Edge, Q & A + Profiles

Oren Safdie is yesterday’s architect, today’s playwright

EDGE_Orden Safdie

Oren Safdie is a new professor in the Department of Theatre Arts. Safdie taught playwriting and play analysis last semester at UM. Hallee Meltzer // Assistant Photo Editor

Playwright Oren Safdie, a faculty member in the University of Miami Department of Theater Arts, warns that everyone around him is “pretty much fair game” for his writing.

“Who knows?” he joked in an interview with The Miami Hurricane. “Maybe there’s a new play percolating about academia at the University of Miami.”

Safdie has worn a number of hats throughout his career, including those of a playwright, architect, student, teacher and director. Last semester was Safdie’s first time teaching playwriting and play analysis in an academic environment. Before UM, he had spent a year teaching architecture at Iowa State University.

“[The experience has] been all positive so far,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get with the students. Students might come in with some first scenes that aren’t really going anywhere, but then they’ll bring something in that will just knock you off your feet.”

Safdie also wants to create a synergy for playwrights, actors and directors at UM. Safdie advises Astonishing Idiots, a new student-run theater company that hosted two shows during the fall semester.

“I’ve been trying to make my instruction much less academic and more practical,” Safdie said.

He emphasized the importance of versatility and experience in playwrights, hoping that a theater company would help students gain hands-on experience in the process of bringing their scripts from the “page to the stage.”

“He gave us huge amount of freedom in our writing, so he would tell us what worked and what didn’t, without telling us what to write,” said sophomore Liam Allen-McGoran, a member of Astonishing Idiots.

Safdie originally planned to follow the footsteps of his father, architect Moshe Safdie. At first, he pursued a master of architecture degree at Columbia University in the City of New York. Although he was not considering playwriting for his future at the time, the insulated, cutthroat culture of the architecture world would later return in several of Safdie’s plays.

He was on track to become another family architect until things took a surprising turn. During his last semester of architecture school, Safdie took a playwriting course as an elective and was hooked after winning a competition run by the Columbia Dramatists. Safdie decided to stay another four years at Columbia to complete an MFA in Fiction Writing. He had “never looked back” ever since.

Safdie then received a Woolrich Fellowship at Columbia University School of the Arts. During his time there, he founded the West End Gate Theatre Bar, a student theater company that included names like Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke and “The Whole Nine Yards” actress Amanda Peet.

Over the years, Safdie has written more than 10 staged plays, films and scripts for television. Safdie most recently was the artistic director of the Malibu Stage Company. Currently, he resides in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and playwright M. J. Kang, and their six-year-old daughter. He commutes to Miami every week and returns home for the weekends, where he is currently developing a television series based on his 2014 play “Unseamly.”

“Unseamly” is the first of Safdie’s plays that is set in his childhood home of Montreal. The storyline is loosely based off the allegations of sexual assault against clothing brand American Apparel, of which Safdie’s cousin, Dov Charney, is CEO.

Safdie said he is most motivated to write when he needs to “set the picture straight,” whenever a sense of injustice bothered him enough to spark his writing.  He cited Middle Eastern politics and hypocrisy as other examples of inspiration.

Safdie characterizes his work as satiric with tinges of irony and dark humor.

“I don’t set out to write comedies, but people label them as comedies,” he said.

Safdie also acknowledged a recurring theme of sexual politics and power struggles within his plays. “Private Jokes, Public Places,” Safdie’s best-known play, illustrates the struggle of a female architecture student defending her project against a vicious jury of architects. It draws from both Safdie’s extensive knowledge and criticism of architectural movements as well as his intrinsic fascination with such power relations.

Another of Safdie’s play, “The Bilbao Effect,” explores architecture ethics. Safdie is now working on a new play based on a real-life personal dilemma between two well-known New York architects. Safdie hopes he will develop a series of plays based on different architecture-related themes.

“I actually think they’re quite different because the only thing that’s in common is you have to work in coordination with other people,” he said. “But architecture is all about building up, and I see playwriting, the writing of a play, is about stripping down – you start with an idea and you strip it down to its essence.”

If You Go

What: Astonishing Idiots show

Where: Open Stage Club at 2325 Galiano St., Coral Gables, FL 33134

When: 8 p.m. March 3

Contact: astonishingidiots@gmail.com

January 21, 2014


Jackie Yang

Jackie Yang can be reached via email at jyang@themiamihurricane.com.

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