Interview: Tracy Letts

George H. W. Bush, when president, once famously pleaded with Americans to be “closer to the Waltons then to the Simpsons.”

Lord knows what he would have made of the Westons, the splendidly dysfunctional family in Tracy Letts electric play August: Osage County.

Premiering in Chicago in summer 2007, the production transferred to Broadway later the same year, where it won the Tony Award for Best Play and secured Letts the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Last week the production, with much of the original cast intact, opened at London’s National Theatre.

“The play is based on actual events in my family, from my childhood primarily, although I don’t call it autobiographical because it’s not,” Letts explains. Though a big man he’s not at all imposing; is open and affable, if a little tired by the interview mill. “There’s no character that represents me.”

“When I was ten-years-old my grandfather, my mother’s father, committed suicide by drowning and my grandmother then spiralled into years of drug addiction, downer addiction: that’s the jumping off point for the genesis of the play. Then it travels into fictional areas, there are places were I’ve borrowed family stories, other families’ stories, but really the only character that’s based on real life is the character of Violet, who’s based very much on my grandmother, if not in language, in spirit and inclination.”

August: Osage County was originally staged by the internationally renowned Steppenwolf theatre company in Chicago. Founded in 1974 by Chicagoans, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Parry (who appears in August as Barry, the unfaithful husband of the eldest Weston daughter), Steppenwolf is now a permanent ensemble of 41 members, of which Letts is one. After an initial two month run in Chicago, the play transferred to Broadway, opening first at the Imperial Theatre (later then intended because of the stage-hands strike) and then moving to the Music Box Theatre. Letts is certain that the initial Chicago staging was fundamental to the play’s success. “It never would have opened on Broadway without the first run in Chicago,” he says firmly. “It was risky enough to open a three act, three hour, 13 character play anyway.” New York producers, having seen the Chicago production, were then able to say “this is something that needs to be seen by a larger audience.”

Most discussions of the play inevitably focus on its size, its bigness, and it is a beast of a play: long in length it runs to nearly three and half hours with two intervals and correspondingly big in ambition. “It was always going to be big,” Letts tells me. “When I first proposed it to Steppenwolf, I told them: it’s big. It’s a story that I had turned over in my head for many years. I think most playwrights work that way in that they turn over an idea for a very long time before they start writing and it seemed to me the most appropriate form for the story I had to tell was the big American play that it was the proper container for my story. Yes, it was always supposed to be big and it’s to the credit of my home theatre that they weren’t daunted by that.”

Many reviews have drawn comparisons between August and the works of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. “It is a big American drama and as such it does share certain elements with O’Neill and Williams and other playwrights of that ilk,” but he clarifies it’s a play in the tradition of these writers rather than an out-and-out homage. “It’s large,” he says, “which is rare in American drama in the last couple of decades, primarily because of economics. It’s a play on a bigger canvas it would be great if we could see more American drama stretch back to some of that ambition.”

“It was always going to be big. When I first proposed it to Steppenwolf, I told them: it’s big” – Tracy Letts

What’s apparent when reading the play text and even more so when seeing the play performed is the importance of setting. The house, in which the Westons spark and scrape against one another, is fundamental to the feel of the piece; on stage it takes the appearance of a kind of Gothic dolls house. “When it was originally written the house was bigger, there were more rooms. I worked with the director (Anna Shapiro) and the set designer (Todd Rosenthal) and the two of them worked on that house for a year to be able to come up with a solution. They came to me at one point and said: what’s more important, the rooms or the house? Meaning you can have all these different locations but you might lose the structure of the house, you might have to travel from room to room. My response was that the house was more important, it was more important to have that central structure on stage. It required a little re-writing but nothing in retrospect that I miss at all.”

The landscape beyond the house is also significant, the Oklahoma plains, the “flat, hot nothing” that surrounds this turbulent household. (“The Plains” one character quips, “it’s a spiritual affliction, like the Blues.”) “I fudged the truth a little bit there,” Letts tells me, “in that while most of the plains are in fact flat and hot, the truth is in Osage County, which is north eastern Oklahoma, the terrain is actually pretty lovely. But where I come from is primarily a flat expanse with a really big sky. It’s very evocative.”

