Whenever a new show wins the Tony Award for Best Play, Chicago theatres compete for the rights to put it onstage. It’s always something of a coup for a local company to produce the prize winner before anyone else in Chicago. So, how did the modestly sized TimeLine Theatre end up staging the first Chicago production of Oslo, playwright J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning 2016 drama about the 1990s peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization?
It was a matter of loyalty. Rogers, a Missouri native who lives in New York, says he knew he wanted to work again with TimeLine after the group performed his previous play, Blood and Gifts, in 2013. That drama about Afghanistan required a cast of 14 actors. So it was a remarkable feat to stage Blood and Gifts inside TimeLine’s small venue — a nook inside the Wellington Avenue Church in Lakeview.
“Here they are, doing this massive play and they did it in their church space,” Rogers recalls. “Not only was it a brilliant version, but they friggin’ knocked down a wall to eliminate some office space to accommodate the extra dressing rooms they needed for the cast. Any theatre that will knock down a wall and lose office space for my play, that’s my theatre for life. That’s a theatre with its priorities in the right order.”
TimeLine is now planning a move to Uptown in 2022, while continuing to perform in the church building. But the company will open its 2019–2020 season September 10 by staging Oslo in a larger space: the Broadway Playhouse, a Broadway in Chicago venue inside Water Tower Place.
Bowling knew he wanted to direct Oslo as soon as he saw Rogers’ play in New York. “I think it’s his masterpiece so far,” he says, praising the playwright’s talent for transforming historical events into smart and compelling dramas. “Just saying it’s a play about the Oslo Accords, you’d think, ‘God, why would I want to see that?’ But he understands the amount of humor that’s needed for a play and how to build to a climax. And how to create conflicts between characters. He’s really a master at that.”
Rogers says he’d been interested for years in writing a play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. Then, in 2012, a colleague arranged for Rogers to meet a Norwegian named Terje Rod-Larsen. Over drinks, Larsen told Rogers the story of how he and his wife, diplomat Mona Juul, had helped bring Israelis and Palestinians together in Oslo for secret peace negotiations in the early 1990s. Those talks led to the famous moment on September, 13, 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in front of President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden at the White House.
“When I heard a brief outline of events from Larsen over drinks, I thought, ‘Oh! This is the way do it,’” Rogers recalls. “You’re telling it from a Norwegian point of view. People will be so stunned that there are Norwegians on the stage that they’ll listen. I’ll disarm them. Which is exactly what happened in real life.”
As Larsen talked about the logistics of peace negotiations, his description reminded Rogers of a theatre rehearsal. “Bringing strangers together in a space that no one knows, where everyone is uncomfortable, and creating a set of coded rules that create a close intimacy at warp speed,” Rogers says. “That’s what a theatre rehearsal is. And I thought, ‘Oh, I know that world. I can do that.’”
Inspired by his chat with Larsen, Rogers researched Norway’s behind-the-scenes role in the Oslo Accords. His play stays faithful to the key facts, but it isn’t a documentary. “The order of events is true,” he says, “but the characters are all my versions of people. Ultimately, what I was trying to do was catch the spirit — the crazy, stressful and improvisatory spirit of what they were doing.”
After seeing herself portrayed onstage in Oslo, Mona Juul told the Norwegian Arts website, “They have certainly told the story their own way, but what they have managed is to capture both the dynamics between the parties and the intensity of the drama and emotions that actually took place. It’s a play where you are sitting on the edge of your chair.”
In the play, Juul and her husband end up being the unlikely heroes of a breakthrough for the Middle East. “Just two citizens of Norway pulling this idea together. That’s incredible,” remarks director Bowling. “The play is about how difficult it is to bring two sides to the table. The real heart of the play is how the peace process begins in little ways. What they were able to achieve in that room was a sense of hope.”
But of course, the Oslo Accords did not bring about lasting peace in the Middle East. A quarter-century later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains fraught. “There’s sort of a happy ending for the play,” Bowling says, “and then there’s a tough wind of reality that hits. Here we are in a potentially worse situation in that region. But as the play suggests, that’s not a time to abandon peace. That’s when you have to make peace with people that you don’t like. That’s what’s really beautiful about his play and makes it very contemporary and important for the moment right now.”
During a talkback after a London performance of Oslo, someone asked Rogers if his play might have some effect on real-world events. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think the theatre really politically changes things,’” the playwright recounts. “And an audience member raised her hand and said the most beautiful, simple thing. She said, ‘The theatre changed you, didn’t it? Hasn’t your whole life been changed and transformed by it, as an individual?’ And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really true.’ Who knows? On a person-to-person individual level, it can have profound change. But if you fall into the trap of trying to do good with your writing, then you’re going to be boring. That’s rule No. 1 for a playwright: Don’t be boring.”
Look back at Oslo on Broadway: