“Greenberg a busy man,” read the top of a page in the July 19, 1984 issue of The CJN, above the rather prosaic headline: “Director high on synagogue’s role.”
It was a profile of a busy 35-year-old Toronto theatre artist married to Phyllis Greenberg, the president and cantor of the fledgling Reconstructionist congregation, Darchei Noam.
At the time, Joel Greenberg sounded enthusiastic about getting to direct more than the musical revues he felt increasingly pigeonholed for. But he was moving toward work with the Royal Canadian Air Farce, and other productions at the Young People’s Theatre.
Well, it’s now 35 years later, and Greenberg doesn’t sound too interested in a puff piece from half his life ago.
After all, he’s focused on the latest production from Studio 180, a theatre company he co-founded in 2002 to help students he taught at the University of Waterloo be successful at getting serious. Soon enough, they also got serious about success.
Oslo, by American playwright J.T. Rogers, is their new production settling in for a month in downtown Toronto. It’s primarily about a married couple – diplomats from Norway – who organized the negotiations between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993.
Rogers got to know Mona Juul and Terje-Rod Larsen, and learned about their back-channel activities in a castle in the middle of a forest outside Oslo – efforts which culminated in the Israeli and Palestinian leaders shaking hands on the lawn of the White House. They inspired Rogers to turn that story into two-and-a-half hours of theatre, which won him a 2017 Tony Award.
A play by Rogers about the Rwandan genocide, The Overwhelming, was successfully mounted by Studio 180 in 2010. That relationship gave Greenberg first dibs on presenting Oslo in Toronto. And it fit with the series of eclectic plays curated by the city’s main theatre producers, grouped as “Off-Mirvish.”
Yet, the staging is at one of the most commercial-looking venues in town. A year ago, Mirvish signed a marketing partnership for a building on Yonge Street between Bloor and Wellesley, which is now called the CAA Theatre. The building converted to screen movies a century ago was renovated for live shows in 1993 and a makeover to accommodate the Blue Man Group in 2005 led to it being reconstructed inside.
Greenberg, who’s explored the bones of many a playhouse, has found it an adequate spot for his work so far, even if he can never feel too sure about filling every seat.
“We’ve found the audiences for social and political shows, for people who want to hear thoughtful and provocative material,” says Greenberg. “The challenge that comes with marketing it may not be any different than any other. It’s very hard to analyze why some plays find an audience and others don’t.”
A mainstream breakthrough for Studio 180 came with the 2008 production of Stuff Happens, a play by David Hare, about the role of the Bush administration in the invasion of Iraq. First presented at the Berkeley Street Theatre, its attention motivated Mirvish to bring it to the Royal Alex, where audiences easily connected with familiar characters from the White House.
There was a similar effect in King Charles III, the play by Mike Bartlett, of which Greenberg directed a production at the CAA Theatre a year ago. Current members of the Royal Family were portrayed in a contemplation of a messy near-future for England. Which meant having to convey some amount of physical impersonation from the stage.
Oslo is based on more specific actual events, mixing history with fictionalized dialogue. In this case, however, Greenberg felt no need to steer its stars to emulate the Norwegians who engineered the Oslo Peace Accords after nine months of working in secret. More crucial to the play is conveying the drama.
The director was certainly aware of these events when they made the news. But going deeper into the material of Oslo gave Greenberg an unexpected understanding of how any of it took shape.
“Anyone who harboured a dream of peace in the Middle East can see this play and grasp how much was involved in putting it together,” he says. “It’s increasingly amazing to me that any of this ever really happened.”
Oslo is now on stage at the CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St., Toronto, on Tuesdays through Saturday nights, with Wednesday and weekend matinees, through March 3.