Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with OSLO playwright J.T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher
PI: J.T., you mentioned the Clinton’s seeing the play in July of 2017. I was going to ask you about that. I’ve seen another interview where you admitted to fully representing most people’s understanding of the Oslo Accord when you were starting this project.
There was an agreement, a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House hosted by Bill Clinton, who every presumed had a great deal to do with the negotiations. When I watched it in the Oslo play, it is barely acknowledged. The Americans as a whole are not seen as very much involved in the gritty work in Oslo, are they?
BS: Well, it was interesting to discuss with President Clinton what his perceptions of Oslo were. He did say that he was involved. He knew about Oslo before we knew he knew about it. In other words, he was aware of the talks going on.
He knew the problem was so significant that it was helpful for the Americans to not try to interfere with it as they had done with agreements in the past. I think he trusted Christopher’s participation in it.
In fact, my own perception changed in thinking that he had sort of swept in as a part of it, but I now really think, having studied it and looked at it, that the Clinton Administration with Warren Christopher actually handled it incredibly elegantly because the agreement could never ever have held internationally without full support from the Americans.
They had enough lack of ego and enough understanding of the complexity of the situation that they stepped up right at the right time. They really stood behind the agreement. They very publicly shepherded it into full international view and it was really handled very, very well.
PI: So, they knew when to step down and when to step up.
BS: Yeah, exactly.
JTR: There were a number of people who described a really fascinating moment that happened in the process that I wasn’t able to put in the play just because you can’t put everything in the play.
But what happened was that when the Israelis and the Norwegians went to meet Warren Christopher and privately tell him in detail what they’ve been doing. A lot of it was a complete secret to him. They were very anxious.
One of the things they had agreed was to say, “We’ve done this.” We’ve prepared this extraordinary buffet so to speak. Not only would we like you to shepherd it into view, as Bart said, but also, obviously you’re the Americans, you should take all credit for it, which was very selfless.
Warren Christopher said, “Oh no, no one would believe we did that.” And he said the opposite; “No, no, you’ll get the credit. We’re just going to make it happen now.”
So yeah, it’s what you want when leaders who are able to both step up and step down with their own ego out of the way.
PI: For having produced this program, Peace Talks Radio, since 2002 doing a deep dive into peacemaking strategies, you two can imagine how rich it was for me to have seen this production in May of 2017 in New York.
I want to have each of you elaborate a bit on how the themes that we’ve highlighted on your show really blossom on stage in Oslo.
The first one, which was established early in the play, that “Single individuals can, through shear will and application of peacemaking strategies, artfully make a big difference in the pursuit of peace,” or in Oslo’s case, the married Norwegian couple, Mona Juul and TerjeRød-Larsen.
JTR: Yes, the thing that drew me to the story to begin with, the historical actual bones that I built from, is that you had two individuals who were, in the terms of the power structure at the moment, politically nobody’s who had what seemed like a crazy idea and pushed it forward and pushed it forward.
It was both evidence, which is interesting as an artist and also as a citizen, of individuals having the will and energy to make a tremendous difference.
Also, it was the realization as I worked on the show that, much like in rehearsals when we’re making theater, you need to have rules where individuals can privately be alone to let their guard down and learn to trust each other. That is the only way that actual change between people can happen.
In essence, the reality is that I’ve learned things, as Bart was just saying. Of course, you must have public enormous multi-party political negotiations and dialogue to get things done, but there also has to be private rooms away from the cameras where people can talk about their personal lives otherwise the only way there is change politically in any way, and certainly towards peace, is if the sides of the conflict are able to see the other side as human beings fully because when we see them as the enemy, be they Israeli or Palestinians, be they Republicans and Democrats in the political moment we’re living in now. When the other side is the enemy and not a person, then nothing can move forward.
BS: Yeah, and I would also add to that that this whole notion in the play of the difference between totalism and gradualism, which we built it on, and Terje Rød-Larsen was a sociologist, this notion of the two is kind of critical. Totalism is where huge groups of people very publicly, on opposite sides of a table, try to work out peace agreements generally quite in public view.
Whereas gradualism was Terje’s point of view which was to get them into private circumstances, small groups, small numbers of people where they could only focus on specifically single issues at a time and work on them and then move on. So, he had a specific process and strategy for how to create peace.
