“Trust no one in this play”

During rehearsals for Blood and Gifts, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with playwright J.T. Rogers (JTR) about his genesis as a playwright, the extensive research that informed the writing of Blood and Gifts, and the lamentable lack of plays with a global perspective premiering on American stages. An edited version of this interview was included in the Blood and Gifts Backstory. This is the full version. Read on:

Playwright J.T. Rogers (photo by Rebecca Ashley)
Playwright J.T. Rogers (photo by Rebecca Ashley)

(PJP) You started in the theater as an actor. When did you shift to playwriting, and do you ever miss being on stage? Do you maybe want to come play Karl Lindner in A Raisin in the Sun at TimeLine this fall?

(JTR) Wait … I’m not already cast? I’m pulling the Blood and Gifts rights—now!

I started writing short plays when I was in acting school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I’d write them; my friends and I would put them up; people would come.

Midway through my training I realized—in hindsight, with a blessed lack of angst—that I had made an internal shift whereby I now identified as a playwright first and foremost. Of course, I then became a better actor because I was no longer obsessing over my work.

But, no, I don’t really miss it. I’m fortunate enough to give enough speeches, teach enough classes, speak on enough panels, etc., that any lingering performing needs get satiated. And, years on, the idea of doing a long run in a play seems astoundingly foreign to me.

(PJP) You and TimeLine are kindred spirits, with our shared interest in exploring history. Have you always been a history buff?

(JTR) Yes. I’m only now realizing how much so as I watch my 10-year-old son become obsessed with history and mythology and legends—through his eyes re-remembering how much I loved these same subjects when I was ten.

(PJP) Michael Billington, the British theater critic for The Guardian called you “that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues.” I’m guessing that spending parts of your youth abroad played into this? Can you talk about your upbringing and how it prompted you to look and think beyond your homeland?

(JTR) Funny story about that. I read that line months after Blood and Gifts opened in London when, to my shame, I broke my own rule and read my notices. Reading it, I thought, “Hmmm … didn’t I kinda read this line somewhere else?” I picked up the English paperback of the play (over there, scripts are printed to be sold when the play opens) and here’s the start of the blurb on the back, quoting Time Out New York about a different play of mine: “Rogers is the rarest of creatures: An American playwright with a social conscience.”

Not exactly the same, but more proof that those of us who make and work in the theater read and absorb what everyone else amongst us is doing, whether we realize it or not.

OK, digression over.

My father was a political scientist who taught South East Asian studies. Because of his field work, I lived for two years when I was young in rural Malaysia and Indonesia, which utterly marked my life and point of view as a person. Being the “other,” the foreigner, as well as becoming fascinated about other lands and people while living there (and having very difficult, lonely times as well) set me on a course.

(PJP) Your last two plays —The Overwhelming and Blood and Gifts—certainly fall into this global mindset, and I get exhausted just thinking about the research you conducted to tackle these rather epic and thorny plays.

Let’s start with The Overwhelming,  a play about the genocide in Rwanda. How did that play come to be, and what was your process of research?

(JTR) You get exhausted? Try being me!

No, no, I’m just being fresh with you because I’m writing you with a glass of wine in my hand and a stomach full of roast chicken. (I did overcook the veggies, though. Damn it.)

When the Rwanda genocide occurred in 1994, I was gripped by the horrible images coming through the Western media and completely confused by the incoherence of what was being reported, which we now know was mostly egregiously wrong. And I was ashamed. Here I was, thinking I was knowledgeable about the world and its four corners, and I couldn’t have found Rwanda on a map.

So I started reading, to just learn what and why and how … and slowly I crossed a line and found that I had gone from reading with my general-interest eyes to reading with my dramatist’s eyes. But I had no idea how to write about it and was terrified at the prospect.

Soon thereafter the wonderful Salt Lake Acting Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, asked me to apply with them for an NEA/TCG Playwrights in Residence fellowship. I looked at who had won the award in years past. They were so very much hitting above my weight. So I thought, well, I have to sound impressive so I’ll write that I will create “my Rwanda play” if they chose me. And they did. And then I had to get to work. Without deadlines there is no art.

Playwright J.T. Rogers pictured outside Lincoln Center Theater, where "Blood and Gifts" received its U.S. premiere.
Playwright J.T. Rogers pictured outside Lincoln Center Theater, where “Blood and Gifts” received its U.S. premiere.

(PJP) And then Blood and Gifts. How did you zero in on the early 1980s as your starting point, and what was your research process?

(JTR) I was approached by the Tricycle Theatre in London about being the one American playwright among a dozen dramatists who were all going to create a short play set against key moments in Afghan-Western conflicts.

I was given a few options and immediately chose the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s because I remember as a child being very interested in it. From there I read a number of books, looking for my “in” to the story. The more I read about Stingers and spies the more I thought, “Here is where to begin.”

(PJP) You got access to some heavy hitters while researching this play—Jack Devine, the former number two man at the CIA, and Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, among many others. How do you go about gaining not only access to them but, perhaps more importantly, their trust?

(JTR) One of the things I treasure most about being a playwright and writing out into the world is all the fascinating people I continue to meet—many of whom are now colleagues, some even good friends.

I called my friend Lawrence Wright who, like Steve Coll, writes for The New Yorker, and asked if he would write Steve and say, basically, I’m not an idiot and would he please write back if I emailed. Steve ended up meeting me and answering endless questions. His help and insights were invaluable.

I had recently used contacts at the National Theatre in London to introduce me to the great British journalist Stephen Grey when I was researching a different play I’m writing for them. When I wanted to talk to someone who was actually involved in the Stinger program at the CIA, I called Stephen and he put me in touch with Jack Devine, who was gracious and more than forthcoming with anecdotes. He fact checked me up to my eyeballs, which was wonderful.

