Urban Stages, one of Off- Broadway’s gems, is once again bringing the work of acclaimed playwright Oren Safdie to the stage with his newest play Gratitude. This smartly written and edgy, come-of-age play, begins performances on June 5.
GSJ has a chance to speak with Mr. Safide as Gratitude in rehearsals.
GSJ: How would you describe Gratitude?
OREN SAFDIE: Gratitude starts out with an innocent high school crush, and quickly devolves into a desperate situation that entangles four students, trying to come to terms with their newfound sexuality, while also coming to terms with the power their bodies have on others. The story also focuses on the conflict that arises when a young girl from a religiously devout family, gets caught between her parents’ traditional values and the more liberal society she inhabits day-to-day.
GSJ: What was the story’s inspiration?
OS: I was in Montreal a few summers ago, staying with my mother, and decided to go to the local library, hoping it would inspire me to write a new play. Being in the setting where I used to study while in high school seemed to do the trick: before the day was over, I had three of the scenes of Gratitude completed. The trigger for the play was a faint memory that the day I was about to start my senior year in high school, I got a phone call from the boyfriend/fiancé of a girl I had fooled around with who told me that if I showed up to school the next day, I would get two bullets through my head. I know today that sounds extreme and most people would go straight to the police, but in those days, you quietly dealt with it, and for the good part of the fall and winter, I proceeded with caution, ducking in and out of high school, leaving parties early when I was tipped off the boyfriend was coming and pretty much kept it to myself.
At the same time, I remember reading a story about a young new immigrant to Canada who was killed by her older brother because she dishonored the family by dating a secular man. The article about honor killings in North America stressed how many of the young women felt caught between two worlds: a more progressive, liberal life they experienced during the day, and the more traditionally devout world they returned home to at night. It was not a stretch to put these two stories together as I began to realize that, in many ways, I was entangled in such a story without even knowing it. Once I started writing, I remembered how at that age everything felt extreme: sex was new, hormones were popping, and falling in and out of love felt like the beginning and the end of the world. This led me to think about how teenagers use their newfound sexuality to influence, and in some cases, bully others into getting their way.
GSJ: You seem to lean into edgier stories, what attracts you as a writer to put these stories on stage?
OS: I’m hardly what one might call an edgy person, but I do find myself – whether by design or coincidence – surrounded by edgy people and overly dramatic situations. Then again, as a child, I was living through a lot of drama through the breakup of my parents, which went on for years, and I suppose, in a weird way, like to immerse myself into highly dramatic situations when writing, which gives me a sense of familiarity, but also allows me to control the ending on my own terms. I’d also say that after being a teacher for some years now, and always pushing my students to insert more conflict into their scenes, I seem to have taken my own advice to heart.
GSJ: How do you expect an audience to react and what do you hope they take away with them?
OS: The play opened in Montreal several years ago, and although a lot of young people attended the play who felt Gratitude was an honest depiction of their world, a lot of older people appreciated it for taking them back to their high school days and conjuring up memories – both good and bad – of what it felt like to be 16 again. There’s something unique about being 15 or 16, where you’re not quite an adult but you’re also no longer just a kid. It’s full of promise but also terrifying, and I’d like to think that for parents who see this play, it will give them a little insight into being able to understand their high school-aged teenagers a little better. Because let’s face it, trying to deal with a conflict rationally isn’t always the best strategy.
GSJ: As a Canadian playwright You seem to have had a successful run with your plays in New York, are there differences between having your plays in Canadian versus NY?
OS: Most of my playwriting “roots” are in New York. Following graduation from Columbia, I started a theatre company on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. I also spent many years producing my work at La MaMa in the East Village under the direction of Ellen Stewart. In fact, when I first started sending out my plays in Canada, I was met with silence. It’s changed recently, especially in Montreal where I’m now the Head of New Play Development at Infinithéâtre, but Canadian theatre is a lot more ‘grant’ driven – meaning the plays they mount are those that get funded by the government – and controversy doesn’t always make for the best candidates. So, I guess what I’m saying is, that my plays seem to find a more natural home in New York, but I’ll always continue to try and change the theatre landscape up north.
GSJ: What is up next for you?
OS: The past two years in lockdown have led me to work more in TV and film. Presently, I have a new film starting to shoot this month in Hungary. It focuses on Rob Ryan, a man who was fired from nearly every tech company in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s, but went on to found Ascend Communications, which invented a device that saved the internet from collapse – before Mr. Ryan was fired once again by his Board of Directors. It’s being directed by Emil Ben-Shimon (The Women’s Balcony). I’ve also been developing a TV show with a production company in LA, delving into some of the personal stories behind some of the great buildings in the world. And I’ve finally returned to writing a new comedy that was ripped from the NY headlines regarding a story that happened seven years ago when MoMA was expanding its museum in midtown Manhattan, and two architecture couples – also close friends – were put at odds when one of the couples had to decide whether to preserve and incorporate the other couple’s beloved American Folk Art Museum into their masterplan or demolish it and start from scratch. For me, this is a story about how our modern-day professional lives trump everything else – even our own families.
Runs from June 5, 2022, through June 30, 2022
Urban Stages is located at 359 West 30 Street
Tickets: $40 ($30 during previews); Student Tickets $15
For tickets and schedule visit www.UrbanStages.org
The running time is 75 minutes no intermission
Due to the nature and subject matter of the show, it is recommended for people ages 16+
OREN SAFDIE (Playwright) attended the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University before turning his attention to writing. Private Jokes, Public Places was an off-Broadway/London sensation set in the world of academia, which sent shock waves through the architecture community. (The Wall Street Journal named it as one of the top ten new plays of the decade.) His next play, The Last Word, also ran off-Broadway and starred two-time Emmy Award Winner Daniel J. Travanti. Other New York productions include Unseamly, West Bank, Uk, Jews & Jesus, False Solution, The Bilbao Effect, and LA COMPAGNIE, which he developed into a ½-hour pilot for CBS. (5 of his productions were NY Times Critic’s Pick.) As a screenwriter, Oren scripted the film You Can Thank Me Later, starring Ellen Burstyn, and the Israeli film Bittersweet. His new film, The Sunflower, directed by Emil Ben-Shimon (The Women’s Balcony), starts shooting in June. Oren has also been a contributor for Metropolis and Dwell and published essays in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, National Post, and The New Republic. Oren has taught Playwriting and Screenwriting at the University of Miami, Douglas College, California School of the Arts, Interlochen Arts Academy, and St. Olaf College.