Tracy Letts on writing his play and then having to act in it
Playwright and actor Tracy Letts was inspired to write his latest Tony Award-nominated play while watching one of those old black-and-white Frankenstein movies.
It wasn’t the hideous monster or its wide-eyed creator that drew his attention. It was the single-mindedness of the town’s angry villagers.
“The villagers always appear with their pitchforks and torches and they’re completely unified. That really struck me,” he said. “I thought, ‘There must have been a meeting before this among the villagers where one of the villagers voiced dissent and said, ‘No, we should not go after the monster. I think this is the wrong idea for us to form a vigilante mob and kill the monster.’”
That initial creative impulse eventually resulted in “The Minutes,” a powerful play that uses a city council meeting to expose delusions at the dark heart of American history.
The Frankenstein villagers have been recast as elected leaders of the fictional Pennsylvania town of Big Cherry, who resolutely refuse to acknowledge the town’s horrific past. For Letts, that willful blindness is a national monster.
“We’re not going to address the ills that plague this country until we start to deal with the underlying infection, which is, of course, genocide of Native American people and slavery,” says Letts. “If you can’t even talk about it, we’re never going to really get it.”
Letts’ play, first written in 2016, seemed to anticipate the subsequent national debates over Confederate statues, critical race theory and the backlash over textbooks that include the lingering consequences of slavery.
“At each stage, the play has only become more and more true. To the point that when we first did it, a lot of people were like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of weird.’ And now doesn’t seem quite so weird,” said Letts.
“Do I like as a playwright hearing that my play is more on point now than it was when I wrote it? There’s a part of me that certainly likes to hear that, but there’s another part of me that finds that very depressing.”
“The Minutes” has been rewarded with a best play Tony Award nomination, competing on June 12 against “Clyde’s,” “Hangmen,” “The Lehman Trilogy,” and “Skeleton Crew.”
“The Minutes” marks Letts’ return to Broadway since his 2019 play “Linda Vista,” which explored a narcistic, opinionated middle-aged white man trying to come to grips with the modern world. It builds on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County,” which also explored the messy American story.
“The dominant voice in American history is a straight white man. That is the dominant voice,” said director Anna D. Shapiro, a longtime collaborator. “And I think that Tracy does not run from that. He owns the responsibility of that. He’s investigating the damage that he has indirectly done.”
While Letts himself is onstage in “The Minutes” this time on Broadway — he plays the steely mayor, the deliciously named Mr. Superba — he never intended to be acting in it.
“I didn’t write it for me. I never wanted to do it. I still don’t want to do it,” said Letts, who has had supporting roles in the films “Lady Bird” and “The Post,” and TV shows “Homeland” and “Divorce.” “I don’t write things for me to act in.”
When the play was being transferred from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Letts’ longtime stage home, producers offered the mayor role to at least 30 actors, but none bit, perhaps finding an ensemble of 11 unappealing. Letts realized the only way the play would make it was if he joined it. “So there I am, eight shows a week now, stuck with it,” he says, laughing.
He says that despite writing the play, he still works on his lines and occasionally flubs them. “Oh, God, I do it every night!” he said. He credits his fellow actors — including Austin Pendleton, Blair Brown, Noah Reid and Jessie Mueller — for making his words better. “I have the best seat in the house,” he said.
“I always have a picture in my head after I write a play of the way it’s going to look. And it never looks like what I thought it was going to look like. It’s always so much better than the thing I had in my head, and it’s because of the work of these amazing people.”
He said he and his wife — “The Leftovers” and “Fargo” star Carrie Coon, mom to his two young children — are in constant dialogue about the world and how they live in it. He’s happy to widen the circle to theatergoers.
“After having the plug pulled on our industry for two years — we were the first ones out, it felt like, and the last ones to come back, and limping back at that — we really see the value. We feel it every night doing ‘The Minutes.’ We feel the value of being in dialog with an audience about ideas,” he said.
“As much fun as it was to go home and get on the couch with a pint of ice cream and binge watch TV shows with our families — which was great, we all enjoyed that — the truth is, we need each other and we need the company of strangers.
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