Brendan Lemon: Before I turned on the tape recorder today, you and I agreed about something fundamental: theater is not about facts, it’s about truth. How does that philosophy relate to Oslo?
Bartlett Sher: That philosophy is especially true about history plays, and Oslo is a history play. We need to follow the events accurately and create an experience of the history. Part of that involves powering through the timeline. Part of it involves representing all the points of view. But we can’t be favoring Palestinians or Israelis. We are artists describing a dialectic of this moment in history.
The longer I’ve worked on Oslo the more I’m convinced it is about the following question: how do you bring implacable foes together into a room and get them to communicate? This applies acutely to the U.S. today. The extreme pull between right and left has created a division that could irretrievably harm the republic. Is that possible to resolve? If a resolution is possible between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then maybe it’s possible here. I’m not sure yet.
BL: How do you see the dynamic between the Israelis, Palestinians, and Norwegians in Oslo?
BS: Of the three groups, by far the most difficult to understand are the Norwegians. They’re very elusive, very hard to figure out, very tough on themselves. It can be hard to read what they think. The Israelis and Palestinians are voluble and alive.
BL: How do you help a group of American actors convey these dynamics?
BS: You keep digging into the work with them and those qualities emerge. What I can do is make sure the situations are as precise as possible. The actors’ challenges are specific to their characters. Yossi Beilin, for example, who is one of the Israelis, is one of the harder parts because he’s a bit of a puppetmaster. The actor has to hide Beilin’s hand because he doesn’t want the other side to know whether Shimon Peres, the foreign minister at the time, knows or doesn’t know what’s going on. It doesn’t take long in rehearsals before the actors start to be a part of this world.
BL: What’s the difference between the Middle East of Oslo, in 1992 and 1993, and the Middle East of today?
BS: The emergence of right-wing religious extremism. Oslo provides a secular argument. The Palestinian Hassan Asfour, for example, is a Communist. And his fellow Palestinian Abu Ala is Muslim but not especially religious.
Once you have bin Laden as a self-appointed religious leader you get into a whole new territory. He leads to ISIL, which has had a devastatingly intense impact on the region. It has created a much greater insecurity for Israel and a battle between religions as opposed to a battle between peoples. And, compared to 25 years ago, all events now take place in a much more globally connected world. A sense of local-community context is difficult to sustain because the situation changes so quickly. Every time there is another terrorist attack, the effect is much more immediate.
BL: If peace negotiations were held today, who could play the role the Norwegians did with the Oslo accords?
BS: It’s difficult to say. You have to have people who are willing to get together in a room to solve problems. There used to be great wise men in American political life. Some of them were surprising people. You had a Barry Goldwater or a Tip O’Neill, who would be able to pull together extreme forces no matter what the controversies were. Everyone bemoans that such people don’t exist anymore -- that we used to get along. Some of that sentiment may be more nostalgia than actuality. Negotiation requires not just wise people but people who are willing to make personal connections. The personal part is very important. To find common ground with your enemies you have to see them as human beings.
For example: after Orlando, which was yet another devastating illustration of the consequences of the ready availability of assault rifles, I could never figure out why somebody couldn’t get the right parties together quietly and come to some solution. Why is that not possible? It should be. But who would bring the parties together and what conditions can you create that would make it possible for the NRA to come to a compromise with their adversaries?
BL: We see in Oslo the importance of discretion to achieve success in a high-level negotiation. Would that be possible in our social-media world?
BS: The people in Oslo are very responsible for their own discretion. You can’t get anything accomplished if you don’t have time to work out a solution. And during that period you have to keep your mouth shut. You can’t leak everything on Twitter.
BL: We have a Presidential candidate who is addicted to Twitter. If he is elected, could he maintain the secrecy necessary to do his much-vaunted deals? Especially in a diplomatic sphere.
BS: Just because you have more technology doesn’t mean you’re going to be indiscreet. People in power have a responsibility not to tell other people everything. Could a President Trump handle secrecy? I’ll bet he could. He’s secret about a lot of things. Nobody seems to know what his taxes are.
BL: Since you began working on Oslo, how have your thoughts about its real-life events changed?
BS: When we first talked about it with Terje [Terje Rod-Larsen is the Norwegian who brought the “Oslo” backstory to Sher and playwright J.T. Rogers], I thought that the U.S. swept in at the end of the process and took credit. But as I talked to him about the process, I learned that what actually happened was that Warren Christopher, who was the secretary of state at the time, realized that only way the deal would ever work is if the U.S. provided the cover and the legitimacy and the protection to all parties. They put on the show of the Rose Garden ceremony in order to make the deal come together for the cameras. But the Americans never honestly believed that they were the ones who did it. All the same, without the Americans the deal would never have happened. That was very mature foreign policy, used judiciously and carefully. And without a lot of ego. The Americans didn’t have to do much more than give the accords a blessing.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.