Thursday, June 18, 2009

Joe Orrach on Feeling 'On Purpose'

I sat down with Joe right after the first run of his first solo show-In My Corner- ended with a bang, all shows sold out, last fall. In My Corner is Joe's life story. The second run opens tomorrow! in Oakland. Details here.

Lis What came first: Your desire to tell your story or your desire to do a solo show?
Joe I think my desire to tell my story. I did a piece around ten years ago that was really the beginning of this whole thing, that ended up being about my dad and me. I think after I did that I had the desire to write the whole story. Then I started journaling and that turned into this show.

L Have you always wanted to do a solo show? Or is it something that comes with time as a performer you think? Like you get more confidence as you go?
J I never thought about doing a solo show when I first started. I didn't even know they existed. When I started I was just trying to get work and doing that whole thing...I saw a teacher of mine Noal Parentey do a one man show that was my first introduction to doing a one man show, and I was totally knocked out! It was about 20 years ago. I watched him and I was really moved and that kind of changed my whole idea about what performing was, because up until that time I was just learning how to tap dance and I was just starting.

* photo credit Liz Hafalia, Chronicle

L When you were younger dancing and doing other performing did you feel something special when people were enjoying watching you?
J Yeah. No doubt. And that started actually on the street. I pretty much got my start on the streets in New York City. I had a partner and the very first night we went out on the streets 77nd and Columbus actually. We knew something was going on. The reaction from the public, people on the street, walking by, and stopping... Because they could just keep going. The street teaches you a lot, and it teaches you how to hold an audience. What happened was, we did a few tap dance numbers and we had a huge crowd. And I had a friend come down that night, and he said it wasn't just the dance- there was something else going on. I knew in my gut that it was kind of special and that was really great. And after awhile we went inside and put a show together and went around performing pretty much around the world.

L What role do you think performance plays in peoples' lives? Why should you do it for other people? What's that need to even want to see a show? For you, or other people to want to watch you?
J The theatre for me is a really special place. And I'm just gonna say it- I feel it's church. It's a place to really move souls. Unlike a lot of conventional churches today where people aren't moved, I think the theatre is sacred grounds. And at the end of the day that's really the best way I can explain what it does for me and why I have to perform and why I really believe when they leave the theatre, that's why they're moved and transformed from that experience. And so when I perform, I really, somewhere, tap into that. It's...divine in a way. I call it vertical- it's a very vertical thing it taps into that what's beneath us and above us...

L Is that something you can get in a movie theatre too?
J You can, you can. But I don't think it happens as often. I think you can, but it's not the same, because there is a division. That screen stops that incredible magic. Although I think a great movie does go beyond the screen and can touch you and move you, there's nothing like live performance.

L So it must just have to do with human connection?
J Yeah I think so. Yes. It's human connection and it's also soul connection that we all have and which I believe makes us all the same. We're very different, but it makes us all the same. Because I can do this particular piece in China let's say, and people will get it- the language maybe they wouldn't get, but if the performance connected into that soulful place, you can do it anywhere and people will get it. And that's rare to be able to connect to another human being on that level...And we as performers are so fortunate to be able to do that when we're really doing what we're supposed to be doing.

L So the moment when you got the desire to tell your life story...?
J It was a germ somewhere in me, like whoa I need to tell this story...I wrote it over maybe just a few nights, and it was a very, very strange period in my life. But for some reason I felt I had to make sense out of certain things, and so I started writing this and it turned out to be pretty much about my father and me. It wasn't about telling it to other people. I needed to tell it to me. I needed to... talk to myself. Because I needed to make sense, somehow out of my life...Because it wasn't making sense. But you know how when you can do something and get it out of your brain it does become smaller?... And then stepping back it started to make a little sense. But not until a few years after, until it settled down. But it was really good to go through that experience, and it was pretty intense.

L How do you feel now that you've told it? It seems like the most honest thing a person could do...
J Incredible. One, the dream, saying I want to do this I want to have a solo show, that's great, and then to be able to say I've done it, I started on it, I finished it...and what's most gratifying is the reaction from the audience. I can't begin to tell you how gratifying that is, because when I started doing this I would talk to Liz (co-writer, wife) I would say why would anyone want to hear this? It's your [my] story but, so? Who is to say that other people are going to want to listen? And the reaction from the audience, which was beyond my wildest expectations, to have people come up to me, to receive emails and letters, to have people call me, some people I knew, some people I didn't know, just their reaction.

L So was it the co-writer Liz that helped you to get the confidence to think that your story might mean something to other people? or maybe you had that realization?
J Well Liz put it into a narrative. She made it like a story. It did give me confidence because she said 'This is a very unusual story," one that she liked. And up until a few days before it opened I'd say 'Liz do you think it's good? Do you really think it's good?' And she'd say, 'I think it's great.' And I don't know if that's being a performer you're really insecure, it's probably part of that but also I think I was trying to say Are people going to find this interesting?

You didn't know somewhere inside that it would mean something to people?
J Maybe I did...And that I don't know if it's really me or if I need someone to tell me it's good... I don't know. I thought the story was interesting, and then more than interesting, it was honest. And then on top of it which I didn't realize later, it's everyone's story. Who can't relate between a child and their parent? An adult and a young person? And, it's kind of one of these old stories.

