jakub | March 27, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | J.T. Rogers: Looking Outward

J.T. Rogers.

J.T. Rogers doesn’t dream of being British, as far as I know. But his new play at Lincoln Center Theater, Corruption—about the phone-hacking scandals that rocked Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid News International in the late 2000s and early 2010s—only serves to further the impression that Rogers is a dramatist who has more in common with his peers across the pond than with most of his fellow American writers. It is not simply that, in plays ranging from Blood & Gifts and The Overwhelming to his Tony-winning Oslo, Rogers takes on overtly political subject matter (in the case of these three titles: the 1980s-era struggle for Afghanistan, the Rwandan genocide, and the Middle East peace process, respectively). It is also that his dramaturgy typically has both the sweep and the clip of well-made, thinky plays I associate with the likes of David Edgar or David Hare (who with Howard Brenton depicted an earlier period of the Murdoch empire in 1985’s Pravda).

Corruption, based on the book Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, follows the efforts of Watson, a member of Parliament, to investigate, expose, and ultimately prosecute the Murdoch media empire for its amoral efforts to collect lurid data about celebrities, politicians, and ordinary folks, which reached organized-crime levels of extortion and intimidation. Though set only about a decade ago, Corruption, with its flip phones and blogs, not to mention its high dudgeon about digital privacy, already feels like a period piece. It arrives in the midst of a surreal election year in which U.S. politicians are considering the virtual banning of TikTok while continuing to allow U.S. social media companies to mine our data with nary a safeguard. AI and deepfakes proliferate as legacy media is battered daily by a perfect storm of hostility and indifference. It all makes the perfidy and catastrophe portrayed in Corruption seem almost quaint.

This disconnect is itself one of the play’s critiques of our age, I think. As Rogers put it to me in a recent interview, “Watching the play now, it feels like a palimpsest: It’s a story about this British company 10 years ago, but it’s really about us. It’s the sort of origin story of the post-truth moment—like, oh, this is how it started.”

Rogers has been busy over the past year, launching a new series on Max, Tokyo Vice, based on a book by his friend, Jake Adelstein, about his time as a journalist in ’90s-era Japan. After Corruption closes at LCT on April 14, Rogers said there are plans to take it to London, where he may get the answer to the question he asked some British playwrights he sent early drafts to, namely, “Do you believe that a Brit wrote this?”

Following are excerpts from our conversation.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: What was it about Watson and Hickman’s book that made you say, “This is a play”?

J.T. ROGERS: The honest, short answer is that it’s about the things that grip me, that I continue to wrestle with, even when I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. I get to learn about a world that I don’t know a lot about; as an autodidact, being a playwright is half learning about the world and being thrilled by that. Also, it’s about people wrestling with enormous forces of power and politics on both sides of a struggle, who are willing to sacrifice their careers and potentially their lives for what they believe in. The thing I’m more and more drawn to as a model is, not to equate my plays in quality, but the Shakespeare history plays. Those are the things that I come back to over and over again: their style, the way they’re written, what they’re able to achieve, the multiple layers.

You know, you can say things onstage that are truer than journalism—and any really good journalist that I’ve heard talk about this agrees with me—because you’re not fettered or locked in by the facts. I am trying to get to the truth of a story, but if I want to tell a story about power, about what it means to be morally questioned, and what are you willing to morally sacrifice for the greater struggle—you can only do so much with an op-ed or a piece of journalism. I’m someone who reveres journalists, but there’s something about getting to wrestle collectively, in a public space, with a story about who we are and how we got here.

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in “Corruption.” (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

A lot of telling a story based on real events is compressing time, compositing characters, but also, most importantly, choosing where to put your focus.

Right. Someone else would take this subject and write a completely different play. When we were doing Oslo, I would say to the cast: Every single character in this play could have their own play; this happens to be my entry point and how I want to tell the story. It’s the same thing with this story; Chris Bryant, in the play he’s the karaoke MP, who was just knighted for his services to the government, and who was at the show on opening night—you could absolutely write an entire play from Chris Bryant’s point of view on this story.

