Q&A: Oren Safdie

New play examines architecture, creativity, and the Holocaust

A new play by Oren Safdie opens on June 13 at New York City’s La MaMa theatre and runs through June 30th. False Solution continues to examine the world of creativity, architecture, and the human foibles and triumphs that accompany them. Like Safdie’s other plays, Private Jokes, Public Places and The Bilbao Effect,   the new play is also written and directed by him. But this one has a weighty subject at its heart, the Holocaust and the memorials architects build to a horrific era in modern human history.

  Having seen Safdie’s other works and finding his dialog and story development inspiring and memorable, I decided to get the inside story directly from the source. So when news came that his most recent production is about to open in Manhattan, I could not resist asking him some questions. Here he talks about things like memory, design, ego, and sexual politics, among other things.

Susan S. Szenasy: As a fan of all your plays I am looking forward to witnessing the performance of False Solutions and am wondering how you got to the subject of Holocaust Memorial design, and why now? 

Oren Safdie: Several years ago, I visited Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. It was right around the time that my father's [Moishe Safdie’s] new Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum opened in Jerusalem. I was struck by how differently they had approached the issue — Libeskind trying his best to give expression to the Holocaust and create an atmosphere that was oppressive; and my father's, which was somewhat of a non-building in which architecture was practically removed from the equation, leaving the artifacts and exhibits to speak from themselves.

I made a point of trying to give both arguments equal weight, and put these two philosophies into two very different characters: a well established architect, and a young first year architecture student who works as his intern. But the play goes beyond the philosophical debate, and really gets into issues of creative process, trying to determine what is success, as well as issues regarding the commercialization of the Holocaust.  

There seems to be a Holocaust museum or memorial popping up in nearly every city, and I'm not so sure it always serves a righteous purpose. Does a Holocaust memorial along the boardwalk of Atlantic City really help preserve the memory? And in Poland – where a Jewish Museum just recently opened in Warsaw: Is it really a turning point in Polish-Jewish relations, or is it a way for the Poles to attract dollars from the many Holocaust survivors who are making their way back to Poland with their families? (A recent survey in Poland revealed that 40% of Poles would be disturbed if someone Jewish was in their family.)

SSS: You've been to Holocaust Memorials by a famous architect, or one not so famous, where you may have come away disturbed by the enormity of the brutality that went on in Nazi eastern Europe as any human being has to be. Can you describe the experience? Or, if you weren't moved to your marrow, please describe why. 

OS:  I've been to several Holocaust Museums recently, but was clearly more transfixed on the topic as a child. The BBC's World At War was an epic event in my life, followed by periods where I voraciously consumed Holocaust literature. I don't think I'm alone in this. It's almost a natural process to come to terms with what man is capable of doing to man. And as my mother and her family were Polish survivors of the war, it never escaped me of how lucky she was to have survived, and that I am now alive. There's a lot of this in the play as well: How does our history define who we are, and how these repercussions pass down from generation to generation, in unexpected ways.

But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that after going to so many Holocaust Museums, it has started to affect me less. I remember as a child going to the old modern, boxy Yad Vashem, that was not the greatest place to exhibit the Holocaust, and yet it felt like a holy site; perhaps because it was in Israel. Going to the Holocaust Museum in Los Angles does not have the same effect. Much more disturbing for me was my experience of visiting Dachau. Not necessarily in the camps themselves, but the fact that I got there in 20 minutes by train from Munich. That there is still a town called Dachau. That there is a fast food restaurant less than a mile away. These are the things that move me more now–place and context.

SSS: It seems like once more we'll be seeing the eternal conflict between the aging, willful, know-it-all male architect and a young, eager, brilliant female architecture student. What's different about this particular confrontation, collision, and commingling?  

OS: Funny, I didn't even notice that until you mentioned it. I must see an analyst to find out why these relationships keep popping up in my plays. But I do think that this particular relationship between the well-established male and the young inexperienced female is quite different from Private Jokes, Public Places. In some ways it's the inverse. The female actually holds most of the power to begin with. I won't say more than that. As to why the issue of sexual politics keeps coming up in my work (and not only my architecture plays)? I think it's the defining social issue of our times — when people will look back on this time in history. The women's movement is still relatively young, and our society is struggling to make sense of the past with the present. As a writer, this offers endless possibilities for drama.

Sean Haberle as German-Jewish architect, Anton Seligman

SSS: Your plays are very funny, while they are full of pathos. Talk about how this combination moods and emotions helped you get to the heart of taking on an impossible design project, the commemoration of modern industrialized massacre.

OS: When I set out to write Private Jokes, Public Places I did not think of it as a comedy. In fact, it was only after the first performance that we discovered that it was.  With this play, obviously any kind of humor — if there is any — will feel more dangerous. But the play, at its heart, isn't so much about the Holocaust, it’s about how these two characters try and form a relationship and get what they want from the other, and why,  all while revealing some pretty strange ways of trying to come up with a design. So, perhaps the comedy is in the process rather than the background. I've told my actors not to be surprised if people burst out laughing in the most disparaging moments. (This also acts as a release for the audience.)

SSS: And finally, what, to you, is the saddest thing about Anton Seligman (your protagonist in False Solution), and by implication, architects like him?  

OS: Anton is a character who has achieved great success in his career but he is at a point where he feels that he has stopped growing as an architect and person. Many of his buildings have come to look like copies of his other creations, everybody raves about his work, he has as many commissions as he wants, yet he yearns to be the architect of his early years, when he was reckless, experimental, and did things just because he wanted to. How he evolves from this is the crux of the play. 

False Solution’s world premier is at 7:00 pm, on Thursday, June 13th, at La Ma Ma, 74a East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. The play runs through Saturday, June 30, 2013.

On opening night, June 13th, the play will be followed by a panel discussion sponsored by Metropolis Magazine. The evening’s panelists include Susan S. Szenasy, Metropolis; Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times; Hani Rashid, Asymptote Architects; Bartholomew Voorsanger, Voorsanger Architects; and Rick Bell, AIANY.

All subsequent performances of False Solution will play Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $18 ($13 for seniors and students). For tickets call 212-475-7710 or visit www.lamama.org

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