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PROFILE | Oren Safdie continues his journey as playwright and teacher with world premiere at APT

If playwright Oren Safdie has inner demons from his childhood, he’s tamed them, played them for laughs and given his daughter the best of those lessons. by Becca Martin-Brown | March 26, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
“Architecture was a part of my world since I was born, and it seems that everything we did revolved around [my father’s] career in one way or the other, but writing was my own voice, and a necessary mode for me to express myself in my own way, free of any comparison.” (Courtesy Photo)

Oren Safdie is a child of divorce -- growing up as an only child, although he does have siblings. Those two things probably say as much about how his life was shaped as you might imagine if you've seen his plays produced at Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers.

"Survival of the Unfit" made its world premiere on the APT stage March 24 with Safdie in the audience. In the dramedy, a not-so-successful young man still living at home in his 30s might have finally found the right woman -- and the courage -- to pull away from his domineering mother and ineffectual father. Since Safdie's connection to Northwest Arkansas was born out of his father's work here -- architect Moshe Safdie designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art -- a playgoer must immediately wonder how much is fiction and how much is autobiography.

"I think anyone who sees 'Survival of the Unfit' -- and reads this article -- will make the connection between my past and this story," Safdie says. "Unlike a lot of my other plays, it is not directly based on any family I know but is rather a collection of characters that I have drawn from people I know and put them in a situation.

"But I suppose as a starting point it came from a simple question I had in my mind: a year before I was born, my parents had another boy that died of crib death at 9 weeks, and I was somewhat of a 'replacement' child, which the doctor had instructed them to have as soon as possible as to not allow the grief to overtake their lives. And so, I began to wonder if things that happen before we're even born can influence how we develop into adults.

"I know that sounds very heavy, but that's exactly why I needed to find a situation for these characters that lent itself to comedy. Hopefully, the result is that the audience comes away feeling a range of emotions."


Safdie grew up in Montreal, "which was a great city that felt cosmopolitan, but also had a small-town feel. I could walk to school alone at 7. Take the city bus at 11." The city in southeastern Canada had a tight-knit Jewish community, he says, but his parents were Israeli and "not so much a part of it." So even though his mother was a Holocaust survivor from Poland, "the only connection to the Jewish community was through my grandparents, who belonged to a synagogue where I would accompany them for the high holidays," he says.

"And I suppose, the best illustration of those worlds coming together was demonstrated at my bar mitzvah when the rabbi had to stop the services and remind all the non-Jewish guests that in Jewish prayer books, we turn the pages from left to right," he adds.

"In terms of home life, I was always aware that [my father] was famous, but at the same time, in Canada, no one seems to care that much," Safdie explains. "More importantly, I benefited from being able to travel the world and meet all sorts of interesting people. But my childhood was tumultuous and unstable. When I was 6, I woke up in the middle of the night to a house full of smoke, and two minutes after I woke everyone else up and got out of the house, it exploded, and we lost everything. Ironically, this may have been destabilizing, but it was almost joyous as my family grew closer -- and we got to stay in a hotel with an outdoor swimming pool. However, the tumultuous part had to do with my parents: after 7 years of separating and getting back together, they finally divorced.

"There was a lot of conflict and drama, promises and lies, and for a playwright, this is a gold mine," he adds. "It's a bit ironic since most people consider me a very calm person, but it could be that writing has become a way for me to exorcise all those complicated emotions. That, and I do a lot of sports."

Safdie was 13 when his father moved to Boston to teach at Harvard and open an architectural firm.

"I remained in Montreal with my mother, where we lived in Habitat '67 -- my father's most famous building," Safdie remembers. "I sort of considered myself the de facto gatekeeper of the building, as I was not only the newspaper boy and tennis court groundskeeper, I also was the unofficial guide for any dignitaries that came to town and needed a tour of the building.

"Taking the sting out of the divorce and departure of my father was I had wonderful grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins on my father's side that formed a tight-knit, secure community, which my mother was a part of as well. ... As one can imagine, this later created strife of its own after my father remarried. But I felt very lucky to have grandparents that gave me a stable and positive view of marriage, as well as many of my parents' friends who became lifelong mentors."

One of the characters in "Survival of the Unfit" is based on a friend of his parents, filmmaker Paul Almond, best known for the ground-breaking British documentary series "Seven Up!," Safdie says.

