DANVILLE — If most community theaters had a big event in town — like, oh, a vice presidential debate — they wanted to reflect in their programming, they'd go looking for an appropriate, published play. At West T. Hill Community Theatre, they turn to the Bard of Danville.
In a little less than a decade, Elizabeth Orndorff has premiered numerous plays at West T. Hill and the nearby Pioneer Playhouse, where her High Strangeness was presented in July. This weekend, West T. Hill will open her comedy Jerry Peavler and the Great Debate, which might be the final chapter in Orndorff's Hollerwood trilogy.
"She gets a little twinkle in her eye when people say, 'You can't let this be the last time for these characters,'" West T. Hill managing director Karen Logue says. "But I don't know, knowing Liz, this could be the end."
The Hollerwood series, which has previously produced Hollerwood and Hollerwood II, might end with a story set around the big event in Danville this fall: the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts on Oct. 11.
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In Orndorff's story, the residents of fictional Random, Ky., decide to invite the candidates to have a debate in their town before the big one in Danville.
"They have a Random-style debate, which means that everyone's personal problems all outweigh any political issues," Orndorff says. "They don't really even know who the candidates are. They don't care, it doesn't affect them. They were under the impression it was a presidential debate, and when they find out it's vice presidential, they say, 'I hope the people in Danville know this.'"
Orndorff says that while there might be a little commentary about Washington's detachment from the rest of the country in that plot line, she isn't trying to make any political statements. She notes that the candidate who shows up, the non-incumbent, is in no way meant to be Ryan.
"Because I made him a little nefarious, I couldn't call him Ryan," Orndorff says. "He hadn't even been chosen when I wrote the play, so I couldn't have based it on him."
Jerry Peavler and the Great Debate is just the latest entry in a playwriting career that started when Orndorff was pursuing another goal.
"When I was in graduate school at UK working on my Ph.D., I got so sick of academic writing, I would come home at night and write fiction," says Orndorff, who holds a doctorate in communications. "I worked on a novel, and that got me through my dissertation, because I could have fun with it."
The novel didn't go anywhere, and about the same time, Orndorff started talking to Catherine Bush, a former Danville resident who is now playwright-in-residence at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.
Bush, who also has presented plays at West T. Hill and Pioneer Playhouse, suggested they rent a cabin at Pine Mountain in Eastern Kentucky and write for two weeks. They did that each year for six years, starting in 2000.
"I would write short stories, and she would write plays," Orndorff says. "I thought, this is a lot more fun than sending a short story out that gets published by a literary magazine in Oregon, and maybe four people will read it."
Orndorff had been involved in theater her entire life as an actor, director and even a critic when she was a student at the University of Georgia. She started turning her short stories into plays, and then she had a surprise hit in 2007 with Death by Darkness, a murder tale set in 19th-century Mammoth Cave that won the award for best play at the inaugural International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro and the 2008 Southern Playwrights Competition.
"I thought, I must be doing something right," Orndorff says.
She has since had eight plays produced in Danville and several productions outside Kentucky. Trying to get her work performed outside Boyle County has been frustrating, but Orndorff says it has been great to have a local theater eager to present her plays.
"Liz's plays always sell out," Logue says. "They're great stories, and she has a wonderful ear for dialogue."
With the third play in the Hollerwood trilogy, Orndorff says, she would like to turn toward writing more drama. She laments not getting more dramas produced, saying, "The comedies sell better." Her drama Aidan's Gift won the 2009 Kentucky Theatre Association's playwriting competition and was the runner-up at competitions in Ohio and New Orleans, but it has not received a full production.
Orndorff's career is about to get a little jolt. She was selected for an artist exchange with Danville's sister city of Carrickfergus, Ireland, and leaves Oct. 11 for a six-week residence there. Carrickfergus visual artist Janet Crymble arrived in Danville for her residency this week.
It's a testament to Orndorff's appeal that she already has sold the play she plans to write from her research in Ireland, The Search for Tinker Doyle, to Pioneer Playhouse for next summer's season.
When she returns, Orndorff will spend the rest of the year writing the play, then she'll turn her attention to drama.
But first, Orndorff has to say goodbye to Hollerwood ... maybe.