Tonys 2017: Playwright J.T. Rogers on the Creation of Awards Contender 'Oslo'
The political drama specialist marvels at how a talky, three-hour play about back-channel peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine became an unlikely Broadway hit that's now being developed as a movie.
Much like the events it depicts, Oslo defies expectations. It’s a nearly three-hour drama about the secret back-channel negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Accord. It boasts no bankable stars. It features a multitude of characters and a complex plot taking place over 64 scenes. And it deals with an esoteric subject with which few theatergoers are likely to be familiar. It also happens to be playing to large crowds on Broadway at Lincoln Center’s cavernous Vivian Beaumont Theater and is nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Its 48-year-old playwright, J.T. Rogers, is no stranger to accolades, having garnered acclaim for such previous works as The Overwhelming, set in Rwanda shortly before the genocide, and Blood and Gifts, about the American involvement in Afghanistan.
But those works didn’t have the breakout success of this one, starring Tony Award winners Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife) and Jennifer Ehle (The Real Thing, The Coast of Utopia), both of whom are nominated again for their work in this production. They play Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, a Norwegian couple with no previous diplomatic experience who improbably spearheaded nine months of secret negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians that led to the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden, while Bill Clinton looked on.
Rogers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the play the day after both he and the cast won Obie Awards for Oslo's original off-Broadway run.
Congratulations on winning the Obie.
Thanks, I couldn’t have been more moved. I was raised a block-and-a-half from Webster Hall. I was immersed in the world of experimental theater as a kid. So to get one…it was difficult not to blubber.
You must be getting tired of picking up all these awards.
Yeah…no! The response to this play has been gobsmacking. I didn’t really ever think I’d have a play on Broadway, because of the size of the work I’m drawn to make. And if they had asked me which play of mine would be the one to go to Broadway, let alone be close to selling out every night in a 1,200-seat house, it would not have been this three-hour dive into Israeli-Palestinian politics.
You’ve written plays about the Rwandan genocide and the war in Afghanistan. Has your agent ever suggested you write a nice romantic comedy?
At some point I will. But the joy of working on a big canvas is so thrilling. When I get to see a play with great sweep on the stage I feel like I’m getting a three-course meal. It’s so exciting to have that Coast of Utopia-type size. I’ve written intimate plays, but they were all when I didn’t know what I was doing and nobody knew who I was.
What in your background has made you so interested in international affairs and politics?
My parents are Berkeley grads, from the time when it was a hotbed of intellectual and political pursuit. My father was a political science professor. In lieu of sports, we’d talk about politics around the kitchen table when I was growing up. And my mother was a super lefty, deeply involved in politics. I also lived for a few years in rural Southeast Asia when I was a boy. So I had that the deep experience of being “the other,” of having to adapt to other people’s beliefs and culture. That was an indelible experience.
I like to think of myself as a history buff, but I knew nothing of the events depicted in Oslo.
I didn’t either. Boy, was I embarrassed when I discovered it. I think it’s because the real story is so impossible. Some of the people involved had also worked hard to keep it on the QT so they wouldn’t seem self-aggrandizing. But I think that the people involved in diplomacy almost never get credit. In a weird way, their power or effectiveness comes from their not getting credit.
What was the genesis of the play?
Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul were friends of Bart [Bartlett Sher], my director and collaborator. Their kids became friends in school, so they got to know each other. When we were doing Blood and Gifts, Bartlett brought in Terje to talk to the actors. He later came to see the play, and we went out for drinks at P.J. Clarke’s, the watering hole opposite Lincoln Center. The more he talked about back channels, secret meetings in a castle, young Norwegians out of their depth and maybe breaking the law, my playwriting Spidey sense went off. I thought it was an incredible story.
I went to Norway and saw the places where it all happened. The set for the play is all derived from the photos I took. But I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to spend more time talking to the actual people. I wanted more freedom to hear my fictional version of their voices in my head. In hindsight, I realize they were incredibly bold. They said, OK, we trust you. We’ll see you opening night.
I understand that your depiction of the lead Israeli negotiator, played by Michael Aronov, who also landed a Tony nomination, is very different from his far more subdued real-life inspiration.
Look, it’s a play. It has to be entertaining. It has to be sexy. It has to be thrilling. So in a sense I took the facts of who he was and what he was doing and put them on steroids. Because I wanted the audience to be given the gift of this character. You’re on a long haul, and I wanted to give them a joyous experience as well as educational. And Michael is an amazing actor.
