May 22, 2008

Q & A with Tracy Letts

The following is an interview from August: Osage County playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, Tracy Letts courtesy of Broadway Across America

by Kirk Wingerson

If you think you know what a dysfunctional family looks like, you should meet the Westons of Osage County. In Tracy Letts’s new dark comedy AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama last month, the caustic and volatile characters are summoned back to Pawhuska, Oklahoma after the paterfamilias goes missing. What follows isn’t pretty. Long-buried secrets are revealed and brutal truths must be faced. Despite the unsettling surprises this three-act emotional rollercoaster delivers, laughter abounds.

The play had its premiere last summer at Chicago’s venerable Steppenwolf Theatre where Letts has been an ensemble member since 2002. With most of the original ensemble cast intact, AUGUST opened at the Imperial Theatre in December for what was to be a limited Broadway run. Thanks to enthusiastic reviews, tons of buzz and brisk ticket sales, the show recently relocated to the Music Box Theatre where the run will now be open-ended. Letts spoke to Broadway Across America from Tulsa where he, coincidentally, was visiting his own family.

BAA: Please tell us your family isn’t anything like the Westons we see on stage.
Letts: Word for word. I finally get my revenge on them (laughs). No. They’re not entirely like the family you see on stage and yet there are similarities. I think there are things that apply to all families to a certain extent. I think one of the reasons for the success of the show is that people see things in that family on stage that they recognize from their own families. It’s based on a true event that happened in my family a couple of generations ago and it has continued to have ripples and ramifications in my family until present day, certainly until I wrote the play. There is some stuff there that’s drawn from real life but, in truth, my family, they’re a wonderful bunch of people and we’re very close.

How autobiographical is the show?
About all that’s autobiographical is the inciting incident. My mother’s father committed suicide when I was ten years old, over 30 years ago. And the character of Violet is based very much on my grandmother. That’s about where the similarity ends. I’ve picked and chosen those things that seemed appropriate to me from my family and from other people’s families but for the most part, the rest of it is fiction.

Watching the family unravel on stage is difficult to endure at some points. At times you feel like turning away - yet you can’t take your eyes off the action. Was it difficult to write a narrative where the intensity constantly builds?
I knew the story I wanted to tell and I knew what I was driving toward but I really took my time about it. I wrote an act of the play and then forced myself to take six months off and really think before I went back to the second act. And then I did the same between the second and third act. I don’t like to be bored in the theatre. I’m really conscious of the fact that every play I write, there’s somebody in the audience at any given performance who has never been to a play before. And I always feel a certain responsibility to that person not to bore them because I figure if I bore that person, they’re never coming back. And so I’m going to try and do anything I can to hold their interest in the proceedings on stage.

At over three hours long - with two intermissions - AUGUST is an ambitious play. Did you set out to write something this epic or did it just evolve over time?
I guess a little bit of both in that once I knew the story I wanted to tell, I recognized the vehicle for this story. The container for this story, in a sense, is a large one. This is a story of some breadth, some scope and it needs air, it needs time and I trust in the attention spans of people. The truth is as long as people are engaged and laughing and they’re interested in it, they can sit for great long periods of time. The right vehicle for the play was a big play. In order to do what I need to do I have to tell this story over the course of three acts. We never concerned ourselves with time.

Why do you think AUGUST has become such a bona fide hit on Broadway?
I think there are a couple of things that account for it. For one, I’d be foolish not to give credit to the quality of the production in terms of the actors in the Steppenwolf ensemble, the history of Steppenwolf, the culture of Steppenwolf and all the ways that that has informed the play. (There’s) so much craftsmanship. This is not me blowing smoke. The fact of the matter is that as a playwright you recognize the difference. That additional percentage that you get from actors of that caliber is pretty invaluable. (As for) the play itself, it seems to have tapped into something in the popular consciousness and as a playwright that’s very satisfying.

You were previously nominated for a Pulitzer Prize before for THE MAN FROM NEBRASKA. Does winning a Pulitzer for AUGUST change anything for you?
I don’t know yet. I had already put SUPERIOR DONUTS [his new play] in motion before AUGUST ever even hit. In terms of what the Pulitzer means for me down the line, it would be foolish to try and guess. There is a sense of not so much gratification, but there is a sense of confirmation. There is a sense of somebody telling me ‘You’re on the right track’ and that is a confirming feeling.

You are not only an active playwright but you are also a Steppenwolf ensemble member. How do you go about dividing your time between writing and acting?
Well, I don’t do both at the same time. I don’t write plays for me to act in and I don’t act in plays that I’ve written. Because I don’t think I’d be as good at either one if I tried to do both. I allow one to inform the other. The fact of the matter is I’m a better playwright because I’m an actor and I’m a better actor because I’m a playwright. I think I have to keep acting to improve my writing and vice versa. Acting appeals to the sort of public side of me and writing appeals to the more private side of me.

So would you say it’s a fairly even split or is there more emphasis on one over the other?
It’s always been fairly evenly split except with AUGUST the writing seems to be taking over a bit. Acting is hard. They’re both hard. They’re hard in different ways. Acting, however, is hard in a way that requires you to be there eight shows a week and writing doesn’t. Once you’re done with a play, you can go away. The grind of performing a play eight shows a week, repeating the performance and doing it with some technical proficiency is very hard, it’s very taxing.

You have acting experience in film, television and on the stage. Is there a reason why you focus your creative writing for the stage?
I’ve done some screenplays and stuff but in movies and tv the writer isn’t the boss. You can’t be guaranteed that what you’re writing is actually going to see the light of day. I know from acting that people just change the writer’s text, it’s no big deal. It’s not a power issue, though I suppose it is a control issue. Within the hierarchy of the theatre, you don’t go messing with what the writer’s written and I appreciate that about the theatre.
TV has lured a lot of good playwrights away. If you sit and watch an hourlong drama on tv you will see the names of the best playwrights of the last 20 years – or at least playwrights who had interesting beginnings to their careers who got lured away very quickly by the money of television. I believe at some point somebody’s got to say ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stick it out in the theatre because the theatre is worthy of that.’

Your writing has been prolific. Do you feel any burden that you have to keep producing at such a high level, especially now considering that the bar has been raised?
I try not to concern myself with it. I mean it’s hard not to sort of hear the angels and devil on your shoulder. When people said to me as soon as I won the Pulitzer, ‘Now that’s really going to put the pressure on for this next one, right?’, my response was just the opposite. I said ‘Man, the pressure is off (with a chuckle). I won the thing. Now I can do what I want.’

More information on AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY can be found online at


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...