An August Year
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tracy Letts reflects on the year’s highlights and heartbreaks.
Editor's note: This interview was originally published in Dec., 2008.
the final curtain falls on 2008, the story of Tracy Letts sounds more like a character out of Dickensian England than the actual tale of a strapping Oklahoma boy who helped bolster the state’s image as being the native home to some of this country’s most celebrated writers.
“It’s really just been the best of times, and the worst of times – sometimes, at the same time,” says the 43-year-old actor and playwright. “So, very surreal, and nothing I ever want to go through again.”
In a prize-winning year that yeilded the 2008 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play August: Osage County – a riveting dissection of addiction and its impact on a calamitously dysfunctional Oklahoma family – Letts’ towering triumphs have been dampered by a gnawingly deep sorrow. Last February, his father, Dennis Letts – who played the familial patriarch in the Broadway production – died after a six-month battle with cancer.
“The overwhelming sensations, memories of the last 12 months, is all tied in to my father’s death,” Letts says. “I’ve shared this with people who have lost a parent and they’ve said to me, ‘Gee, the first year after my parent died, I don’t remember anything, my mind is a jumble, it’s awash with strange memories, I can’t remember dates.
“And yet, the year I’ve gone through is really the pinnacle of what a playwright can experience in this country. So, I’ve got all these demarcations of, ‘Oh, that’s when I won the Pulitzer,’ which was an incredibly difficult day because it’s all relative again, to my father’s passing. It’s just very strange. Friends of mine have said to me, ‘it’s Greek.’”
As the son of two college English professors (his mother is best-selling author, Billie Letts) who taught at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, where the Tulsa-born Letts was raised, the aspiring actor/playwright became entrenched in an artistic microcosm, where his budding ability to blend a sharply attuned understanding of reality with vivid imagination was nurtured.
“My parents are very creative people,” says Letts. “I think the first play I ever saw was To Kill a Mockingbird, with my father playing Atticus, probably when I was 10 years old or so. They always encouraged us to pursue creative endeavors and really supported the artist in me and my brother, Shawn, who is a musician.”
“I’m not telling stories that people in my family don’t know. There’s a history of addiction in my family and in a lot of families, and I pull from that history liberally."
A few years after leaving Durant, Letts moved to Chicago (where he still resides) and launched a distinguished acting career, performing at the esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre, eventually becoming a member of its permanent ensemble. His passion for acting escalated into a desire to not only play the parts, but create and write them as well. His works include Killer Joe, Man from Nebraska (for which he received his first nomination for a Pulitzer), Bug and most recently, Superior Donuts.
It was during the years while penning his earlier creations that Letts realized his growing reliance on alcohol and drugs was becoming a full-fledged addiction – a frequent theme in his plays – and an inheritance from a family that was no stranger to indulging self-destructive appetites.
“I’m not telling stories that people in my family don’t know,” he says. “There’s a history of addiction in my family and in a lot of families, and I pull from that history liberally. I certainly do in August: Osage County. It’s one of the ways I deal with the demons of addiction with my family.”
With 15 years of sobriety now under his belt, Letts is able to put into broader perspective the life-affirming results cultivated from what he terms his “lost years,” which gave way to an era of spectacular acclaim.
“I think what helped me get sober was the realization that there was nothing I could accomplish with drinking and drugs that hadn’t already been accomplished, in the sense that if the ultimate goal there is to kill yourself, a lot of people have done it,” he says. “And when you write something that is so individual – which is one of the great things about writing – you’ve written something that nobody else could possibly have written and it’s very particular to that individual. So, you write a play like August: Osage County, and whatever one thinks about it, I can look at it and say, ‘Well, that’s all me. That’s mine.’ I don’t think drinking and drugging would have gotten me to that point.”
Offsetting a hard-fought level of maturity and inner control over the negative forces that often short-circuit many would-be talented artists, Letts’ reveals a pronounced sense of poignancy and wit when he recollects winning an award for which few can even dream of being considered.
“You know, I was a finalist in 2003 for my play Man from Nebraska,” Letts says, adding a laugh. “And I so love the way the Pulitzer committee does it because everything is done before you get a phone call. So when you get the call, for instance in 2003, it’s basically, ‘Congratulations! You lost!’ You know, you don’t even know you’re nominated, so by the time they call you and you’ve already lost, the thing is, you’re so delighted to hear that you were even nominated.”
“And it was a similar kind of thing with August,” Letts says. “They called and said ‘Congratulations! You won!’ It was all over. I was with my girlfriend. We celebrated. I cried. Again, so much of it was about my father. I told my mother – she was the first person I called. We had a good long cry about it. But very exciting. I mean, it’s just nothing you can work toward. It’s nothing you can plan for. It’s not an award one can sort of try to win. You write a play and you hope people will like it. And then to get that kind of acknowledgement, it’s very confirming in a way.”
In an industry Letts acknowledges can be “a bit dog-eat-dog,” one might think that with his extraordinary achievements and the subsequent, complementary accolades of late, the award winner might be feeding his ego rather than feeling humble and gratified.
“I have to say as honored as I am by the awards, I don’t consider them the great accomplishments,” he says. “The great accomplishment is the play itself or the work itself. The awards are delicious gravy that you get in addition to the work. That’s somebody else making a determination about you. It feels great.”
So what is the most significant change in a year that has propelled Letts from respected dramatist to world-acclaimed playwright?
“I suppose the biggest difference is an internal one, where your shoulders drop and the chip on your shoulder sort of falls away and you feel you have less to prove, and that’s a very good feeling, feeling like I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I can relax.”