Within that, there were other rules, not all of which we make completely clear in our show, but one of the most important was that the two participants were not allowed to talk about the past. They could only talk about the future, so all of the enmities and issues and complexities and things that had led them there were not the subjects at hand. The only subject at hand was the future.
PI: Well, and part of what you’re describing too is this emphasis on the establishment of a quality of connection between the two disparate sides, which comes up in our conversations about peacemaking all the time.
There are some other principles about any peacemaking process that are part of this story too and maybe there’s some room for elaboration on these or not, you can go with it as you see fit, but to me, things like eating and drinking together always seems to create an atmosphere of cooperation and celebration that brings people closer together. We see that a lot in this play.
JTR: Well, I think it was there from the beginning and as we started rehearsing, to Bart’s credit, he said, “You know, I think we need another scene of this where it’s even more central,” so I built that into the play and it has become a very key moment when the housekeeper of the manor where they are secretly negotiating outside of Oslo brings him waffles. This is all based on real life. In fact, she made waffles and everyone was mad for them, which is a detail that I loved. It’s very human.
It does, you can see the audience having that experience from their seats. We all do when we sit across from our family or our enemies and we eat and we talk and we have to do stuff.
It’s so fascinating; Hilary Clinton was at dinner with us and she kept saying, “The process you’ve described in this play is exactly how it always works.” She talked in great detail about George Mitchell and how he would sit with the two sides in the sectarian conflict in Ireland and how they wouldn’t even speak to each other. They would literally speak through him. For months and months, he would have them come and they would sit and eventually they would eat and they would talk and slowly, things started to change. The universality of this; sharing food, sharing personal experiences. It’s a tremendous risk.
One of the things we wanted to convey in the play, and I hope we have, is the extraordinary courage of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, both the real people and my versions of them in the play, they’re risking their careers, in many cases, their actual lives to sit across from people they’ve always viewed as their enemy. That’s an amazing thing. Those are the kind of stakes, life and death stakes that you want and you’re always seeking as a theater-maker.
PI: Could you also talk about the use of humor in negotiation and in this play?
JTR: Well, when I discovered that in real life the negotiators all liked, when they were off duty, to do impersonations of their bosses for each other. It’s a great delight on all sides. There were a couple of running jokes they would always tell each other.
That was an “ah ha moment” for me because one, you’re always looking for the lighter and the human side when writing a play and also, one of the things we wanted to do in this production and in the writing of the play was to go against – be counterintuitive.
People would come in and “Oh, it’s going to be a play about Israel and Palestine. It’s going to be good guys versus bad guys. It’s going to be a lecture. It’s going to be hand-wringing,” but in fact, it’s about flesh and blood men and women who are funny and get furious and they’re complicated people, but also very sexy and charming and, at times, rageful.
Like the sharing of food, the sharing of jokes seems to be something that is universal in situations like this because there’s something bonding about it. Humor across cultures still works. In some ways, it becomes even more of a lifeline because it’s something you know you both share, so let’s latch onto that.
PI: In juxtaposition to that, overcoming the level of hatred that parties bring to the table, especially in this example, when the hatred rears its head in this play, it is appropriately scary to watch. I mean what process could overcome this emotion and these objections to atrocities? It’s a real pendulum swing isn’t it.
BS: Yeah, if you take the example of humor and deep conflict, those were the very elements that attracted us to making a play because it had wild swings in behavior, because there is a lot of subtext. There are many layers deep to what they are saying and feeling at each moment. That stuff may rear its head. People change, are mercurial, this is what makes theater.
It may be your experience with peace negotiations and peace processes of all forms, which no doubt is incredibly interesting and important to the world, actually from the point of view of a theater maker, in this case, it was like, this would be a good piece of theater.
People want to go and see people struggle this hard, make mistakes, fall apart, scream at each other, tell stupid jokes, behave badly, make it up, go onto the next thing, yell at each other again. That becomes a piece of theater and that’s what made it something we thought people would recognize and one thing I think J.T. does beautifully as a writer is take this very human behavior and place it against the backdrop of this extraordinary historical events and we get to see detail by detail how it works.
PI: But what you just described makes me think about how watching Oslo unfold for an audience member might spark ideas about how to resolve conflicts in their daily lives with adversaries at work, with family members, with neighbors next door.
