Joe Orrach is a boxer and a dancer who stars in the play In My Corner, which premieres at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA on Sept.6; here is a link to the theater’s site:
Q: How did you get into boxing?
A: My dad got me into boxing, in fact he didn’t give me (or my brothers) much of a choice. He watched the Gillette Friday Night Fights religiously. My two older brothers and I had to watch the fights with him. Then, when I was in high school and was thrown off my varsity football team, basketball team and lacrosse team (mostly for talking back to coaches), I decided I didn’t need teams and was going to do something I knew about by myself. I borrowed my mom’s car and made the 25 minute drive over to the PAL (Police Athletic League) in Brentwood, Long Island, a mostly Black and Puerto Rican town, and started to learn the “sweet science”. I think I learned a lot from watching those fights with dad week after week, year after year, because boxing came to me fairly easily. My older brother became the heavy weight-boxing champ of New York; I became the welterweight champ of the US Air Force.
Q: What was your most challenging fight and how did you train for it?
A: That’s hard to answer because all my fights were challenging. Not so much because of the fighter I was paired with, but because the fact of the fight actually gave me so much fear. I was fine in the gym. I would spar with anyone, train hard for hours and do pretty much anything Tony Fortunado, my trainer, would tell me to do (which wasn’t always the best thing to do.) I remember one day when I was at the gym with my brother Mike, who later became the New York Heavyweight Golden Gloves Champion. I had only been going to this gym about 6 months when Tony told us to spar with a professional light heavyweight who was preparing for a 10 round fight. It was crazy; I think Tony was crazy. We laughed the entire ride home thinking how this guy punched us from one end of the ring to the other. I got knocked down a couple times but then only got up and went after this monster with more determination. He couldn’t knock Mike down but punched him all over the ring. The hardest part for me was always the lead up to the fight; the fear that set in, that one had to face and overcome. It’s similar for me when I perform. Part of the joy and thrill of it is dealing with and conquering the fear. I think that’s it with fighting too; one is conquering fear more than an opponent.
Q: What famous fighters would you compare yourself to in terms of style and technique?
A: In many ways, I think my style and approach was like a Sugar Ray Robinson, who for me was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, fighter to ever live. Please don’t think I’m saying I was a good as he was because I certainly wasn’t, but my style was similar. Tony Fortunado, my trainer, trained with Sugar Ray Robinson and emulated Robinson. Plus Tony trained me in Robinson’s style. I also loved Roberto Duran, Esteban De Jesus. Duran could brawl with anyone and in the ring and I wanted to be like Duran. But DeJesus was one of the few fighters that beat Duran as a lightweight and he was a classic boxer puncher the way I saw myself. Plus he was Puerto Rican.
Q: What made you transition to dancing?
A: I left the United States Air Force before my original departure date and found myself living back with my parents. Once you leave you really can’t go back. I started training again with Tony Fortunato (a top 10 middle weight contender) but something had changed; I could feel that I had lost the love for boxing. I was driving a truck for my brother Mike and decided to take a dance class in NYC during my lunch break. I had studied ballet years before with Tony’s insistence for my footwork in the ring. It had definitely helped my boxing, but what nobody knew at the time was that I fell in love with dance. I got to be around all these beautiful girls (very different from the boxing gym). I was 16 at the time, and thought this was the best thing since ice cream. Then, the owner of the dance school asked me if I would perform in the recital. I was the only older male in the school so without telling anyone, especially my Puerto Rican dad, I performed in the recital. I loved it. I was a good mover, and had rhythm—that had worked for boxing. Now it worked for dance.
Q: What inspired you to create In My Corner?
A: During a troubled period of my life when everything was going bad I decided to write a journal. I wanted to make sense out of my life and try to figure out how I got where I was. I just wrote and wrote, not knowing what was going to come out. It was really an exercise. I didn’t even read it but something started to percolate within. It was after writing the journal that I slowly started to change. I didn’t know it at the time. Fast forward years later in a new life with a new woman I decided to revisit the journal. I decided I wanted to make the journal a play, to externalize it, to communicate. Liz Hasse, my partner in life and my muse, took the journal and put it into a dramatic narrative. Then we both worked together; I was providing rhythm and movement; the two of us were working with the words. We did re-writes, tried it out, and here we are.
Q: How did you go about getting it produced?