I wondered about your choice never to depict Rupert Murdoch himself.

One reason I didn’t put Arafat in Oslo is that I thought it would alienate so many people who go to this theatre, they wouldn’t listen to the play. Theatre is praxis, a practical art form, and if people aren’t going to listen, that’s no good. In this case, I wanted Rupert to be the wizard behind the curtain, then have him revealed in footage humbled, then fighting back before the committee. But we all looked at it; it’s kind of anticlimactic and he’s not very impressive, and you feel sorry for him. That’s not what I want. Once we took him out, I was like, oh, it’s actually even better that way.

Also, given what’s happened since, it’s not like he actually was humbled by this experience; it was more like a bump in the road for him.

One thing that interests me as a writer is power, but also, who is wielding the power and how far they go. As you know, American drama is mostly about people who have no power, which intrigues me, since the people who go to the theatre have power. So why are we only going to theatre about people that have less power than we do?

You could also argue that a lot of theatre is about folks with unacknowledged power, i.e., upper-middle-class white folks, but the plays aren’t about that.

As a theatregoer and a theatremaker, what interests me is, how is power wielded? How is it wielded well or wielded malevolently? How does it affect those that it’s wielded against, but also how does it affect the people who are wielding? Because you are changed by power in ways that are fascinating and also sometimes shocking and funny and troubling.

No spoilers, but at a few key junctures, Tom Watson does his share of ethical fudging in the pursuit of the greater good—nothing compared to what the Murdoch papers do, but still.

It’s the kind of scene I love to write, where both sides are correct. One character is saying, “We cannot be like them, we cannot skirt the truth and break the rules because it’s for the good.” And Tom’s response is: “They have destroyed this country and they must be stopped.” That’s interesting to me. What I wrestled with is: Why wouldn’t you do that? Do you think that the Democratic Party is doing everything by the book as they’re trying to stop a fascist dictator from taking over this country? I would argue they should do more. But what if they did play by the Republican playbook? Then are we even a democracy?

Of course, that’s a live debate. I’d say that Merrick Garland, for one, has been way too cautious.

I mean, someone should write the Merrick Garland play—not me. But you know, these are the deep dramatic questions. These moments of compromise are where you can hear the audience gasp.

Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi (foreground), and Jefferson Mays (background) in “Oslo” at the Lincoln Center Theater.

You mentioned earlier that you’re taking the play to London and you want it to come off like a Brit wrote it. Which is a great way for me to ask whether you’ve been influenced by mid-century British writers who take on present-day politics in their plays, like David Hare or David Edgar.

I mean, my hero will always be Tony Kushner. The first time I saw his work was the NYU student production of Perestroika, the legendary black turtleneck workshop. It took the top off my head; I was like, Oh, you can write a play where people talk. It literally was that simple. But yeah, I love a lot of Hare. It’s funny, you look at people who have a lengthy, robust, complicated career you think is amazing, but he’s nothing but run down by people my age or younger. Yeah, but can you do that? So Hare is great, Edgar’s great, and I’ve gotten to know both of them a little bit.

But you know, I often find my inspiration in playwrights who write very differently than I do. I’m deeply inspired by Taylor Mac. He’s a deeply historical and political artist; I think he is the great fabulist of my generation. He once said, in your magazine, “I’m a classicist. In ancient Greece the men wore high heels; I wear high heels.” I also think the third act of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns may be the greatest thing written by anyone in my generation. It touches the divine. And Branden Jacobs-Jenkins—I love his work so much, and I’m eager to see everything he’s wrestling with.