BS: If the Greeks were doing their spring festival and in their spring festival putting on three or four great tragedies about their history, they essentially were giving themselves a guide book through theater of how to resolve conflict of any kind and that the transference exercise of making theater in general is specifically about that.
It’s about how we come to these places where we see in other’s behavior places we should or shouldn’t go or ways of coping or ways of managing or the experience of tragedy in general is quite uplifting because you go through that catharsis and experience the tragedy or humor or comedy and you see some of yourself and you move onto the next place.
PI: Well, you both have to feel a little bit good about that or a little bit hopeful that that has that kind of impact on people.
BS: Yeah, hopeful and rather humbled by the extent of how it has rippled out.
PI: If I could get back to a couple of particulars though, and this may relate to something J.T. mentioned about what you’ve learned about the peacemaking process by going deeply into this story yourselves, but talk about the importance of a stepwise approach of negotiation that seem to be so much a part of this process, that is, finding what you can agree on, agreeing on this before you tackle the thing that you know seems impossible down the road.
JTR: Well, it’s interesting both in the research of it and then the response to the written play, what’s been controversial about the Oslo courts, and it certainly is controversial still, is was it right to start small. The positive way of putting it is to start small and slowly build towards the bigger. The negative [way of putting it] is to start small then kick the problems down the road, as has been described to me.
Again, going back to what I said earlier, one of the things I said about being a playwright as a journalist is you struggle with this and you think; gee, I don’t know, should they have done it or should they not have done it? I’ve certainly come to believe that it was both the right thing to do and did pay tremendous dividends just having lived with this for the last few years, but I certainly understand the criticisms that are very strong.
I think, again, in an odd way using my own experiences as a theater maker and just a citizen, you can’t get to the large if you’re not – you can’t write a play, just sit down and write a play. You have to sit down and say, “Today I’m going to write for 15 minutes and work on the beginning of scene one,” otherwise you look up at the mountain and you’re overwhelmed.
That’s the same process for anything be it peacemaking, be it theater making, being an athlete, not to equate them all in terms of their importance or their value, but it’s clear that anytime any sort of peace or progress towards seeing the humanity in each other [is made] it’s because people have had the time.
What we do in this play is we give the audience almost three hours to sit quietly and engage together with our cellphones off in which you have the experience to be collectively focused on something and that collectively working towards something, even if it’s just dinner, even if you’ve decided to not talk about bloodshed of the past but [to talk about] what we could do next. Even if we bitterly disagree on what that option would be, that seems to me, perhaps naively, as the only way to really make actual progress.
PI: Talk about the lead role of Mona Juul, the wife of TerjeRød-Larsen in the story. Terje said in your interview with Charlie Rose that “It points to the importance of having women centerstage in difficult, international negotiations.” It feels like you were discovering that and reinforcing that belief in your portrayal of this play. Could you talk about that a bit?
BS: Yeah, Mona herself as a person is a very extraordinary, dutiful public servant. She follows the rules, she’s discreet, she an eminent professional in everything she does. Terje on the other hand is a bit more free-range, a bit more loose and open in his thinking a little more out of the box in his thinking.
As we were making Oslo, it became very clear that throughout the negotiations, Mona’s presence was incredibly critical, just her very presence, even as facilitator, was critical to holding together all of these men who were making these negotiations.
Every time we met any person who was involved in the talks or knew both of them, they always would say the thing. They’d say something like, “Oh, we love Mona” which was a kind of odd experience, but it really was their humorous way of saying she was a very special glue to the whole process.
J.T. very cleverly and I think intelligently wove her through as the narrator and as the person who held the play together in the same way she may have held the negotiations together. She became a more and more important character throughout the course of the writing. We found that she uniquely, as a woman and as a steadying influence was our primary guide through the entire event.
PI: It’s interesting also, in that same Charlie Rose interview I said he’d have a wild idea and Mona would say, “Yeah, but consider this; bring him back to the ground to what was possible.” There seems to be this tug between hope and reality and impossible and possible throughout the whole play.
BS: Their relationship in general is the central metaphor for the peace process itself. Someone with the ability to be creative and think in new ways about how to do it and somebody who is constantly being specific and human except for one moment where J.T. specifically put her in the room at the most heightened tension and she stepped beyond her normal role and insisted that they stay and fight and work harder to make peace.
PI: Bartlett Sher and J.T. Rogers online with us from Lincoln Center in New York talking about Oslo, the Tony Award-winning play.