"I came to realize how important it is to have numerous 'father' or 'mother' figures in your life, and now that I'm older -- and a teacher -- how important it is to provide that feeling to younger people," he says. "If it wasn't for Paul's encouragement, I'm not sure I would be a writer today, and I hope there are some students of mine out there who feel the same way about me."


Safdie earned a master's degree in architecture from Columbia University, and yet he never really intended to follow in his father's footsteps. "It felt more like an inevitable path to go down rather than something I discovered myself," he says.

"From an early age, I liked earning my own money. At age 11, I delivered 120 newspapers every morning before 6 a.m.," he remembers. "During summers, I worked in my grandfather's warehouse packing boxes, and then later graduated to the front office to do payroll. The worst summer job I had -- but it earned me a ton of money -- was rust proofing cars. In those days, they just handed out the chemicals -- without masks -- and told us to spray! I quit in a month because I developed a weird cough.

"Sports was a big part of my childhood and remains so today," he goes on. "I was the captain of my soccer team, and played basketball, football, hockey, and even got a tennis scholarship at Skidmore College. It really wasn't until I was 26 that I found my passion for writing.

"Architecture was a part of my world since I was born, and it seems that everything we did revolved around [my father's] career in one way or the other, but writing was my own voice, and a necessary mode for me to express myself in my own way, free of any comparison," Safdie muses. "My grandfather wanted me to work in his textile business with him, I knew my father wouldn't mind me working alongside him, but I never really stopped to think about who I was. Writing fiction originally, and then turning to plays, was as much an act of figuring out my past as it was about defining who I was."

Safdie was in his final semester of architecture school when he took a playwriting class.

"I wrote a 10-minute scene about the drama that took place during the architecture juries, where students presented their designs to a panel of very famous architects," he says. "I guess it was a sign that I was much more plugged in to the egos being thrown around the room and the tension of the students being clobbered than I was tuned in to the actual design work.

"My short piece was given a staged reading before an audience. Sitting in the audience, listening to the laughter of people around me, was powerful, and it's then that I realized that this was what I was supposed to do. The short piece would later become the basis for my most successful play, 'Private Jokes, Public Places,' which ran Off-Broadway for five months."

Another part-time job while he was at Columbia University involved working as a personal assistant for elderly -- and in general wealthy -- people.

"One was an old Viennese blind playwright who had been a big advertising executive before quitting at age 80 and putting all his resources into his dream of becoming a playwright," Safdie recalls. "This was not only inspirational, but also led to my second off-Broadway play, which starred two-time Emmy Award winning actor Daniel J. Travanti. And another woman I worked for became the basis for my play 'Checks & Balances,' which became the first professional play Arkansas Public Theatre ever produced."


"Oren came to Northwest Arkansas when Crystal Bridges opened," Ed McClure, artistic director for APT picks up the story. "He apparently called several theaters in our area to determine if there was any desire to present a reading of 'Private Jokes, Public Places.' APT -- then Rogers Little Theater -- immediately jumped at the chance to present a scripted reading."

McClure says he gathered up actors to read the roles, along with a stage manager to read the action for the audience -- and Safdie's wife performed the one female role, which she had played Off-Broadway.

"Along the way, we had many telephone conversations about his play, theater and life," McClure says. "I really grew to appreciate him before ever meeting him in person from the pre-production we were doing via telephone."

Safdie says he loved everything about his first APT experience.

"It was a wonderful night: the theater is a gem, the actors were great, but it's really the audience that won me over because they were getting my writing. It was love at first listen. And from then on, I always sent Ed my plays, and we are now about to do the fourth (if you include the first staged reading). I always come for the premiere, and it feels like coming home to family."

"Oren is so generous and kind with this talent," McClure enthuses. "It is wild that he trusts APT to present his works. And it means the world to APT to have his trust and generosity."

Kris Isham played the lead in Safdie's "Things to Do in Munich" on the APT stage in November 2018 and is back as Samuel in "Survival of the Unfit."

