“Days of Possibilities,” a documentary-styles play by award-winning playwright Rich Orloff about the experiences of college students during the Vietnam War era, will be performed live online on May 4, the 50th anniversary of the Kent State University shootings. Created in collaboration with the New Circle Theatre Company, the performance, featuring a cast of 25 actors, will be streamed online on Monday, May 4, 2020, at 7:00pm EST. The event is free and open to the public. Four other theater companies and a high school will also livestream their versions of the play that night, and two others will livestream performances over the next two months.
“Days of Possibilities” explores the journey of students of Oberlin College during the Vietnam War years and is based on more than one hundred personal accounts by alumni of Oberlin College in Ohio. The play includes testimonies of a diverse mix of students, both witnesses and participants in protests against the war, as well as those who supported the war or were chronically undecided. For details and streaming links, visit www.richorloff.com/days-of-possibilities where they will be posted on May 1.
Orloff, whose plays previously produced in NYC include “big Boys” (called “rip-roaringly funny” by The NY Times), “Funny As A Crutch” (NYT Critic’s Pick) and a touring one-person show “It’s A Beautiful Wound”, talked to this writer recently in an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the theater?
Rich Orloff (RO): I wrote my first play when I was eleven. (Until then, I was a complete goof-off!) I hadn’t even really seen a play yet, just some school plays and TV plays, but somehow the impulse to write plays was already there.
MM: What inspired you to write a play based in the Vietnam era?
RO: When I was an alumni volunteer at my alma mater Oberlin College in the late 1980’s, I was involved with planning a special reunion focusing on student activism during the Vietnam War years. The committee was brainstorming who the keynote speaker should be, and I said, “Why are we inviting someone to give a speech about the experience to people who lived the experience? Why don’t we figure out a way to listen to their voices?” Everyone on the committee thought this was a great idea. And suddenly I had volunteered to write a play!
MM: How did you secure all these interviews with college students?
RO: I could’ve never written this play without the support of Oberlin College’s Alumni Association. (It’s one of many reasons I still love Oberlin.) They paid for an initial mailing to all students who attended Oberlin from 1964 to 1972, soliciting letters about people’s experiences related to campus activism during that time. To my surprise, I received over a hundred letters! Then I spent a few days at Oberlin reading every issue of the student newspaper from 1964 to 1972. From that I learned who some of the key student activists had been. The Alumni Association sent them an additional letter, and I got more replies! I followed them up with interviews. Although a few people were wary of me at first (“Who is this guy?”), the first people I interviewed started recommending me to other people, and soon everyone agreed to talk to me.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
RO: I hope the play works as both an engaging story and an accurate, intimate account of the period. I think a lot of people don’t really know what happened during that time, or if they do, it’s mostly superficial clichés about “hippies” and radicals. I think many of the student activists were true heroes, flawed but courageous, in fighting against our government and a war that was both unwinnable and not supported by the people we claimed to be helping.
MM: What made you decide to air this show online during the COVID-19 lockdown?
RO: I awoke one Sunday morning a month ago with three thoughts running through my head:
- The 50th anniversary of the Kent State killings (when National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed student demonstrators during a protest at Kent State University in Ohio) is coming up on May 4. I think that’s an important event that needs to be remembered.
- There are a lot of theater people who can’t work on stage at the moment, but still have a deep urge to use their gifts.
- Hey, I’ve written a presentational-style play about student activism during the Vietnam years, including Oberlin’s response to the Kent State killings. Maybe I can adapt it to the Zoom format.
After I wrote the adaptation, I reached out to theaters that knew my work. To my delight, five theaters (and a high school in Tucson) agreed to produce a performance on the play on May 4, and two more theaters plan to present the play in June.
So, I’m very glad I listened to the voice in my head that morning a month ago!
MM: How is the Zoom version different from the regular staging? What do you think gets lost, and what gained?
RO: This version is shorter and has eliminated several scenes that would be hard to “stage” within the limitations of Zoom. But what’s gained is a sense of intimacy, a feeling that the characters are talking to you.
MM: What other plays have you written and what are they about?
RO: I’ve written 18 full-length plays (mostly comedies, mostly award-winning) and over 80 short plays (which have had over 2000 productions on six continents – and a staged reading in Antarctica). They vary widely in topic, but I think all include a mix of wry wit and compassionate comedy.
MM: What other projects are coming up for you?
RO: Given the pandemic, all of my other projects are currently on hold, which is fine with me. This project is an epic undertaking, involving 25 actors in the New York performance produced by New Circle Theatre Company, and regular communication with the other theaters. After the May 4 performances, I’m going to need a rest. And possibly a good, single-malt Scotch.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
RO: The performances are free and open to anyone who wishes to watch them. Starting May 1, links to the performances will be on my website at https://www.richorloff.com/days-of-possibilities/ The show lasts 75 minutes, but I hope the play will linger in your heart much longer.