I’d like to hear Bart tell the story about how this project began because I find it so interesting that, in high level peace negotiations, the theme of making peace for the sake of children often comes up. This project started because your daughter played soccer with TerjeRød-Larsen’s daughter, right?
BS: Well, actually, my daughter’s best friend in second grade at school here in New York City was Emma Rød-Larsen who was the daughter of TerjeRød-Larsen and Mona Juul. They were very, very close friends.
I met actually Mona first at school coming right in front of school dropping her daughter off. I would go to soccer matches. They played on the same, what they call, New York travel team and so we went to a lot of things together.
He would tell absolutely crazy stories of Middle East peace while we were watching soccer which most of the parents weren’t as familiar with as he was. Yes, it was through our children that we got to know each other.
I invited Terje to come and speak at a different play that I was doing with J.T. called Blood and Gifts about the stinger missile program in the ‘80s in Afghanistan. He was amazing. J.T. could feel, in a sense, that there was a play here. I thought it might be interesting and the two of them went off and had drinks at a local pub near Lincoln Center and sat down.
PI: So, what then J.T.?
JTR: Well, Bart set us up on a match.com playwrighting date and we went out for drinks. He’s a diplomat, so he doesn’t want to talk about himself, but I had a sliver of information about this. As you mentioned to me earlier, saying as I have, I didn’t know about the back channel with the Norwegians and I was a bit embarrassed, especially being someone who thinks they’re up on politics, so that was interesting to me.
As we drank, round after round I would ask him more and more questions. He started to open up a bit about it and I was thunderstruck to think I didn’t know anything about this, but also as a playwright you think, again, as Bart was mentioning different contexts, these are the tools of drama. This is exactly what you want; a ticking clock, a set amount of time, people risking their lives, but also the details, even the first precursory details I learned were so strange. That’s manna from heaven as a playwright.
The PLO sneaks in on non-chartered flights and they have Avis rental cars in the middle of the winter and there’s lots of Johnny Walker Black for everyone and I just immediately had one of those moments where I thought; I’m not sure how it will play out, but this is definitely the next thing I’m going to write.
PI: In the case of a historical play or a story based on true events, I’m a little less concerned with spoilers because there are certain things known about how this all ends up. The Oslo Accords obviously didn’t solve the clash between the Israelis and the Palestinians which continues to this day and you had to figure out a way to acknowledge that in the closing moments of the play. Could you talk about that delicate step and where you try to get the audience to land in spite of that reality?
JTR: Near the end of finishing the first mammoth first draft of the play, I realized that I had been so focused on telling the story of the struggle and the triumph of these two sides coming together to create the Oslo Accords, that then you had a moment to step back and say well, it would seem a little disingenuous if you didn’t reference the fact that’s all that has come since.
My answer to that was to create what we call the coda, where at the end of this remarkable signing moment that Bart has staged so beautifully on stage, we actually use the real voice of Rabin and the speech that he gave on the White House lawn. He has that voice, like the voice of God as it were, and it’s quite powerful.
Then, the characters are facing the audience and we have this woven together symphony of voices talking about what happened to them personally and seminal events, most of them quite punishing that have happened since.
Then, it’s very gripping and I think for some in the audience very painful, but then it was also important to me to give something else to end the play with and there’s a speech where Terje turns to Mona when they’re alone on stage and says, “Tell them,” (tell the audience) “all the things that wouldn’t have happened without Oslo. There wouldn’t have been the Jordanian Israeli peace, the withdraw of Israeli forces from Lebanon,” etc.
She cuts him off and says, “I still don’t know if what we did was the right thing,” which I think is both speaking for my fictionalized Mona and, in some ways, even speaking for me as a playwright.
Then he says, “Then I will tell them.” Then he gives this speech where he walks (Bart, again, beautifully staged) into the audience and it’s both shocking and intimate, saying “look, you must try.” It was a moment that, as we were talking about earlier, when it was done in the smaller theater, it was very galvanizing and some people disagreed with it, but the play then was really about Israel and Palestine.
Just through the political transformations we’ve experienced in the last seven months, the play has become, without any changing to the text, a play about Democrats and Republicans, it has become this very galvanizing speech. It’s not all “rah, rah, rah,” but it’s, of course, mistakes or foolish choices, but we began something. It’s quite remarkable to watch the audience listen to that every night.