"Knowing the playwright will be in the audience certainly brings a different energy to the process," he admits. "As a performer, you always aim for an interesting presentation of the characters that brings to life the vision of the playwright in a way that is engaging for an audience. It can be a little intimidating to know at least one member of the audience spent so much time deliberating on the exact words, crafting each scenario, and moving the characters through their individual journeys. That person knows exactly what is going to happen, when it's supposed to happen, and why it happens. As the performer, you certainly want that person to enjoy the show.

"But you're also keenly aware that at least one person in the house will be observing the audience's reaction to the performance almost as much as the performance itself. No pressure!" Isham says.

"I think it speaks volumes about the quality and variety of APT's productions and the continued community support that APT consistently earns the confidence of someone like Oren," Isham adds.

McClure thinks there's a bright future for "Survival of the Unfit."

"I think this show is funny, sad, surprising and often hard to understand some of the characters' motivations. Which I find completely fascinating!"

And Safdie points out the show's next stop will be at the Moscow Theater of the Modern Play in Russia.

Even after all this time, seeing your work on stage is frightening and wonderful, Safdie says.

"When I was starting out, it was thrilling. As I started to take it more seriously and was trying to build a career, it was terrifying. I would listen to every word and be so self-critical -- or critical of the actors and director, listening intently to the audience to see if they liked it -- as if this one show was going to make or break my career.

"But now I tend to see it more from a distance, almost like an audience member who is stepping into the theater and seeing it for the first time. My joy comes more from the writing of the play and completing it. But when something comes together, and I'm sitting in the audience, and it's working like it's supposed to, I feel proud and sometimes even a little surprised that I did that."


When Safdie isn't writing, he's teaching at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. -- and supporting his wife, actress and playwright MJ Kang, in her career.

Kang appeared in "Private Jokes, Public Places" Off-Broadway and reprised the role many times in theaters across North America and in London.

"We met in New York while I was rehearsing at La MaMa Theatre for a new play, and she was interning at Pan Asian Rep, situated in the same building," he remembers. "It helps that we both know the theater world and the sacrifices it takes to pursue the profession. There is no security, and your career goes up and down like a roller coaster. ... After going on hiatus from the business to raise our daughter, Mia, who is now 15, she has returned with a vengeance, landing numerous prestigious playwriting commissions, getting a job on staff to write for HBO, and landed a recurring role in an upcoming TV show -- which is too big name in these pages.

"Our daughter has enjoyed our full attention and has accompanied us wherever we go. We don't believe in babysitters," Safdie adds. "From a young age, she attended every concert, play or opera we went to -- and there were a lot. At 15, she's traveled around the world and been exposed to so much culture that we sometimes worry if it's too much! She plays four instruments quite well and has her education and career as a harpist and pianist all mapped out for herself. She's also a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. So, the bottom line is we've given her all the good things we grew up with and given her the confidence to do whatever she wants -- which she is doing.

"Family changed me in that it took the focus off myself, which is welcome, and something I also get from teaching," Safdie concludes. "Otherwise, writing can be an inward-looking and lonely profession."


Oren Safdie

Date and place of birth: April 20, 1965, Montreal, Canada

Family: Wife, actress and playwright MJ Kang and daughter, Mia, 15

Best advice I ever received: You know you've found your passion if you're willing to go anywhere to pursue it.

Question I get asked the most: Do I know you?

If I was stranded on a desert island, I'd have to have: A small theater, of course!

What's always in my refrigerator: Dandelion.

My current read: "It's a Slippery Slope" by Spalding Gray

Something you may be surprised to learn about me: I fly three hours by plane every week to teach at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. This is down from five hours when I used to teach at University of Miami.

My fitness routine is: a 6 mile run in the morning, an hour of Tae Kwon Do training in the evening.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I'd write.

The last great play I saw: "The First Deep Breath" by Lee Edward Colston II.

If my life were written for the stage, the actor I'd pick to play me would be: Michael Aloni ("Shtisel").

A word to sum me up: Loyal.

  photo  "Architecture was a part of my world since I was born, and it seems that everything we did revolved around [my father's] career in one way or the other, but writing was my own voice, and a necessary mode for me to express myself in my own way, free of any comparison." (Courtesy Photo)
  photo  "My joy comes more from the writing of the play and completing it. But when something comes together, and I'm sitting in the audience, and it's working like it's supposed to, I feel proud and sometimes even a little surprised that I did that." (Courtesy Photo)

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