Also, the stuff that ends up feeding me for plays is often not theatre, or even books. I just like to talk to people. One of the great things about having some success as a playwright is I can now get to lots of interesting people that I could not get to before—I can just pick the phone, say, “Hey, I’m so-and-so, could I take you for coffee and talk to you about what you do?” I am so profoundly uninterested in myself that I want to only write about the things that have nothing to do with me, knowing that they will all sound like me in the end, because you can’t escape yourself. But if I were asked to write a play about a guy my age with a house and a kid, I would literally not know what to do. I would have writer’s block for the rest of my life.

So you don’t have the Rogers family play tucked in a drawer?

My family play is The Overwhelming, where the American family has shades of my own family, but they’re in Rwanda dealing with that situation. The distance allows me to be liberated, to write. The thing about doing this for a long time is you eventually figure out what it is that you need to make—not want to make but need to make. That’s what all of us have to figure out.

Max Stafford-Clark directed The Overwhelming in London and New York—it was extraordinary just to be around the guy who directed all the original Caryl Churchill plays and ran the Royal Court. He said many wise things, and one was, “J.T., playwriting is some part autobiography and some part journalism. The more you can lean into journalism, the longer a career you’ll have, because your own life runs out of steam after a while.” Not mining yourself, but looking outward—that’s the kind of theatre I make and on some level I’m most interested in, but that is purely a matter of taste.

We’re in an election year, unfortunately, and there’s a lot of anxiety about the role of the media in it, how we should and shouldn’t cover the presidential race, etc. Given your play’s subject, I wanted to ask you, what does your own media diet look like?

It’s a great question. I guess I’m a little old school. I still read The New York Times on paper in the morning, kind of religiously—even though I sometimes realize, oh, I already read that yesterday online. I’m on my phone all the time, sure, but only for journalism consumption or email or text. If I’m quite honest, I’ve found in the last six months that my news consumption has shrunk precipitously, because I am exhausted. I don’t know what the point is. Nothing is new; I will not change my mind. The lines are so drawn. I’m spending my time struggling not to internally dehumanize the right, to see them as repellent villains, because that isn’t healthy for me or for the country. So sometimes I just stop reading the Times, because I think I’m being asked to see Trump news as clickbait, entertainment, and I just need to step away from that.

The media world depicted in the play almost seems like it’s from a different geological age.

Watching the play now, it feels like a palimpsest: It’s a story about this British company 10 years ago, but it’s really about us. It’s the sort of origin story of the post-truth moment—like, oh, this is how it started. The thing that is moving to me about watching the audience watch the play is the experience I feel is that we are actually so hungry to watch stories about how we got here. What does our past tell us about now? To your point about media consumption: There’s a reason that Heather Cox Richardson has a million paid followers, because she says, “I’m going to spend the next seven paragraphs connecting today’s news with the last 75 years of American politics.”

Is there anything I missed that you’d like to talk about?

The thing I would say is, André Bishop and this theatre were like, “We believe in you, we will program it before you’ve written the play.” Like Sarah Ruhl or Ayad Akhtar, or John Guare, who reopened this theatre—we’re like the house playwrights. Theatres in this country need to stop running around like chickens with their heads cut off, going, “What’s the newest?” They need to be like, “You’re a dramatist and I believe in you.” That’s how the American theatre expands, not with the model we have now, which is just chasing the next thing and not even knowing why you’re chasing it. I want to go to the theatre where I’m seeing the third play over six years by X dramatist—like Nathan Louis Jackson, they did two of his shows here.

What advice do you usually give to younger artists?

I always wanna talk about fear and failure, because they’ll never leave your career. The other thing is, the rules have changed, and this is your task—it sucks, but this is your task as a dramatist. You have to write a play that people will be willing to spend $100 to see and feel that was money well spent, that they should leave their house and not watch Netflix. If you haven’t done that, you need to go back to the drawing board. Because I’m not going to come to your play, and you wouldn’t see your play.

So the question I’m always asking myself is: Am I making something I want to see? Yes, this makes it harder, but it’s also kind of liberating to say: no more small-bore theatre. It doesn’t mean it can’t be two people—Lucy Prebble’s The Effect is just two people, but I definitely want to see that.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!

Source link