When Isolated Incident, the play Stephen Orlov ’71 co-wrote, garnered the Special Juror’s Prize at the 1989 Quebec Drama Festival, he had only just “discovered” theater the year before. Since then he’s written five more plays that have gained worldwide attention, he continues to work on a novel based in Cambodia, and he has taught film analysis courses on political cinema, American foreign policy, and Chinese politics at John Abbott College in Montreal.
Before embarking on his career in theater, Orlov earned a master’s in political science at McGill University, reported on wars and uprisings in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines as a freelancer, and settled in Montreal. Yet the social issues that drove Orlov as an economics major and leader of Colby’s anti-Vietnam War protests continue to drive him today.
“I get pregnant with social issues I have to address,” Orlov said from North Rustico Harbour, his summer writing location on Prince Edward Island. “And somehow I give birth to them. Whether it’s in the classroom, the stage, or in print, still the same motivation is there.”
“What’s different about playwriting is the process is so liberating,” he added. “Because, as a journalist, you have to present a veneer of objectivity as you bear witness to events. As a playwright, you have to express the inner emotions that you hold for your characters, and that process, for me, is so much more creative.”
Orlov’s treatment of serious social issues sparks audiences both within Quebec and in theaters around the world. His allegorical comedy, Freeze, sold out the Montreal Centaur Theater with its treatment of Quebec’s 1998 ice storm as metaphor for calmer, post-separatist times in the francophone province.
His first in a trilogy of Jewish Diaspora plays, Salaam-Shalom, opened at Chicago’s Organic Theater Company and was showcased in the Chicago Dramatist workshop. The second play in the trilogy, Sperm Count, opened to critical acclaim at London’s Old Red Lion Theater, where it was directed by Julia Pascal, the first woman to direct at England’s National Theater.
Thanks to his international success, Orlov recently received a Canada Council writing grant to write Sperm Count’s sequel, Birthmark. Yet Orlov gets most excited over his collaboration with his wife, Karen Kaderavek, an internationally acclaimed cellist and writer. Their most recent work, Bow Ties, dramatizes a chance encounter between a male stranger and woman cellist who only speaks through her cello.
“It’s a true dialogue through words and music and not an accompaniment at all,” Orlov said of the work, which the couple first presented this spring in Montreal.
Orlov’s years working in Asia continue to inspire him. His first, and as-yet unpublished, novel draws on his journalistic experience covering Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Cambodia, where he trekked through jungles on elephant-back and interviewed senior Khmer Rouge officials such as Ta Mok.
Echoes of his past at Colby help him to feel more at home in Canada. “The first time that I emotionally felt like a Canadian, more of a Canadian than an American, was when Jean Chrétien chose to keep Canada out of the war in Iraq,” Orlov said. “A million people in Montreal demonstrated before he made that decision.” —Drew Bush ’03