Since it debuted on Netflix in 2013, "Orange Is The New Black" has hooked millions of the network's viewers (and enticed more to subscribe) with its engrossing storylines, colorful characters, compelling writing and talented cast. Popular as it is with the general public, Broadway fans have even more reason to watch the hit show, as "Orange Is The New Black" employs a notably large contingent of theatre actors.
Tracee Chimo plays Neri Feldman and her stage credits include Bad Jews and Broadway productions of The Heidi Chronicles, Harvey and Irena's Vow, as well as the upcoming Noises Off. Lea DeLaria plays Big Boo, and her stage credits include Broadway revivals of On The Town and The Rocky Horror Show, Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish and Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Annie Golden plays Norma Romano and her stage credits include the original Broadway casts of Violet, Xanadu, The Full Monty and Leader of the Pack, as well as Broadway revivals of On The Town, Ah Wilderness! and Hair. Barbara Rosenblat plays Miss Rosa Cisneros and her stage credits include the original casts of Talk Radio, The Secret Garden and Lucky Stiff, as well as West End productions of and Godspell and Torch Song Trilogy. Dale Soules plays Frieda, and her stage credits include Shows for Days and the original Broadway casts of Hands on a Hardbody, Grey Gardens and The Magic Show. Other theatre veterans in the cast include Blair Brown, Beth Fowler, Kate Mulgrew and Uzo Aduba.
Playbill.com caught up with some of these thespians to get their takes on why this preponderance of stage talent has collected on the series, how that contributes to its success and its impact on their careers and lives.
What's it like doing a show with so many women?
Tracee Chimo: I always love working on projects that involve lots of fantastically unique ladies. Those opportunities are few and far between.
Lea DeLaria: Well, our periods have synced up.
Annie Golden: It is a hands-on, kinder, gentler set with capable, competent women in control and men who are happy to help the vision happen the way we all see it. It is a stone-cold love fest at work, which is what I require in my old age! The subject matter is sometimes so very dark and desperate that it is very important we lighten our load when we are not in front of the camera.
Barbara Rosenblat: We all get together in little pockets of this bunch of girls and that bunch of girls here and there. They're just charming, and I love them all.
Dale Soules: Working with this number of women in an ongoing way (this will be my third season on the show) is something I have never experienced before. In fact, I don't think this situation has ever existed in a series before. It appears that the viewing public is much more sophisticated and open than they have often been given credit for as evidenced by the popularity of our show. The stories that are being told give dignity and humor to the lives of the incarcerated and familiarize the non-incarcerated viewer with just how similar we all are in our basic needs. I think it also shows how small a slip can land you on the wrong side of the bars.
How is to be recognized for TV work as opposed to theatre?
Tracee Chimo: The reactions are mostly the same. But it's really funny in the way it goes down...I'll catch someone staring at me with a pissed-off look on their face. I usually just ignore it and then I'll hear, "Hey are you Tracee Chimo?! Holy sh*t! You look so different!" Or they abruptly rush up and whisper, "I've been trying to figure out if it's you. You don't look anything like I thought you'd look." Or my personal favorite: "You're pretty?? I didn't expect that." I suppose it is the best compliment, though. To have people not be able to recognize you — it means I must be doing my job.
Lea DeLaria: The major difference is now I am recognized absolutely everywhere. When you do Broadway/theatre, you are generally only recognized in NYC and all the world's gay bars.
Annie Golden: Television reaches many more people in an instant than a lifetime of doing theatre (on, off and away from Broadway). The reach of television defeats distance and so, everyone gets to see your work in their living room. There is nothing, however, that compares with a live audience — whether it's cabaret in an intimate setting or a play or musical in a packed theatre.
Barbara Rosenblat: It's funny. You can be on Broadway for 20 years and no one's ever heard of you. Then you get on to a show like this and it's like, "Oh, my god. Where's she been all these years?" Wherever I go, people come up to me just to look at me in amazement at how gripped they were by this. I've never been in a position like that before and I'm so grateful.
Dale Soules: Some theatregoers stopped to chat after Shows For Days. One was also a fan of "Orange." She did not think she would like it, but had a sister who had been incarcerated, so she watched. She said it really helped her better understand what her sister had been through. Being recognized for your work, whatever the medium, feels good.
How has your work in different mediums fed each other?
Tracee Chimo: I'd have to say the theatre has most definitely informed the TV and film work I've done. I'm still learning how to adjust for the camera. It's a lesson every time I shoot.
Annie Golden: Typecasting comes into play here when you feed one medium into another. The types of women I play are all women of strength and devotion and dedication to their loved ones — giving and loyal like Norma Romano with her fellow inmates.
Barbara Rosenblat: I learned an enormous amount that first year [of "Orange Is The New Black"] working with a crew who you got used to seeing every day and who you started to trust, so that when things got kind of interesting for me in Season Two, I knew everybody. There was a level of mutual respect and interest and patience there, so when I came in and had to do some fairly soul-searching stuff, they were there for me. They looked at me and there were thumbs up, "We got your back."
Dale Soules: The ability to recreate your performance every night is important in theatre and your ability to recreate your performance in every take on film and TV can be important, especially to the editor.
What is it about a women's prison that has drawn so many stage actors?
Tracee Chimo: Theatre actors are the best folks to work with on the small screen! It's just play time. We're all sitting around between takes talking about our favorite stage folks and the plays we hope to do one day and shows we've seen. Actors who come from the stage are forever theatre nerds.