A: After putting together a precursor called 147 (the pound weight of a welterweight boxer) as my senior thesis in 2008 at St Mary’s College of California in the LEAP program, and trying it out at the renaissance celebration of a freed slave township in Virginia, Liz and I decided to develop the play more fully. We then workshoped it at local theatre in San Francisco. It’s not easy to produce a play; one has to be very resourceful. We finally found Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco and rented it out for a few weeks, Liz produced it at Intersection, at the new Black Box Theatre in Oakland, at San Francisco School for the Arts, at a Berkeley venue were we invited high school students and introduced them to the craft of creating and producing a play. It was fun, intense; we worked with a wonderful jazz pianist Matt Clark from the very beginning because we always wanted the play, as full of rhythm and movement as it is to have a live and original score.
We put IMC away for three years while I earned my MFA at USC. Then the fun really began. We wanted to premier it in Los Angeles. There was a theatre in LA that told us yes, we love it, no problem we will produce it, but we wasted a year listening to promises that didn’t pan out. Then came our angel Beth Hogan at the Odyssey Theatre, and everything seemed to flow. Beth, Liz and I have had a great time doing this. It’s a co- production between Beth Hogan at the Odyssey and Liz Hasse. And it wouldn’t be the play it is without Jeremiah Chechik a wonderfully inventive director who has been working in films and TV and, at the same time, truly loves the theatre, and always knows the answers, many multiples of intriguing and exciting answers to everything. He is like another producer, as well as an incredibly creative, insightful and sensitive director, who has more respect for an actor than anyone I’ve meet or heard about. He is great.
Q: Why a play and not a movie?
A: I am a theatre person. That’s my world. I love film but wouldn’t know how to start there in terms of coming up with an original project, presenting a story that is mine. The theatre is more immediate to me as a place to start and develop things and watch them come into being. I think I may let the universe take care of the film side of IMC. Let the people who can do films come to see this play and then maybe you and I can have another discussion about plays and films after this run.
Q: What makes your show unique?
A: The uniqueness is in the way it’s told. It’s a universal story, told in a unique way. Of course, every play is unique, and everyone who writes is different, therefore the story in every play is different. What makes IMC unique are the ingredients of its telling. IMC is a universal story told in a very unique way. It’s a father son story told through narrative, song, Latin jazz, tap dance, movement and boxing. We just don’t tell the story, the performer lives the story, combining different rhythmic and movement skills simultaneously while telling a story, a story that is told through 5 characters. For example, one scene starts with “As far back as I can remember, my father always told us to be proud of what we are…and what we are is Puerto Rican…” I start to snap my left fingers in a 2/3 clave rhythm. I continue with “United we stand tall…” adding my right hand with a cascara rhythm. I finish the scene adding my feet with a third rhythm while speaking the 4th rhythm. Another scene involves the father who has become drunk in the course of watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights. He grabs the belt (here a jump rope) to beat the kids. The rope hits the floor with a steady beat while the dad yells at each child. Tap dance rhythms punctuate his rant. There is also boxer’s speed bag on wheels that is used as a dancing partner and at another time, it becomes a musical instrument as the boxer joins the musical ensemble. This is a dramatic piece written to music with a live musical ensemble on stage. The music is another voice onstage, always supporting the dialogue becoming a strong voice yet never over-powering and never becoming a musical. The music is scored more like a movie where you later you realize, oh yeah, there was music in it. All of these elements combine with the dialogue to make a world in itself, a play and a very unique theatrical experience.
Q: What sort of challenges have you encountered in getting the show up?
A: Challenges? The usual: LIFE. Getting anything off the ground. The inner fears and stresses. The externalities—finding a theatre, trying to make something good, great, in the unfunded world of live theatre. Making your inner thoughts and processes something that others can relate to, absorb, feel. From the inner to the outer, there is so much to overcome. But as so many others before us, one can only persevere.
Q: Who are some of your dancing influences?
A: Dancing influences. So many people; dancing is my influence, my life: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines (who really saved me and helped make it real for me), Donald O’Connor, John Bubbles, Sammy Davis Jr, Baby Lawrence, Jose Greco. There are my 2 favorites: Savion Glover and Jimmy Slyde. In jazz, Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Graciela Danielle, Twyla Tharp. In ballet Nureyev, Edward Villella and modern dancers, Indian dancers; the list goes on.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)