A conversation with J.T. Rogers

During rehearsals for Oslo, director Nick Bowling (NB) spoke with playwright J.T. Rogers (JTR) about his award-winning play, the real people who inspired it, that dinner with President Bill Clinton, and much more!

First of all, I want to start by saying how excited and honored we are to be presenting the Chicago premiere of Oslo at TimeLine. When you first mentioned it to us, you told PJ [Powers, TimeLine’s Artistic Director] that it was a love letter to TimeLine’s mission. I think that’s beautiful. Have you always been interested in plays inspired by history? Because it seems like so many of your plays are.

(JTR) The work that I’m known for—and the work I’ve done as a playwright who has figured out what he wants to write about and how he wants to write—is about the larger world, and politics, and characters set against ideas.

I didn’t go to writing school, I didn’t have any mentors as a writer, so when I started out I was just sort of aping what I saw around me. Much of it is dear to me, a few were quite successful, but they were before that moment you need as an artist—whatever your discipline—when you figure out, “Oh, why don’t I write about what I’m interested in, and not what everyone else is telling me I should write about.” And so it was a bit of an “A-ha” moment for me, years ago. You figure out, if this is what I’m really interested in as a person, then maybe that’s what you should write your plays about. It sounds so obvious! But I’m not the first—and I won’t be the last—playwright to have that all-incredible-yet-banal thunderbolt hit them.

Playwright J.T. Rogers after winning the Tony Award for Best Play for “Oslo” in 2017.

(NB) I think one of your great plays is one we got to do at TimeLine, and it was a Chicago premiere as well, Blood and Gifts. Can you talk a little about that experience?

(JTR) Sure. The TimeLine production of Blood and Gifts was very soon on the heels of its New York premiere. So we had debuted on this epic scale at the National Theatre with a cast of 30, perhaps. And then the quote-unquote “more intimate” production at Lincoln Center—totally different production that had a tiny cast of 16 and the very large stage that is the Mitzi [E. Newhouse Theater]—that is for all intents and purposes like a small Broadway house in terms of its scope and intention.

So, what was appealing about doing the show at TimeLine was one, the mission of the company—were I in Chicago, I would be a subscriber, put it that way. You’re doing plays about theatre, and history, and politics, but of course your mission is broad enough that it could be anything—musicals, plays, new works, classic works. I’d formed a relationship already with you and PJ, because you had wanted to do another play of mine and it didn’t work out. But I was so taken with your enthusiasm that we had this dialogue.

What was wonderful about coming to Chicago to see the play was three things. One, it was a cracking production, always helpful. And two, you guys literally had to blow out a wall to take away some office space to give more dressing rooms—which is a story I’ve told many times, like “Let me tell you what a real theatre does to support playwrights! (laughing) Let me tell you about demolition for the sake of your work!”

What was so interesting was the almost filmic, intimate production in that gorgeous, small house you guys have. Blood and Gifts plays out on a vast scope and was devised to be done so, but it is also structurally a series of intimate conversations behind closed doors, the kinds of which most people never get to hear, and start to realize, “oh, this is how power actually works.” And so, all of a sudden, it was as if we were in the room, and it created this intimacy and this “hush” that wasn’t possible otherwise. It’s always thrilling when you see a play through a different production have a different life.

And I’m not the first playwright to note these extraordinary—“lobby display” seems inadequate to describe the research—almost like a 3D virtual reality tour of 1980’s Russia, Soviet Empire, Afghanistan, America, with authentic magazines to the period, and actual phones and equipment. I remember taping the entire thing on my iPhone for 8 minutes, giving my son, who’s quite young at that point, a verbal tour: “Dad’s never gonna get this for other shows. Let me preserve this.”

(NB) That’s great.

(JTR) And the audience had to walk through—or got to, I should say—walk through that before they took their seats. I went to a number of previews with you, and gave notes, and chatted with the actors, so I got to see it multiple times. It was so interesting to see the audience really take their time before taking their seat, kind of get an education in an entertaining way from the lobby to their seat. That was quite inspired.

(NB) Chicago has been such a great part of your career. I remember seeing The Overwhelming at Next Theatre. And then White People at The Gift—

(JTR) Right. And then Next also did Madagascar, and then you guys did Blood and Gifts, and now you’re doing Oslo.

It’s funny, I was raised mostly in the Midwest, but in Missouri, so I would come on vacations to Chicago. But now, I come here often because of my career. I’m a playwright who is more spoken of than spoken on stage because my plays apparently are demanding or large or whatever the reasons may be. They get done more in Europe now, and the UK, than in the U.S. And I’m in no way complaining, but I’m very grateful that I think I’ve had more productions in Chicago, than maybe even in London—maybe more than any other city, now that I’m sitting here talking with you. Re-evaluating my real estate options. (laughs)

(NB) Exactly, you should be!

(JTR) Hmm, interesting …

(NB) Will you share a little bit of how you came to write Oslo?