L Explain the cathartic experience of telling the painful story of you and your dad.
J Well, it was definitely cathartic. I would practice for Liz...and as I was doing it I was just crying, and crying and crying...because you re-live some of that. And you don't want the audience to see that, want them to feel it. So each process just went deeper and helped me to work out things on another level. So now I can talk to my father and I can look at him and stuff and it's much easier and it's much cleaner. But it took me this whole process to work that stuff out. Especially because what I didn't want to be was exactly what I was, which was my dad. So I really had to look in the mirror and look at myself, and do some soul searching. And the show really helped me, this story really helped me.

L So it could be thought of as a healing process for people to perform their life stories?
J Well one of the main reasons I wanted to perform it for people was to heal. Because in the process of getting the show up I really started to heal my relationship with my father, and really more importantly I think, I started to heal myself. And I figure if someone can come away after watching the show with some kind of purging or healing, (it cant come right away but) well as I was saying before quite a few people told me, 'I had to sit with that for 24 or 48 hours and just really let it digest or let it sink in more,' and it seemed like a lot of people were really touched by it, where they could take that story and kind of put it into their life, and say my father or my mother or this happened to me, and really, let them heal.

L But do you think performance could be a healing process for a lot of people?
J Yeah. Absolutely. I don't see why not. It sounds silly but I think performing, or acting or whatever you want to call it, first of all I know it's healing. I know it's healing. Like I said before anytime you get to be able to take some of the stuff that's inside that's kind of rolling around in your head, that becomes bigger than life because it's rolling inside, if you can try to stop that wheel spinning by writing about it, by singing about it, by talking about it, by performing it, whatever means, yes, I think everyone should do it. It can be scary but, gee, we only have one life, and like people say it's not a dress rehearsal.

L Did you ever know your life would make such a good story?
J (Laughing) That's funny. No no because you just try to live your life. But I knew somewhere along the line that we had a pretty interesting household. My dad's from Puerto Rico and he's out there, he's demonstrative, he's an egomaniac, he's charming, he's handsome, he moves well, he's got all of these things in him that make him an interesting guy. And then he's got all of these negative qualities that also make him ...And then my mom's Italian, born and raised in New York and so in that household there was a lot of... just a lot. Everything was loud. Everything was big and strong. So if that wasn't your natural thing, you had to learn how to survive in that. And I don't think naturally I'm that kind of a guy. Naturally I am and I'm not, and I had to use that side of me to survive in there. So I knew when I'd go over to other friends' houses that not everyone was like us (laughing). And I had my older brother Michael always getting in trouble... So to watch him in action I just knew something was going to happen. And then my uncles. I had some pretty crazy uncles. So I knew something was up. But not with myself. Just watching these people it was like 'Whoa! Am I part of this?'

A few times in the show you say, "dancing makes me happy." People have said how they connected with this, so touch on the deeper meaning of it.
J The deeper part of that is- well it might not be so deep. But every time I seem to dance, when I was 5 or 6, or 10 or 20, or now, 21, it changed, it literally changed me. And it would change the dynamic in the room. Whether I was in my house or a party or a wedding, it would just change, for the better. Everyone around me would change- they'd smile, they'd stop and point and watch. I would have people just stopping and watching me because I was.. I don't know, performing. So that made me happy. And it made people happy. And so being a young latino, which I really identify with because that's how my father raised us, that was really in my blood, I just had to moooove. I don't know if it's innate intelligence of the body, but when I started moving and dancing, it just vibrates differently. And it made me happy and I saw how it changed everyone around me, and that was a good thing. When you make someone smile who's not smiling that's a good thing....From the earliest times I can remember dancing to now, it just changes something. And it's really who I am. I don't consider myself really a dancer but more a mover. I think movement really has a profound impact on people.

L So you think there should be more dancing?
J I really do I think there should be more arts, more dancing, more movement...
Back back back to the beginning of time, people communicated through movement.
The arts saves people's lives. I believed it saved mine. Not that I'd be dead but I can't imagine where I'd be if it weren't for the arts. And without sounding 'oh woe is me,' it's really huge. It's really huge. I mean I come from a boxing family. Nothing wrong with boxing in and of itself, but it's pretty brutal....Most of the cats I used to fight with, some of them are punchy, most of the guys I revered growing up as professional fighters, most of them are punch-drunk, none of them had an opportunity to find the arts...

L You think everyone has the capacity to be artistic?
J I really do. I don't know to what extent but I think there's an artist in all of us. For some reason I think that's our birthright... I'm not sure if some of us just don't listen to it or don't have the opportunity..

L So having told your life story and having had it touch people how do you feel? How do you feel as the living breathing subject of a play that's touched people?
J Incredible. It's beyond my wildest expectations. I didn't know that you could feel so humane to be able to move someone else in that kind of a way. I feel that somehow when you're an open channel and you're being used in a way that you feel you're supposed to be used, with this bigger thing out here called the universe, you just feel like you're on purpose.

L What do you hope your show does at it's best?
J Touch really move someone, to the point where they think about why they're here or maybe think about their father or mother or son or daughter...just to pause and say, wow.

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