need to be true to yourself. I know that’s a ridiculous piece of advice, but you get so much advice about how to write or what to write, and at the end of the day it just doesn’t matter if it’s not YOURS. If you don’t love it, it will come off as generic and blend into the pile of scripts. Everyone might not understand what you’re doing, but the right people will.
Michaels: “Orange” has gotten a lot of critical acclaim after the airing of season 1- what has it been like to be a part of something that has become so beloved and so well-known so quickly?
Morelli: It’s been really exciting and overwhelming. We wrote and shot the first season in a little bubble, which at the time could be frustrating: “I write for Orange is the New Black.” “What station is that on?” “It’s going to be on Netflix.” “So it’s a webisode?”
But in retrospect, it was pretty incredible to be able to create something alongside a great team of writers and actors without anyone being aware of us. There weren’t any press or rabid fans to worry about. The binge-watching aspect of the Netflix shows seems to have changed the pace of public awareness– rather than a slow trickle of growing awareness week to week, we went from being completely unknown to a deluge of reviews literally overnight.
Michaels: Tell me about the first time you saw actors bringing your words to life on set.
Morelli: I remember showing up to set for my first episode last season and being bombarded by people– set designers, location managers, makeup artists– who were all asking questions. Was this location okay? Had I envisioned something different? How did I feel about the spaghetti on the lunch trays? I kept wanting to say, “You guys know I just made this stuff up, right?” Seeing hundreds of people working together to make something that I’d written come to life was absolutely surreal.
Michaels: I know this is a huge question, but what are some of the big lessons you’ve learned from working alongside Jenji?
Morelli: Oh, wow. Jenji has taught me everything. Everything. She’s so remarkably talented, and watching her create stories and write has already been totally mind blowing. She has a very specific sensibility, which I think is true of most successful people. Along those lines, she’s encouraged me to be more specific in my writing and characters, and has instilled a sense of play into my work, by which, I mean– make it fun.
Michaels: Has your life changed since the show aired?
Morelli: Does number of Twitter followers count? Actually, a pretty crazy/silly thing happened recently: A woman actually recognized me on the street. She very excitedly told me about reading a tweet that I’d written a few weeks earlier that involved my deodorant getting all over my clothes. As it turns out, she worked at a company that happens to make a stainless deodorant and they’d been trying to figure out how to send me some. This really happened, I promise. Long story short, I now have stainless deodorant that I didn’t pay for. Study hard, kids! It really pays off.
Michaels: Since you’re coming to Pittsburgh to speak next week, let’s talk about our beloved hometown for a minute. You live in LA now but still come to Pittsburgh a few times a year, what do you love about coming home?
Morelli: I love the people of Pittsburgh so much. It’s such an incredible community. Everyone bans together in these incredible ways, whether it’s to freak out about the Pirates or support someone who’s from there originally. So many people have reached out to me since the show came out, which is totally heartwarming and great. I also really miss not saying hello to strangers when I walk down in the street in LA. Oh and the seasons. Weather changing is pretty great.
Michaels: As you of course know, Pittsburgh is home to a lot of talented creative people who are hoping to develop careers in the entertainment industry. What advice would you have for them?
Morelli: At some point I read a quote, and I have no idea who to attribute it to, but it was something along the lines of “the people who succeed aren’t the most talented, they’re the ones who don’t give up.” And I really think that’s true. You can’t expect things to be easy or fast, but if you work hard, really hard, I believe that will eventually pay off and deliver you into the right place at the right time.
Michaels: One plotline on Jenji’s last show, “Weeds,” involved the youngest Botwin son, Shane, wanting to move to Pittsburgh. Have any of your experiences of growing up here made it onto the show?
Morelli: I try to sneak little things in all the time, when I can. I recently named a high school “Winchester” in one of my scripts for season two, which is a tiny thing that most people won’t catch and might not even make it into the final edit, but I like making things personal to me and everyone I love.
Michaels: Are you currently working on in working on any other projects?
Morelli: I’m so glad you asked! A short play I wrote, “Rat & Roach,” about a suicidal rat and a roach who falls in love with her, is currently being produced by a great theater company in New York, Lesser America. If anyone finds themselves in New York in October, please check it out! www.lesseramerica.com