(JTR) Well, it came out of Blood and Gifts. The New York premiere happened not long before your production. One of the things I like to do is bring in experts—people I’ve interviewed or people that I’ve not met but whose skill set overlaps with events, careers, characters in a story I’ve made. The idea is that it’s one thing for me to lecture or explain things to the cast, but it’s quite another to have people who really know this world come in to it. There’s an authenticity, and texture, and actors always ask the most brilliant questions, so that’s really interesting.

J.T. Rogers and Nick Bowling during the run of “Blood and Gifts” at TimeLine in 2013.

And Bart Sher, the director—it was our first production together—we realized that was one other trait that we share, we both like to do this. So I was bringing in CIA ops, and some people who had medical programs in Afghanistan, and journalists who had been there at the fall of Kabul, and he brought in this man named Terje Rød-Larsen, who I’d never heard of. He was the special representative for the head of the UN, and he was in charge of sort of all Middle Eastern issues—as a sort of troubleshooter for the head of the UN. And he came from the world of diplomacy, and double games, and everyone found him utterly fascinating.

He was sort of dazzling and spirited with his stories of the reality of how geopolitics works, and his incredible adventures in the Middle East. He’s a great raconteur and very informative. And Bart knew him, because as you do with a kid, your circle of grownups expands through your children. And so, his young daughter was best buddies at the time with this guy’s daughter. And they’d met on the soccer pitch, watching the kids play. And Terje’s wife, Mona Juul, was high-up in the Norwegian mission in New York and the UN, as well. So as I said, quite fascinating.

Bart said, “You should go out with him and have a drink! He’s really interesting; he’s got some stories that would be great for you to hear.” And at this point, Larsen had read the play, and was very flattering. He’s quite a seducer, in a political way—I mean that as a compliment—(imitating Larsen) “Oh, only a diplomat could have written this play, I’m so surprised you’re not a diplomat.” He was very impressed with the production, and he really wanted to go out. So we went out to PJ Clarke’s, a watering hole we always go to across from Lincoln Center for a burger or a martini, and we had a few drinks late at night.

I was sort of asking to talk about things, and he was reticent, which of course makes you all the more interested as a playwright.

Basically, I got him to talk about the Oslo peace process, and discovered that he, and his wife Mona, along with others, had hatched this secret idea of a back channel between the Israeli government and the PLO, which would be like, at the time, the Obama administration and Al-Qaeda secretly agreeing to get together in Norway and drink Johnnie Walker Black and talk about the kids and try to find common ground, and keeping it secret.

And this blew my mind, because I had begun to think of myself as a politics junkie, and I didn’t know anything about this. I was embarrassed to say I thought the Americans—I saw Bill Clinton get the handshake on the Rose Garden, and thought, “Oh, wow, we did that!”

(NB) Exactly.

(JTR) So I was chastened, chastened, and fascinated, and the moment he started talking about it, I thought: there’s my next play.

(NB) Did you say to him, “This could make a play?”—

(JTR) Yes, I did.

The events, and the political ideas, and even the minutiae in the play is true. But the voices are mine, the dialogue is mine, things have been scrambled for theatrical purposes. But one thing I have found very true from the get-go is that the essence of their real counterparts are like the characters of Terje and Mona in my play. Terje was very excited about the idea of me writing a play, and Mona was not remotely interested in me writing a play. (laughs)

But they both wanted to feel comfortable that I was going to make it clear in the play that this was about Israelis and Palestinians. This was not a superhero story about Norwegians. That was their one caveat. In hindsight, I’m amazed that they agreed. I said, “You can’t read it, you can’t see it, you’ll just have to come to opening night.” Which I think was incredibly stressful for them and for me. But it was a real tribute to them that they trusted me to do that.

(NB) And did they ultimately enjoy it?

(JTR) I think yes. I can’t speak for them, of course, but the sense I get is that it took a couple viewings to get over the shock of “these are actors playing me, and saying things that I did say, and things I didn’t, and reenacting my life.”

What’s been very moving is their sense of “I’m so glad you wrote it because it’s so important that people know about this.” The thing they all seem very haunted by is that they, collectively, thought that they were creating a system that could be used again in wildly different negotiating settings in a way that could overcome intractable opposition. It’s like, “we figured this out for the betterment of all. Other people should take it and make their version of it.”

(NB) Your play has put Terje and Mona in the center of a teeter-totter. The real action of the play is the Israelis and the Palestinians, but you’ve put them at the center, holding that whole thing together.

Many of our audience members love research, love kind of stepping into the world ahead of time. We send them a lot of information before the play. One resource I think our audience would find interesting is The Oslo Diaries, which is a documentary from the time period. But neither Mona or Terje are even mentioned. They are left out of this whole documentary. I’ve got to think it must have been intentional, because their whole intent always seems to be uninvolved.