People will often get their knowledge of historical events more from a play or movie than a history book. So how much responsibility do you feel when you’re dramatizing these events to accurately reflect the facts.
There’s no golden answer to that. You’ve put your thumb on the question that arises when you’re doing any sort of history-based, fictional writing. The model for the structure of this play and the philosophical issue you’re bringing up was Shakespeare. Even during his time, audiences knew they were not getting the actual word-to-word truth but rather the essence of history and the sweep of it. Some people may say I’m cheating by using the greatest writer of all time as a guide, but it was helpful for me.
The rule I set for myself was that every character onstage had to stay within the lane of what the real person believed. Nobody is espousing the opposite. I thought that would be disingenuous. The thing that’s moved me is that many of the real figures who were involved have said, “Oh, yes, you changed this or that, but it’s uncanny how you’ve captured the spirit of what it was like.” The madness, the back and forth, the eating and drinking, the bonding, the personal jokes. So that’s been very moving to me. My hope is that people will go on and read further. But I think that you don’t have to know anything about the historical moment to understand and hopefully be gripped by the play. And I do think people learn a lot from it.
Were you apprehensive about moving the play to a theater that normally houses lavish musical productions like The King and I and South Pacific?
The honest answer is no, for a couple of reasons. For me, the Beaumont is the great big space in the Western-speaking theater. I was recently at the National Theatre to help get things ready for the London production of Oslo. They’re amazing spaces, but they’re not the Beaumont. The Beaumont is so tricky, and Bartlett is the greatest Beaumont director alive. There’s a scale and an intimacy in that theater that’s amazing. If you stand on that stage, and I’ve done it hundreds of times, you’ll be amazed at the closeness you feel with the audience.
I was amazed at how well the play worked there when I saw it again, although admittedly I had sixth-row center orchestra seats.
In a weird way it’s even better upstairs. I actually lobbied for the critics to be put in the first row of the balcony. Those are the best seats in the house! When I decided to write this play, I wanted to go for broke. I wanted to write something that would barely be contained in the Mitzi [the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater's off-Broadway space, where the play premiered], although I never actually thought it would go to the Beaumont.
You’ve been writing these sorts of plays for a long time, but now you’re catching a wave. There seems to be much more of an appetite for politically themed dramas, like All the Way, which won the Tony. It’s so nice to see plays that aren’t about navel-gazing.
I’m with you! For so many years I’ve been bitching and moaning about that, sounding like a broken record. But now you look around and see that there’s some really exciting American theater being made. It’s amazing.
Will the Broadway cast be going to London?
No, it’s the Lincoln Center production going to London, with different actors, which of course in many ways makes it totally different. But issues of green cards are getting much more difficult in terms of Brexit. And it’s a cast of 19 people, including the understudies. Nineteen flats in central London is like movie blockbuster expenses.
Is the New York run open-ended?
We recently extended to July 2. We have to leave by the fall because my buddy Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk is coming in, and it’s thrilling that Lincoln Center is doing two three-act, massive plays at the Beaumont in a row. There is room for a transfer if there’s interest from the audience. I would have told you months ago there’s no way we would ever do that, but everything has confounded expectations so far. A colleague recently said to me, it’s too bad you’re only going to get four or five months, it’s too bad it can’t run longer. And I said, it’s four or five months in a 1,200-seat house…that’s like running 15 months at the Cort Theater!
You’ve signed a movie deal for the play.
Marc Platt is producing the film for Universal. I’m writing the film and Bart is directing the film. It’s an embarrassment of riches. There were many suitors, and one of the reasons I went with Marc is because he wanted to do it with Bart too.
This is a play about unlikely brokers of a peace deal. Do you envision writing a sequel one day about how Jared Kushner solved the entire Middle East problem?
(Laughs.) Mashiyyat Allah ["God willing," in Arabic], as they say in central Missouri, where I come from! Something’s going to happen, there’s going to be a breakthrough, whether it’s a few months or 25 years from now. And when it happens, it’s going to be in a way that’s inconceivable to everyone, including me.
Good luck at the Tonys. It’s been a bountiful year, you have some serious competition.
I organized a dinner for all four of us [nominated playwrights up for best play] to go out to dinner tomorrow night. I said, c’mon guys, this is amazing! We’ve all gotten Tony nominations! I’m sure it will be a lovely meal. It will be a total geekfest.
Oslo is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. The Tony Awards will be presented June 11 at Radio City Music Hall.