Resident plays a poetic prisoner on ‘Orange is the New Black’

Sept13 Dana Berger OINTB 2

Dana Berger plays Crystal Tawney in the series’ sixth season.

By Sabina Mollot

“Orange is the New Black,” one of the most popular shows on Netflix, began streaming its sixth season on July 27. This season, which follows up after a prison riot, centers on a new maximum-security existence for those who were involved in the breakout as well as other newly-introduced inmates. Among the crew of new characters is the Jesus-loving, haiku-weaving Crystal Tawney, who is played by Dana Berger, a lifelong resident of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village.

Berger, who is already filming the next season, is in four episodes of the current one. For those who have yet to binge-watch it all, Berger spoke with Town & Village recently about her character, how she got the part and how a fictional show has opened America’s eyes to the very real consequences of incarceration.

Berger, who’d been getting roles in local and regional theater as well as acting in web-based comedy videos, got her first major TV part as a paramedic on the CBS series, “Elementary.” She was later asked to returned to the role only to see the character killed off.

Her turn as Tawney came more recently on a leisurely afternoon, and during a stroll through Stuyvesant Town, Berger got a phone call from a number she didn’t recognize. She normally wouldn’t even answer a call from an unfamiliar number, but did so this time, and it turned out to be her agent calling from her cell phone.

The agent told her there was an opportunity to audition for “Orange is the New Black,” but that casting directors were only seeing actors that day. On top of that she was told she wouldn’t even get to see the text she was to be reading from until she got there.

“I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” said Berger, who headed over only to learn that the role she’d be reading for was one of the prisoners and that the character was from middle America. “As an actor, it’s a lesson, you always have to be ready to go,” Berger added. She was fortunately able to hide out in a bathroom for a while once she arrived, learning her lines, and, to get further into character, she took off her earrings and wiped off her makeup.

Sept13 Dana Berger Headshot

Dana Berger

On the day of the audition, it wasn’t expected that Tawney would return after one episode, but return she did, and while not becoming a main character, the tough-talking character still managed to steal a scene or two. One is when she shoots down criticism of a haiku she wrote for a fellow inmate for being “porny” and not rhyming properly. “You didn’t read it right!” she insisted.

What has yet to be established is just what Tawney is doing time for. “They gave me no details,” said Berger. “Everyone keeps asking; all my friends, and I’m like, ‘I have no idea.’”

So Berger has constructed her own backstory for her — although she declined to share her thoughts on this matter though since it may end up being written differently — or, as in the cases with many inmates, not explored on screen at all. Berger added that as an actor, she feels it is more important just to focus on how Tawney fits into any given scene and making sure that her known habits of gospel-spreading and being somewhat combative are portrayed. “To me that’s what needs to be visible,” she said. “The director is looking at the whole picture and how the characters fit together.”

Tawney was introduced, along with many others, since the characters from previous seasons have been sent off to different prison facilities.

“So you have to get a bunch of new prisoners, and that’s why all this opportunity is coming up,” said Berger, referring to the acting gigs that are being landed by many actors in New York, who, like Berger, have mostly worked in theater.

One, Dales Soules, plays Frieda Berlin, a character who’s become more prominent after giving tips to Alex Vauss (played by Laura Prepon) on how to properly hide a corpse. Soules and Berger had actually met prior to the show when they performed in a play together in Greenwich Village five years ago. After Berger got the part of Tawney, “Dale was one of the first people I emailed,” she said. Interestingly, while working on the play, “Orange” was in its first season, and a couple of Soules’ costars remarked to her that they thought she’d be great for the series and that she might want to talk with her agent. A week later, Soules was cast in the show.

For Berger, her character’s most memorable scene so far was in the aforementioned haiku scene, when she hands it over to the character Black Cindy, played by Adrienne C. Moore.

(The clip can be found on Berger’s website at danaberger.com.)

“It was so much fun to do and she was just a joy to work with,” said Berger. “She was really generous and really friendly.” Berger also confirmed, as Moore’s character suspected, that the poetry Tawney had written was intended as a romantic gesture. “But,” she added, “it was pretty funny.”

But then, shooting the show in general is apparently a lot of fun.

“The vibe on set is very wonderful. The crew is lovely. Everybody seems really happy to be there. It’s not just a job,” said Berger.

Sept13 Dana Berger OITNB

Berger as Tawney in “Orange is the New Black”

Despite the popularity of the show, Berger said while she’s been contacted by old friends and classmates, she hasn’t yet been recognized on the street. However, this could be due to the fact that “Orange” is one show where the actors and the characters they play tend to look pretty different and Tawney, with her signature eye bags and greasy hair, and the bright-eyed Berger are no exceptions.

“I didn’t know it was possible to look that bad, but they don’t do you any favors with the lighting,’ said Berger. “That’s the point; you’re in prison.” She noted how for one scene shot during a typically early morning shoot, she was working on no sleep. “That definitely helped the look,” she said.

Even before joining the supporting cast of “OITNB,” Berger appreciated the show for its realistic depiction of prison life and how its drawn attention to the conditions faced by inmates.

“The show is revolutionary on so many levels,” said Berger. “Definitely in the treatment of prisoners and corruption in the prison system, and the debate over what is the right level of disciplinary action. Something like stealing is not the same as killing a bunch of people, and when you watch the show, it’s not discernable as to who gets what kind of treatment in the prison.”

The show is also revolutionary for how women are depicted on screen.

“There’s never been a show with so many women and so many women of color,” she said. “No one else was doing this, and now all (these theater actors) are recognizable from the show and that’s very inspiring.”

Along with acting, Berger has also been an acting coach for children and adults for several years. Many of her clients are students who are preparing to audition for a seat in the drama department of LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, where Berger went.

“I’ve helped a lot of people get into that school,” she said, adding that this pocket of her business has steadily grown through word of mouth by parents. “Kids really need help for that kind of stuff,” said Berger. “What kid is going on an audition unless they have an agent already?” In her case, she auditioned despite not feeling confident, but is now glad she did, crediting the school with making her into an actor.

Her online resume notes that she further studied acting at Stella Adler Studio, Yale University’s Summer Acting program, Duke University, Moscow Art Theatre at A.R.T. and the Actors Center in NYC.

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