(PJP) Other than perhaps the fear of Blood and Gifts being nine hours long, why does your story stop in 1991? Did you ever consider taking it further, or are you cleverly setting yourself up to expand it into a trilogy with the 1990s next and then the 2000s?

(JTR) I couldn’t resist the symmetry of 1981,when the CIA’s then-nascent covert action to push back against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, and 1991, when they pulled out all together and there was no longer an Afghan desk at either Langley or the State Department.

But, no, I’m not planning to write Blood and More Gifts, or Blowback’s a Bitch. As with The Overwhelming, when I finished this play, I had to start the process of extricating myself from the world the play inhabits. Ruthlessly, I’m a playwright, not a journalist. I have to move on.

(PJP) A theme running through Blood and Gifts deals with fathers and sons, and legacies and what we pass on to our children. How did your son—and your role as a father—impact the telling of this story?

(JTR) When I was first gripped in fever as I worked on the play I became grouchy that Turgenev had stolen my title of Fathers and Sons. At one moment I even asked my wife if she liked the title Sons and Guns. “Umm, no.” Thank God that was squashed.

But as for my son, my role as a father … of course it’s shot through the play. But I actively try not to write directly about my life or to even dwell on it when I’m writing. I can’t not be in it, so best to push against that in the hopes of expanding the world I’m creating out as far out beyond me as my writing limitations will allow.

(PJP) I’ve heard you say to the Blood and Gifts cast, “You should trust no one in this play.” Can you elaborate?

This is a hard play, in the sense that when it works it pushes back—hard—against the American ethos that everyone speaking to you is honest and true unless you know otherwise. We are lucky people indeed that that is our default position.

(JTR) This is a hard play, in the sense that when it works it pushes back—hard—against the American ethos that everyone speaking to you is honest and true unless you know otherwise. We are lucky people indeed that that is our default position.

For most of the world, it’s the opposite, whether this ethos is born out of recent traumas (Rwanda, say) or a longer, sometimes jaundiced national history (much of Europe, say). This is a play firmly rooted in the latter worldview.

As I told Nick when we first talked about the play, “Just because Gromov speaks movingly and frequently about his family … how do we know he even has one?” I think he does, but thinking about such a possibility is helpful when approaching the world of this play.

(PJP) How many of the characters in this play have been inspired by specific people, and how do you make decisions about who you fictionalize?

(JTR) One character in the play is based on a real person, albeit filtered through my ideas and sensibility, in a way I’ve not written before. Everyone else is mine: events and ideas I read may be what they fight to the death about, but their voices are spun out of my imagination.

(PJP) I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if you’re British. So how does a guy from Brooklyn find himself having two of his plays premiered at London’s National Theatre on a stage that is normally reserved for names like Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard and David Hare?

Production photo from the 2010 world premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts at London’s National Theatre. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
Production photo from the 2010 world premiere of J.T. Rogers’ “Blood and Gifts” at London’s National Theatre. (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

(JTR) It’s funny that. I was at an opening night recently at one of the biggest nonprofit theaters in New York City and its artistic director came up to me and said, “So, J.T., where do you live in London?” To which I said, “I live in Brooklyn. A few blocks from you. For the last 15 years.”

My relationship with the National Theatre started when in a fit of hubris I said to my agent about the just-finished The Overwhelming, “Will you send this to the National? I mean, if anyone will do an 11-actor play that is set in Francophone Africa, it’s them.”

Three months later, [National Theatre Artistic Director] Nicholas Hytner called me at home and asked if I’d come to London to meet the next day. I said I had a temp job, so could I come next week? I did. And we went into rehearsal six months later. It was, truly, the moment when everything changed for me.

(PJP) In 2009 you wrote a provocative piece in The Independent in the United Kingdom about some differences between London and New York theatre and how the daring of London theatres to tackle big, messy, political dramas was not nearly as common in the United States. Now that you’ve had very successful, high-profile productions of The Overwhelming and Blood and Gifts in New York and elsewhere, has your opinion changed?

(JTR) No. I love a great deal of the theater I see in New York, but very little of it is political—in the sense of simply being outward looking and engaging ideas and peoples that are not just about American-only stories. Much of this is simply a theatrical cultural difference.

But I am interested in the fact that in New York, we don’t want to acknowledge this difference. I was recently interviewed by a New York Times reporter who asked me if, now that the cycle of political plays I was part of in London had come to the U.S., I wanted to revisit my argument.

But those plays came over here in that exact production, simply “visiting” as part of a world tour. That’s hardly commissioning and presenting American political plays in America—for which there is an audience, hungry and waiting, by the way.

All to say, it does make me feel like a bit of a theatrical platypus: not really “like them” or “like us.” Though I’m damn happy to get produced wherever.

(PJP) Also, now that you’ve gotten to know the Chicago theater scene a bit, with TimeLine’s Blood and Gifts marking your fourth play produced here, what are your impressions of this community?

(JTR) You people are savages.

(Again, the chicken talking.)

The Chicago scene seems much more like London than New York. Here, like in London, critics and artists review or do work one month in a storefront, then next at the Goodman, all leading to a wonderful, we-are-just-doing-our-job ethos where theater is theater, wherever its being done. I really admire this way of working.

(PJP) As you stare at stacks and stacks of books and research, working years on each script, don’t you ever just long to write a nice 75-minute play about middle-aged people sipping wine on a couch, bitching about their marriages?

(JTR) God yes. But then I try to write that play. And I can’t. So whadaya gonna do?

(PJP) What’s next for you?

(JTR) New play for Lincoln Center, new play for the National, not much sleep.

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