An Interview with Playwright Stuart Orenstein
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
by Silver Webb
Stuart Orenstein is our first contributor to Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, forthcoming in June 2018. Stuart's play "I Do-nut find that A-Muse-ing" will be included. I recently sat down with Stuart to learn more about him.
What do you need to know about Stuart? That he was born in the Bronx, attended medical school in Belgium for six years, that he speaks French and Flemish? No, no, no. What you need to know about this writer are these crucial distinctions: He is a libra, and in the Chinese zodiac, an ox. And oh, he’s an actor featured on imdb.com
But back to the Ox Libra. As far as I can tell, that either makes Stuart a diplomatic, charming, dependable traditionalist or a stubborn hothead. I'll let his favorite drink, coffee, be the tie breaker, and I'll go with the former, as the man sitting across from me at Lilac Patisserie is very even-keeled, funny, and observant…as one might expect from a man who served as a psychiatrist in Los Angeles for many years (more laid back than the Bronx, he assures me). But what you might not expect from Dr. Stuart is that he’s tread the boards quite a bit. He fell into acting, literally, in a play put on during Purim, in which the curtain opened, he “rode” out on a horse, the bad guy fired shots, and Stuart dropped like a brick. But it was a lucky fall. The director saw something in him, and soon he stepped into bigger roles in community theater. Although he was once paid in gummy worms, success has not eluded him. After he retired to Santa Barbara, he began starring in movies like Group Therapy and Salsipuedes Street (not to mention the 2017 classic, A Rabbi, a Priest and an Ex-Gumba).
Stuart believes that humans need to continue to grow and learn after they retire, and his plays come as a result of courses taken at Santa Barbara City College. He wrote “Zt’L” with SBCC teacher Ellen Anderson, a play whose title is the Hebrew equivalent of “R.I.P.” A serious play about father-son relationships, he was looking to write something a little lighter after that. The result was “I Do-nut Think that’s A-Muse-ing” about a struggling writer whose muse is a disembodied lover of doughnuts. When asked why he picked this subject, Stuart replies, “Well, I like doughnuts. My first play was very personal and serious. I wanted my second play to be funny.” And funny it is. You’ll have to read Stuart’s play in Issue 1 of The Santa Barbara Literary Journal to see just how wry he is.
But I’m not sure I have Stuart sold on his Ox-Libra-ness, and so I try again with the unforgivable interview question of “How would friends describe your personality?” He thinks about it, because I have the sense that most things that come out of his mouth have already been through a fast wash cycle, and says, “overly intellectual, not sentimental. I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist.” I wait for it. He goes off on a tangent about a friend who died, and how much better it is to be a realist. But then, just when I think he’s forgotten the question, he bursts out with a triumphant “A-ha!” and says, “Sarcastic New York Jewish guy who gets in a lot of trouble!” “Trouble?” I ask, quite sure there are more than a few stories he has yet to tell. He says that when he was young, a friend, in exasperation at Stuart’s stubbornness, asked him, “Would you rather be right or likeable?” At the time, he would rather have been right, but says, “In my senior years, I see his point.” As Stuart is already quite likable, I think he may as well go for both qualities.
Whenever I sit down with an author, I expect certain common ground. Someone driven to create, someone who loses sleep at night over characters, plot, endings. Someone who has the iron-willed eagle-gazed madness of Don Quixote in search of the perfect novel. You know, average writer stuff. But Stuart is delightfully laid-back. He doesn’t require fame and fortune. He may write another play, he may not. Right now he’s enrolled in a poetry class and loving it. When I ask if he’s ever happy with his work, if he rewrites much, he says with humor, “I do not see myself as a dilettante. Rather, I am a Renaissance man.” Which pretty much means he’s a dabbler. But I can’t hold that against him, as he's a very talented dabbler. If you’re lucky enough to see him perform his own pieces, you will be utterly taken in. After his latest poetry class, he’ll be taking a class on screenwriting. So goes the progression of a Renaissance Man About Town. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he produces next. Sometimes art that is born of a free hand, someone who has their days to do as they wish, who is not driven by an unforgiving impetus, sometimes delivers gems. I hope you will read and enjoy his play “I Do-nut Think That’s A-Muse-ing.” Who knows, maybe one of these days, you’ll see it performed at the Granada or the Lobero. You can find Stuart on Facebook, but keep your eye on Santa Barbara performing arts news, and see if you don’t find a play or two of his performed around town.