BWW Interviews: Molly Smith and Larry Wright on CAMP DAVID's Journey from Summit to Stage
In Washington, it is not unusual to see Marine One fly the first family to the presidential retreat - Naval Support Facility Thurmont, more commonly known as Camp David. A trip to the wooded retreat located 62 miles north of the nation's capital in Thurmont, Maryland, is usually intended to be a relaxing weekend for the nation's chief executive. However, 36 years ago it became the crux of American foreign policy in the Middle East and home to a summit that was anything but tranquil. After four wars in less than three decades, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were brought together by President Jimmy Carter to broker peace between the two nations. The resulting Camp David Accords would be a highpoint of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. The story behind the Accords is the focus of Arena's Stage's world premiere production of Camp David.
Arena Stage, where Camp David opens next week, has a long and distinguished history of producing new works that put "The American Spirit in the Spotlight." But is there anything to learn from the story of the Camp David Accords in a city intimately familiar with politics? Arena's Artistic Director and Camp David's Director Molly Smith asserts, "What this play reminds us of are our flawed heroes who put their lives, careers and countries on the line to forge a peace agreement. Can we do that today?"
Both in politics and theater, timing is everything. Camp David is opening at Arena Stage at roughly the same time as the deadline U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has set for the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, spring 2014. "When I wrote the play, I was mindful that a lot of the issues that were on the table during Camp David are back on the table," says Camp David's Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lawrence (Larry) Wright. "The audience will go back with a decided opinion. One of the goals is to enlarge their opinion, see the humanity in the other side." With another Middle East peace agreement being potentially negotiated, the lessons learned at Camp David in 1978 have suddenly become relevant again.
Wright brings a unique perspective to the script, having lived in Egypt when Sadat came to power and later lived in Georgia while Carter served as governor. "As a dramatist and journalist, I try to find individual human stories. I try to find out why people do what they do." For Wright, who is also a reporter for The New Yorker, that meant looking beyond the foreign policy aspects of the story to examine the personal motivations of the key players. To do so, he interviewed every living member of the American, Egyptian and Israeli delegations, including President and Mrs. Carter.
Presidents are not unfamiliar subjects for the theater because as Smith asserts, "The presidency is full of drama and conflict. What could be better for the stage?" Adding to that drama are the decisions facing Begin and Sadat at the summit regarding the security of their homelands and the weight of the global significance of achieving peace in an unstable region during the Cold War. On the American front, Wright is quick to emphasize the pressure on Carter to revive his presidency with the summit. Whatever the outcome, it was clear that the summit would have tremendous consequences for all three men. To assume though that Camp David is only the story of Carter, Begin and Sadat would be to ignore the Accord's unsung hero, Rosalynn Carter.
"In Camp David, we have three men with different viewpoints and so much on their shoulders. The fourth figure is Rosalynn Carter," explains Wright. "What's interesting to note is that while [Jimmy] Carter's popularity was plummeting, she was the most popular woman in the world. Her role was to bring peace to the peacemakers. Get these two honorable men [Begin and Sadat] in the woods and they would make peace." Mrs. Carter was the force behind the summit, and the audience will get to witness a side of her we rarely get to see, Smith says.
"The fact that Larry choose to focus on four people was brilliant because the audience gets to know them on an intimate level," says Smith. Despite Camp David's isolation in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, it was anything but intimate during the actual summit. In addition to the heads of state were dozens of staffers, military attaches and cabinet ministers, some of who held great influence. Furthermore, the summit lasted 13 days. How did Smith and Wright go about condensing not only the staff aspect but the timeframe down into a 90 minute play?
"It was a terrible sacrifice to boil it down to four characters. Those were the four characters that had to make the decisions," says Wright. He also adds that after the second day of the summit, Begin and Sadat could not be in the same room with one another. This led to one-on-one meetings with Carter, and break-out sessions with staffers.
With just the four leads, the staff influences had to be implied. Smith says that when a character returns from offstage in Camp David, the sway on them from the unseen staff will be evident. Distilling the play's timeframe was a much easier task because the length of the summit is not the focus. "Audiences will be thoroughly engaged with what were the key moments and how did this get done," says Smith. "How does [Jimmy] Carter move from being consultant to achiever? How does this [the Accords] get done?"
For Smith and Wright, the effort is about acknowledging that the audience will have opinions about the events before the play even starts. Camp David is about having the audience see the humanity in the story, and re-examining their own opinions of the characters and their actions.
In interviewing Smith and Wright for this story, I was transported back to November 2008 when I served as junior-aide for The White House at the G20 Summit in Washington, DC. It was a hastily arranged summit to address the deepening financial crisis and was staged in a matter of weeks. Most summits are planned well in advance. My job was simple: separate the staff from their leaders and escort them to the staging area, a tent adjacent to the main building. If the leader had a question or a problem, an aide would go to the staff tent to work it out and then shuttle back to the leader in the main meeting room.
Hearing Smith describe the staging of Camp David brings back these memories, and it is clear that she and Wright are striving to show a view of the 1978 summit aside from its landmark peace achievement and historic status. Summits, while part political theater, are about leaders going face-to-face. Smith is correct: presidencies are full of drama and perfectly suited for the stage. But as a theatrical piece, Camp David has the opportunity to go further, taking audiences to a place rarely experienced by theatergoers. How do politics, gender, nationalities, religion and personalities all collide to create policy that affects the world?
Additionally, just as audiences may come to Camp David with staunch opinions about the Accords, leaders attend summits with deep opinions of their own. In 2008, it was clear to me that the G20 leaders came to Washington with opinions about who was to blame for the financial crisis, demonstrated by the position each nation's delegation were asserting. Wright's goal of having each leader see the humanity in the other is a complex task, but one that inherently adds drama to the stage and clearly highlights why summits mater. Oftentimes, leaders can only truly begin to address the issues that brought them together when they meet face-to-face, alone in a room and are enabled to talk freely - much like, Carter, Begin and Sadat.
Smith's office overlooks Washington, D.C.'s southwest waterfront. As we sat down to chat, I noticed that the floor was littered with various books on the Carter Administration, Camp David and its participants. Outside it is a cold, gray, windswept Friday morning. After chatting for a few minutes, our attention is suddenly captured by the appearance of three green and white helicopters outside marked "United States of America," typical of the type that transport the president, flying towards downtown Washington. I mention that it looks like they're heading to The White House. "Or to Camp David," Smith fires back with a smile filling her face.
Graphic #1: (Clockwise from bottom left) Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Richard Thomas as U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the world premiere historical drama Camp David at Arena Stage. Photo by Tony Powell
Graphic #2: Camp David Playwright Lawrence (Larry) Wright. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.