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McCandless native gets big break with prison show

| Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 6:52 p.m.
Head writer Jenji Kohan and Lauren Morelli  at the New York City premiere of 'Orange Is the New Black.'
Head writer Jenji Kohan and Lauren Morelli at the New York City premiere of 'Orange Is the New Black.'
Taylor Schilling (left) stars as Piper Chapman in 'Orange Is the New Black.' With her is Yael Stone, who plays Lorna Morello.
Lionsgate Entertainment
Taylor Schilling (left) stars as Piper Chapman in 'Orange Is the New Black.' With her is Yael Stone, who plays Lorna Morello.
Lauren Morelli (in orange) on the set of 'Orange Is the New Black'
Lauren Morelli via Twitter
Lauren Morelli (in orange) on the set of 'Orange Is the New Black'

A McCandless native has gone from dancing in New York City to writing scripts for a pioneering television show in Hollywood.

Lauren Morelli, 31, of Los Angeles, works as one of six writers for the popular Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black,” a series about women in prison now in production for its second 13-episode season. Morelli, a 2001 graduate of Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, loved theater and dance in high school and majored in dance at Marymount Manhattan College. But she decided that a career in dance wasn't her thing, so she searched for other opportunities, and landed in California as a personal assistant to a studio executive.

Intrigued by the television world, Morelli began writing as a creative outlet and took a writing class at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her professor encouraged her, and she started writing sample scripts — both for an existing show, “Mad Men,” and Morelli's original script for a new show. She found a literary agent who believed in her. Morelli got the job writing hour-long episode scripts for “Orange Is the New Black” in February 2012.

As a kid, Morelli “never, never, never” would have guessed she'd end up as a script writer.

“It's like when you're a little kid, and you wanted to be a princess,” says Morelli, who attended school in the North Allegheny School District through sixth grade. “I feel like someone ... said, ‘You get to be a princess.'

“All I'd ever done is dance, since I was a little girl,” Morelli says. “I really thought that I would be some kind of performer.”

She took lessons from Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and performed with its Mini Stars. She also was a student at Act One Theatre School in Glenshaw and taught dance, during her Pittsburgh years.

“Orange Is the New Black,” a mixture of drama and comedy, tells the story about a group of female inmates in a minimum-security federal prison. The show, aired only on Netflix, is based on a memoir of the same title by author Piper Kerman, who wrote a book about her experiences in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. The television version of “Orange Is the New Black” includes a character, Piper Chapman, based on Kerman.

While the true-story book inspired the series and its setting and themes, the characters and plot lines are fiction left up to writers. This gave Morelli and her colleagues a lot of freedom to invent and develop characters and stories, while getting their inspiration from a nonfiction tale.

“It's important to us that we weren't beholden to the real person,” Morelli says about the Piper character.

She loves her job at Hollywood Center Studios.

“It's work, and some days, it's hard work, but it's such a dream,” Morelli says.

Morelli says that she and her colleagues are creating complex and often-sympathetic characters in their cast, even though they are inmates.

“I would like to think that we have created characters that are close to more human beings. Everyone is very gray,” she says. “We try to stay away from the idea that someone could be just good and just bad.

“I think, yes, we're bringing some sympathy to a population that is very easily dismissed in our society ... but, certainly, some of them are culpable, as well,” she says.

Morelli's success doesn't surprise Barbara Holmes, a Winchester Thurston School teacher who teaches high-school speech and theater classes. Though Holmes knew Morelli as a talented dancer, her new gig as a script writer suits her performing background, Holmes says.

“Being a performer gives you an advantage, I think, because you know what the actors need to have to bring those characters to life and have a good sense of drama.”

Holmes says she is very proud of Morelli, who deserves the success.

“It couldn't happen to a nicer person,” Holmes says. “When I remember Lauren, I just always think of her as being a very genuine person and very kind to everybody else she was working with. Even though she had so much talent, she never acted like she was better than everyone else.”

Morelli hasn't forgotten her Pittsburgh roots. She comes here a few times a year, and recently celebrated her grandmother, Dorothy Morelli's, 90th birthday here.

“Pittsburgh means so much to me,” she says. “I feel so grateful that I was raised here, and I still love going back.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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