Letts always intended to reach beyond this one small corner of Oklahoma, to have a greater resonance. “You always hope that whatever you’re writing has some resonance beyond the people on stage. You’re focusing on the specifics so you can tell a story that’s a little larger and certainly the story for all of us in America in recent years is the direction our country has gone and the direction our society has gone. There’s a distinction between that and politics. What I’m talking about is not purely political; it’s also social and cultural.”

I ask Letts how he feels about bringing the play to London: has he felt the need to change it any way? “I haven’t made any changes, to the chagrin of my actors who wanted me to change a couple of topical references, which I flatly refused to do.” He chuckles and notes that “it is playing differently” in the UK. One reason for this he cites is the recent election. “The world views America with a little more hope and optimism than it has in recent years and I think that changes the reading of the play. It might make it a bit of a period piece but it also makes the play serve as a kind of warning which I still think is very valuable.”

“The world views America with a little more hope and optimism than it has in recent years and I think that changes the reading of the play.” – Tracy Letts

Bringing August to the UK has underlined the universality of the play’s themes, particularly its depiction of interfamilial conflict. Many of the cast members have commented in interview about how people tell them that they recognise their own family members, their own parents, in the characters they play. Is this something that Letts has also experienced? “Oh yes,” he nods, “to a frightening degree. The number of people who come up to me and say ‘that’s my family’ or ‘you’ve been spying on my mother.’ It’s really interesting and we hear it in London as well. A lot of differences between an English family and an American family are really cosmetic differences; I think most families function in the same way, at least in Western cultures, and some of that’s good and,” he adds with a laugh, “some of that’s not so good.”

In addition to being an award-winning playwright, Letts is also an actor with a considerable amount of stage experience, most recently starring in a production of Pinter’s Betrayal. Does this influence the way in which he writes? Again he nods. “Because I act pretty regularly I do two or three plays a year – I’m steeped in the language of theatre, I spend time with actors and writers and directors. At Steppenwolf, where we’ve had this permanent company all these years, that’s part of the experiment, that we have associations in the theatre that go back thirty years now and those associations pay off in a play like August Osage County, the family dynamic – we are a family.” He continues, speaking more generally about performing. “Acting in plays informs my writing tremendously, acting in great plays like Tennessee Williams, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to act in those great plays is a great lesson in writing. You learn a play in a different way as an actor. I’ve read Virginia Woolf, I’ve seen the movie and I’ve seen productions of it” but it’s not the same as being “in it, doing it 8 times a week, it makes you see it in a new way.” He goes on to talk about acting in “troubled plays and how this can be equally instructive. “With some plays, as an actor, you need to muscle it from point A to point B, and that’s also a great lesson as a writer.”

We discuss his upcoming projects and the possibility of August being turned into a film. “It’s going to happen; it’s in the works. The rights have been acquired and I’ve been hired to write the screenplay.” This will be the second of his plays Letts has adapted for the screen, after Bug. He also has a new play, Superior Donuts, which was performed at Steppenwolf this past summer and is going to New York next year; Letts describes it as “a boulevard comedy set in a donut shop in an uptown neighbourhood of Chicago.” He’s currently working on an adaptation of Three Sisters at a theatre in Portland.

Before we wrap things up I return to a question I hadn’t asked earlier, worried that it may be too intrusive. In the original production of August the role of Beverly, the Weston patriarch who appears only in the first scene of the play, was played by Letts’ father, Dennis Letts, a former schoolteacher who had a successful second career as an actor. “My dad was not originally meant to be in the play. Another actor was hired who then got another job, so we were recasting that part. Someone at the theatre suggested my father. He came to Chicago and did the play and between Chicago and our Broadway transfer my father was diagnosed with cancer, but he still wanted to go to New York and do the show on Broadway. We started performances in November and he did it for a couple of months and passed away in February this year.”

What was it like, I ask, having his father perform his work? “It was strange, having him in my work place, but delightful, I’m glad we had that time together. He was fascinated by the process, to be around stage actors of this magnitude, of this skill level. Even though he’s only in the first fifteen minutes of the play he came to every rehearsal and watched everything. It was a great experience for him to have at the end of his life, I’m glad he got that chance to do it.”

August: Osage County is at the National Theatre, London, until 21 January 2009.

Read the musicOMH review of August: Osage County

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