How writer Lauren Morelli gives subtle shades to 'Orange Is the New Black'

The Pittsburgh native didn't plot a writing career


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Nothing Lauren Morelli might write would sound as unlikely as her own story.

Ms. Morelli, who grew up in McCandless and graduated from Winchester Thurston School before studying dance at Marymount Manhattan College on New York's Upper East Side, had a plan. Having gone the whole song-and-dance route as a kid -- "I was in the CLO Mini Stars," she said, laughing -- she would be a performer.

But a back injury sustained in college put an end to that dream, and thus began, in her words "seven or eight years of wandering."

Always a voracious reader, she also liked to write. Encouraged by a professor in a short fiction course, she began a series of stories/blogs/dance reviews that, less than two years ago, helped her land a job in the writers room for the critically praised Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black."

"It happened really quickly; I consider myself really lucky," said Ms. Morelli, 31, who will be speaking at the Steeltown Spotlight Series Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the University of Pittsburgh's Bellefield Hall Auditorium.

"I had been writing for some time but never had any professional experience before this. I owe everything to Jenji [Kohan]. She has a habit of hiring young writers, and I think she's one of the few creators and showrunners in the business who will take a chance on playwrights who maybe never worked in television or, like me, never had any experience."

Ms. Kohan is perhaps best known as the creator of Showtime's "Weeds." "Orange" is a loose adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir of the same title. Like Ms. Kerman, an executive consultant on the show, this "Orange" is the story of Piper Chapman.

Played by cool blond Taylor Schilling, she is the straight man to a cast of vibrant characters. Among her fellow inmates is Crazy Eyes, a brilliant but mentally unstable young woman, Taystee, who finds she doesn't want to live outside prison walls after all, Sofia, a transgender woman, and Red, a Russian who runs the food service.

Most have revealed at least some backstories, which play out as mini tragedies amid the present-day drama.

By chance, Laverne Cox, the actress who plays Sofia, attended Marymount Manhattan around the same time as Ms. Morelli, but they weren't acquainted.

In a piece for www.deathandtaxesmag.com, Ms. Morelli wrote: "In Jenji and the other writers on the show, I found an acceptance that had alluded me since I made that unfortunate decision in fourth grade to wear a shirt embroidered with my initials and one of my vintage top hats to school (yes, one of)."

The writers room for season two is in Los Angeles. Ms. Morelli, who was lead writer on two episodes of the first season -- "WAC Pack" and "Tall Men With Feelings" -- said she cannot describe the thrill of flying to New York City when production shoots her new shows at Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens.

"If you think you've had really good sex, you should try watching someone say words you wrote on camera," she noted in the online piece.

"My dad loved that," Ms. Morelli said.

The "Orange" writing staff comprises five women and two men, a highly unusual ratio in scripted television. Some critics have noted that there aren't any positive images of men on the series -- but the large and diverse cast of female characters also has many shades.

"We've always, across the board, tried to create people who are gray, who are neither black nor white, regardless of their gender," she said.

"I am so proud to know and to work with this cast and to see the reception they have received. It's pretty amazing to see the colors and shapes and the sizes of women on this show."

Well into framing the second season -- Ms. Morelli is again writing two episodes -- she still enjoys being an on-the-job fangirl.

"I think sometimes there is this whole 'fake it until you make it' thing. I decided to take the other approach, which is to say, 'I'm really excited to be here and watching all of this happen.'

"'Cause I would rather be the one geeking out in the corner than the one saying, 'Oh no big deal, I'm so used to it.' "

Tickets are free, but seating is limited. RSVP to erika@steeltown.org to reserve a seat. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

tvradio

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published October 13, 2013 8:00 PM


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