(JTR) Probably now I could watch that. I made a conscious effort not to watch any footage, as much as possible, and not to hear people’s voices so I could find my own rhythm for all the characters.

There’s endless ways into this larger narrative. I chose to make the Norwegians the sort of fulcrum, or the entryway, for a couple reasons. One, I was just so stunned to discover that this had happened. And that I had access to these Norwegians. They were the first people I met when I went to Norway, and I saw the locations, so that was my entry point.

I wanted to make a story where everyone was given their due intellectually, and as characters, and as human beings.

In New York, the political act of the play was having the PLO onstage in the Upper West Side, and having people say, “Oh, I never really saw their point of view. I don’t agree, necessarily, but I see what they’re ….” Then the play starts in London, and it’s the exact opposite—the political act is having the Israeli government on stage. That’s fascinating, to see the context of an audience in a city. And the Chicago audience will have its own experience.

J.T Rogers with the cast of TimeLine’s “Oslo” in Chicago, 2019.

(NB) It’s played all around the world. What was it like in Norway?

(JTR) It was amazing to see it in Norway. it was done in this hyper-realistic way, very different from the super-experimental productions they were doing at the International Theatre that season. It’s also a story that everybody knows in Norway, and passionately argues over. There wasn’t anyone in the audience who didn’t already know everything that was going to happen, and who everybody was, and you had the real people in the audience, and people were clocking people in the audience whose characters were onstage, and that was very moving and fascinating.

It was also done by the National Theatre Company of Korea in Seoul and was taken as a direct parable about tensions and relationships between North and South Korea. Which makes total sense.

(NB) Here in the U.S., it could become about the left and right in our politics.

(JTR) Well, yes. Life changes your play. That’s what’s amazing, how it’s different. We opened this play off-Broadway and it was just about this moment with Israel and Palestine in Norway. And then seven months later, by the time we opened on Broadway, Trump was elected, Brexit happened, the French Republic almost fell, and all of a sudden it was a very different play.

In London, it seemed like it was so much a play about Brexit that it was a little embarrassing—like I had set out to write a Brexit play but used a different analogy. When of course, that was definitely not in my wheelhouse when I was working on it.

(NB) (laughing) You hadn’t seen into your crystal ball, all of that, yet. Tell us about probably the most famous couple who came to see the play and their response.

(JTR) Bill and Hillary Clinton came, and the audience response to seeing them was unbelievable. Twelve hundred people yelling and screaming. At the end of that production, Clinton appeared on screen, there was video footage of the actual signing ceremony on this huge screen. And the audience spontaneously—I’m going to choke up as I’m telling you this—the audience spontaneously stood up and turned to Clinton and started applauding and yelling “thank you.” And this went on for minutes. And minutes. It stopped the show. And people were weeping, and he got up and was visibly shaken. It was very powerful. 

And then we went to dinner. For four hours. And talked about the Middle East, and this whole process, and the process that came afterward during his time in office, which clearly haunts them and grips them both.

It was fascinating.

(NB) Along those lines, what was that incredible Tony Awards night like for you? You were not only nominated for a Tony Award, and got to be at the ceremony, but it just happened to be one of the few years where they let the playwright talk about their plays. Were you terrified? You were in front of millions of people at that moment!

(JTR) I was! Thank God I went to drama school. Once in a while, that can be of help. But it was actually great that I had to speak, because then I was focused on that, and being backstage ready to go on, as opposed to “oh my gosh, am I going to win the Tony Award.” It was a bit of a surreal experience.

(NB) Last question: Obviously, your life is changing a lot because of this play, but also because of the trajectory you’ve been on. What can you tell us about projects you’re working on next, and what’s next with Oslo?

(JTR) I’ve written a film of Oslo that, knock wood, we’re going to shoot next year. It’s both the same story but very, very different because the medium of film is very different.

And I just did this big play about the Apollo 11 moon landing—we did one-night-only on Broadway, with The New York Times and The Town Hall, with Samuel L. Jackson and Jeff Daniels, Lauren Ambrose, extraordinary actors. I wrote a verbatim play based on my interviews with the actual participants of the Apollo 11 program.

(NB) That’s amazing.

(JTR) Yeah, it was quite extraordinary. And I’m working on a new play for Lincoln Center, and I’ve created a television show, and I’m the show runner, the creator, so literally as I am on the phone with you, I’m walking into the writers room in Manhattan continuing to build the story for season one.

(NB) That’s incredible. Needless to say, we’re starting rehearsals in about a week, so we are really excited to get started. I think you’ve written a masterpiece, and I’m thrilled to be working on it.

(JTR) I’m just so delighted, so honored. I’m a playwright that writes a play you hope can exist like a book, and live on the page, but you also really need people to do your plays! (laughs) So I can’t wait to see it, and I’m so looking forward to coming back to Chicago.

This is an edited version of the conversation between J.T. and Nick. To listen to an audio podcast of their conversation, click here.


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