A new play is based on the machinations that went into the making of the historic Oslo peace accord between Israel and the PLO.
Before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook in a historic handshake in 1993, members of the conflicting sides joined together for dinner and had a few drinks like they could be old friends. According to a new play, anyway.
In Oslo, playwright J.T. Rogers delves into the secret talks that led to the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, otherwise known as the Oslo Accord, in which a five-year plan was outlined in hopes of attaining peace between the two sides.
The handshake was like a “thunderbolt” when it happened, Rogers said, and he wanted to explore how it came about.
Oslo is one of six plays chosen out of more than 750 applicants to be workshopped at the 11th annual New Play Development Conference at Drexel University from now through July 26 as part of the Philadelphia organization PlayPenn. The conference aims to introduce new plays to the wider theater community through a three-week intensive workshop and provides a professional team, including actors and dramaturges, for the playwrights as they go through the development stages.
The historical figures who participated in the negotiations provided the one big piece of inspiration for Rogers: “The fact that the same people were fighting tooth and nail to the death during the day and then having dinner and drinking together at night,” he explained, provided him with the dynamic for the play.
This is the third time the New York resident is participating in PlayPenn; his play, The Overwhelming, was featured in the festival’s inaugural year in 2005, and Blood and Gifts was a part of the 2009 festival. They both premiered at the London National Theatre and his work has also been performed at the Lincoln Center Theater.
The Overwhelming focused on the Rwandan genocide and was produced in Israel, among other places. His time in Israel, especially Jerusalem, gave him a reservoir of personal experience to draw upon when he began work on Oslo three years ago.
While spending time in Tel Aviv in 2009 during production of The Overwhelming at the National Theatre of Israel, he was struck by how openly people talked about Israel and a future Palestine, and by the generosity of people who opened their homes to him because they were so moved by his play.
“I loved the fact that people could talk about Israel and Palestine in a way that was much more complicated than you can in New York,” he said.
But the play is really not about the conflict between the two groups.
“I am writing a play about Israel and Palestine without writing about ‘Israel and Palestine,’ ” he said. “I’m a dramatist. I’m not interested in good guys and bad guys.”
To prepare and ensure factual accuracy to complement his creative agency, he interviewed people who had been there — whose names he cannot mention because of confidentiality — and read books, transcripts and biographies related to the event and to Israel’s history, including My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit.
Turning these real-life conversations into a script was no easy feat; he added his own creative touches to the transcripts from which he drew inspiration and had to pick the aspects of the event that he felt were most important or interesting.
“It’s like having a 20-course buffet, but I can only offer eight courses,” he said. “I could build a whole scene about this dinner or this crazy phone call or this
Picking the more critical pieces to portray in a more theatrical way is the challenge, and “that’s why I get paid the very small bucks to be a playwright,” he said with a laugh.
It was important to him to also infuse humor into the play, which is being described as “darkly funny” on PlayPenn’s website. He said that he has found in real life as well as in the arts that the more “terrible and stressful” the event is, the more fun it is.
He explained the play is not funny in a typical “ha-ha” way like a sitcom but the humor comes about instead through focusing on the absurdity of the situation, which in this case was found in having these two wildly conflicting sides joining together for dinner.
The most fascinating part of the ordeal he gleaned from all of the biographies and transcripts, he said, was that everyone involved agreed to the terms. There are still opinion pieces written even today about whether or not it was the right thing to do, he said, but the fact that the key players were all in agreement was “amazing.”
PlayPenn artistic director and founder Paul Meshejian was “thrilled” to have Rogers participate in the conference for a third time. He said that the larger number of characters featured in the play — 13, to be exact — was an additional element that helped Oslo stand out in the final rounds before picking the ultimate six participating plays.
Meshejian, a former actor himself, even stepped in to play former Israeli President Shimon Peres after Rogers realized he hadn’t cast enough actors.
The story itself is fascinating, he said, because it provides a lens into a situation many may somewhat know about, but may not really know the history behind it.
“The story is something we know in a sort of headline way, but we get to meet all the players,” Meshejian said of the play and the negotiations. “It gives us insight into the complexity of how things like this get done, and the unexpected ways in which these kinds of human relations that translate into political and social relations can inspire.”
There isn’t one central message Rogers hopes his audience walks away with. “I think it’s dangerous for a writer to have a grand message,” he explained. But that doesn’t mean he wants the audience to walk away from the play without being affected in some way.
“I would hope that for this play — and for all the stuff I write —that the audience can be gripped by a story that exposes them to people and points of view that are wildly different,” he said.
The first reading of the play, on July 15, was met with a standing ovation from the audience. In its current iteration, the play clocks in at nearly four hours with two intermissions. Considering that it is still being worked on and shortened, both Rogers and Meshejian were happy and “dazzled that people didn’t leave.”
A second reading of the play will be held at 8 p.m. on July 25 at the black box theater in the URBN Center Annex on Drexel’s campus and is open to the public. More information can be found at playpenn.org.
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