Lea DeLaria: The paycheck.
Annie Golden: We clean up nice on the red carpet as you may have noticed, but Lea DeLaria said it best: "Our cast is like the Island of Misfit Toys," all of us quirky and interesting and specific. [Throughout] my whole career, across the board, those attributes may have been a deterrent to being cast, but not now, not for "Orange is the New Black," not for Jenji Kohan (our creator) and her casting director (Emmy Award winner Jen Euston).
Barbara Rosenblat: I think it's a measure of skill sets. Everybody in the city wanted to audition for this, and I thought, "A drama in a women's prison… there's gotta be something in there for Rosenblatt." I'm a dialectician by trade, so this was right up my street. I'm asking you to believe that I am a cancer-ridden, Cuban former bank robber and, in reality, I'm Anglo-American Polish Jew who lives in Washington Heights, who's been on Broadway and who is a jazz singer and records audio books.
Dale Soules: Well, actors in New York are stage actors and "Orange" is shot here. As I'm sure you have noticed, most actors work in many mediums these days.
How does doing a TV show compare to doing a play? How is that affected by the number of theatre actors involved? What do they bring to the table?
Tracee Chimo: This is going to sound weird, but shooting a TV show is kind of like being in tech rehearsals all the time. You stop and start a lot and have to work extra hard to keep yourself focused and in it.
Lea DeLaria: Theatre is a discipline. You perform eight shows a week. You must instill life into your lines and make them fresh EIGHT TIMES A WEEK! You have to memorize and rehearse and eat, sleep and breathe your character. You must project to the balcony. Television acting is all about, "the smaller the better." There is no need to memorize because you do take after take after take... and with some directors... 10 more takes. You try to give a different feel on each take, which gives the production team a choice about the scene. Then of course, there is free food. I wish theatre would do that. This question reminds me of a T-shirt that Andy Griffin gave to the cast and crew when I recurred with him on "Matlock." It read, "FILM IS ART. THEATRE IS CRAFT. TELEVISION IS FURNITURE."
Annie Golden: Actors trained in theatre (I never went to school, but I learned on the job) bring a discipline, a focus, a continuity and a preparedness. It's a process that's organic and should never be noticed — just a quiet ability to roll with what's happening and to always be ready for anything, no questions asked. Also, [theatre actors bring] a social behavior that has to do with community; there are many people on a set and lots of names to know! It's like tech: "12 out of 12s" every scene set-up. There is chaos and when the camera is rolling and it lands on the actors' shoulders to "bring it" each [time].
Barbara Rosenblat: In the plays I've done, you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse for weeks in order to offer the audience a full and satisfying plate of theatrical food eight times a week. When you do television, you're on this journey with everybody and nobody knows where anything is going, so there's a level of excitement that doesn't seem to diminish throughout that process. I could never have predicted what happened in Season Two. I didn't get it until I saw the finished product. I just kept my nose clean and did whatever was requested of me because they never wrote that far ahead that you could figure out what the arc is supposed to be. You've got to come with your A-game and you've got to help fashion the nuts and bolts of that first episode. And that's what we all did.
Dale Soules: I think the main difference has to do with working on the material. When doing a play — even a new one — you have an idea of where your character begins and ends and how they got there. We call that the arc or the journey of the character. In Shows For Days, I was playing a founding member and stage manager of a community theatre. I have professional experience as a stage manager, sound and light technician. This was helpful in creating the character. I have never been incarcerated, but I have visited my father in prison (a harrowing experience.) I have performed in and run workshops in prisons across the country and I have created a couple of characters for stage and screen that were incarcerated. But on a TV show I can only apply this experience episode by episode.
You're playing "real people" on "OITNB" in that the characters are based on actual people, but also in that they look like women in the real world, not plastic Hollywood fantasies. How has that been for you in TV vs. theatre?
Tracee Chimo: I am always more interested in playing the girl who is "real" or "different," the girl we all know personally or have seen on the subway and thought, "Wow. What's her deal?" The roles that call for a plastic-looking, boring girl don't know my number. I never get called to play those girls. And the beauty about "Orange" is these women are all gorgeous and special in a very real, human and beautifully flawed way, which is what I think makes the show so accessible. People want to watch stories about interesting characters. That will win over any plastic, perfection mini-skirt show any day.
Lea DeLaria: Almost always, when I'm in the theatre, I'm wearing wigs, make up and heels, playing a girl — unless of course I'm playing a man, which I also do a lot in theatre. That's an exorbitant amount of time applying make up, not to mention learning to walk in heels. "OITNB" is the first time I've not had to wear make up to do [a role], and I got to say, as a butch dyke, I f*cking love it.
Annie Golden: No plastic Hollywood fantasies on "Orange"! We look plain and sometimes even rough! No glamor on our set and, if you do have some prettiness, that could be crushed in an instant because being behind bars is dangerous.
Barbara Rosenblat: We're a delightfully motley crew of folks.
Dale Soules: We not only have wide diversity in size, age, ethnicity, gender identification and socioeconomic backgrounds of the women inmates at our minimum-security prison, we also have as wide a diversity in those same areas, in the guards, administrators, family and significant others. Speaking for myself, I am not a glamorous person by nature, and I fit right in. I have never had a makeup person so excited about the spider vein under my right eye!