Letts, Tracy


Letts, Tracy
▪ 2009
Tracy Shane Letts 
born July 4, 1965, Tulsa, Okla.

  The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama—as well as the 2008 Tony Award for best play—was awarded to Tracy Letts for August: Osage County, a dark comedy depicting a wildly dysfunctional Oklahoma family coping with the death of its patriarch. The show premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in the summer of 2007 and opened on Broadway just a few months later. At the Tonys the play dominated the awards, winning a total of five.

      Letts was raised in Durant, Okla., home of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where his father, Dennis, taught English and his mother, Billie, taught journalism. (She later wrote a best-selling novel, Where the Heart Is.) Letts's father was also an aspiring actor (and would go on to appear in some 40 films and to play the father in the Steppenwolf and Broadway productions of August: Osage County before his death in February 2008), and his work in community theatre led Tracy to pursue acting as a teenager. Letts attended Southeastern Oklahoma State briefly before moving to Dallas for two years and then, at age 20, to Chicago, where he eventually began landing acting jobs.

      In 1991 Letts wrote a play, Killer Joe, that was so graphic and violent that no theatre company would agree to produce it. Two years later Letts and a few other actors produced the play themselves. Mixed reviews did not prevent it from being a hit. A later successful staging at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe resulted in well-received productions in New York City and London. Next came Bug, a love story about a woman who is a cocaine addict and a man who thinks his body is infested with insects, which Letts wrote in 1996. It premiered in London, and later the New York production caught the eye of director William Friedkin, who in 2006 turned it into a film, with Letts writing the screenplay. Meanwhile, Letts continued to act. He moved to Los Angeles for a brief period, finding bits of work on television shows such as Seinfeld and Judging Amy. He appeared onstage in several Steppenwolf productions before being invited to join the ensemble in 2002.

      In 2003 Steppenwolf staged Letts's next play, The Man from Nebraska, the story of an insurance agent's loss of religious faith, which represented a departure from the writer's previous shocking blood-and-guts material. The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. While August: Osage County was also seen in some ways as more tame than Letts's earlier fare, the playwright saw more similarities than differences across his body of work. Where most plays tended to involve characters every bit as literate as the writers who authored them, Letts said that he wrote plays with real-life characters who did not necessarily express themselves poetically.

Anthony G. Craine

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Universalium. 2010.

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