ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you.
I’m your host, Elysa Gardner, and this season we’ll be speaking with some of the artists and insiders who are continuing to help Broadway rebound and thrive after the shutdown. This episode will actually be a special treat for me because I’m speaking with one of my very favorite playwrights and actors, who is wearing both those hats in a Broadway production for the first time. And he’s doing it in collaboration with my other guest, one of our most celebrated directors, who also teamed with him on the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County.
I speak of none other than Tracy Letts and Anna D. Shapiro, whose creative association dates all the way back to their early days at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is where Tracy’s latest play, The Minutes, had its world premiere in 2018, to rave reviews. A bitingly funny but ultimately sobering look at small-town politics, The Minutes later played 19 previews at the Cort Theatre before COVID shut it down in March 2020. But just over two years later, the production is back, now at Studio 54, and it’s up for a Tony Award for Best Play.
Tracy—who’s also the winner of an acting Tony for his searing performance in another Steppenwolf-based production, the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—is a familiar name to theater and film fans. His plays include, in addition to August, such disturbing and exhilarating and hilarious works as Killer Joe, Bug, The Man From Nebraska, Mary Page Marlowe, and Linda Vista. On screen, you’ve seen him in movies such as Lady Bird, The Post, The Big Short, and Christine, and in TV series like The Sinner and Homeland. He most recently appeared on Broadway opposite Annette Bening in a 2019 production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons; other recent credits include the screenplay for Netflix’s The Woman in the Window and a role in the new HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
Anna, who also won a Tony for her work on August: Osage County, was for several years artistic director of Steppenwolf, where she oversaw the world premieres of plays including Linda Vista and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, which has since won praise on and off-Broadway. The high-profile plays she has personally directed include Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf—cker With the Hat—a fabulous play, and production, even if I can’t say the full name in polite company—and Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, which you may remember not being able to get a ticket to, several years ago, Over the past decade, Anna also helmed acclaimed revivals of This Is Our Youth and Of Mice and Men so she clearly a very eclectic resume in American drama.
Anna, Tracy, welcome to Stage Door Sessions. It is wonderful to have you here today, and I’m curious to know how the past two years have been for you, I’ve been asking artists about that.
TRACY LETTS: Well, not, not easily, but then I don’t know anybody who has. I mean, I think everybody on the planet has been impacted by this suffered, suffered consequences as a result of the pandemic. Our, the consequences in the American theater have been different than most, most occupations, I mean our whole way of making a living and in fact, our whole art form has been taken away by the pandemic. We were one of the first ones out and we’re one of the last ones to come back and it’s been very challenging. You know, I mean, life has gone on for us. My family has grown, my wife and I had another baby during the pandemic. I’ve had a hard time writing, but I have managed to do some acting. I did shoot the Lakers series during the pandemic. My wife is an actress, she shot a TV series. So we’ve been gainfully employed, but it has meant something to get back in the theater. It is my, my primary creative outlet and to be on stage again in front of an audience, it’s just been a real reminder of the value of what we do. It’s really important for us to have these conversations with live people in rooms. And so, I guess that the simple answer to your question is I’ve gotten through it and, hopefully like everybody else, hopefully getting through it.
ELYSA GARDNER: Right. And Anna?
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Yeah. I, you know, I think that what I realized was that I think I intellectually understood how much being a theater director was a part of my identity. I don’t think I kind of emotionally understood it. So for me, what I felt happen was this kind of tether to a huge part of who I am was, was broken, you know, and I, if that’s something that’s never been broken, I mean, when you think about, when I think about every other kind of way I’ve inhabited my life in an external and internal way. I mean, I’ve been in relationships that have ended, you know, I’ve lost a parent I’ve, you know, you know, all of the, kind of, you know, the consistent, the most consistent relationships to other people have, have found themselves in a stop-start modality, but being a theater director has not at all ever been in a stop-start and I started doing this when I was 18 years old. So suddenly there was, you know, this, this huge part of who I was and how I inhabit the world was gone. And as dramatic as that sounds, and at times it was dramatic, it did actually ask me to reshape my life and kind of maybe the ratio of where my energy goes, recognize what had meaning for me. You know, like Tracy and Carrie, Ian and I, you know, we didn’t have what most of our friends had, which was a real financial terror, just terror. I think it revealed a lot of ways for theater people that the system is broken and doesn’t work. I mean, when you get health insurance based on how many weeks you work and suddenly your industry is gone, I don’t think that’s really great for the country. So certain things, right, have to get looked at. So it was a time of a lot of reflection, which was incredibly privileged and just like I feel going back to being able to do The Minutes, felt like an incredible privilege. And so I sit really comfortably in my good fortune right now.
ELYSA GARDNER: Mmm. I imagine you devoted some time to The Minutes over the shutdown and kept in touch with each other. Did you, there was a, it was a very newsie time [chuckles] that’s probably not the right word, but a lot happened in the past few years. I’m wondering if anything inspired you to do any tweaks or if you’ve revisited anything?
TRACY LETTS: There’s not a lot. And in fact, I mean, it’s interesting, I started work on the play in 2016 during the Trump/Clinton election cycle, and then when we put the show up in 2018, Trump was president. And then when we brought the show to New York in 2020, the next election cycle was really just beginning and the pandemic started and now here we are with another president, and what we find each time we come back to it is that the play is more true, more accurate, more scary. The play hasn’t changed much, but the time kind of catches up to the play. And so in the first days of writing and in 2016, it almost read like a kind of science fiction slash horror story and it just seems a lot less like science fiction or horror now, or rather real life, or I suppose is what it is. It’s just becoming more and more true. I truly wish that wasn’t the case. I truly wish people would look at my play and say, “Boy, he got that wrong and the world was actually a better place,” but it just doesn’t seem to be the case.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. I refer to the play, I think as bitingly funny, but also very sobering. I mean, it is very much both those things and I was going to add timely and even prescient, like you said, as I’m sure you did not want to be prescient, I, I assumed as much, but for those who haven’t seen it yet and you should, it follows a small town council meeting where there’s a relatively new council member who missed the last meeting. He discovers there was a big issue with another council member, but he can’t get anyone to tell him what the issue was, to show him the notes, or getting a better sense of what’s going on. I’m not going to say anymore. Do you want to share a few details that you think are particularly relevant and maybe tell me a little more about the impetus for writing it?
TRACY LETTS: Well, normally I think about these plays for so many years before I start work on them that it’s actually hard to pinpoint. I mean, by the time I start working on it, there are so many, so many different ideas and creative impulses that have contributed to the creation of the thing. I can say that when I first started it, the impulse, I was watching an old Frankenstein movie actually. And I was really struck by the character of the villagers. Uh, the villagers appear in the Frankenstein movie and they’re always a kind of fully-formed group with their pitchforks and their torches. And they are totally unified in their purpose. And I got to thinking these, what, did they have a meeting before they decided to get their pitchforks? Was there any dissent? Was there one villager saying, “I don’t think we should go after the monster, I think that’s a bad idea?” So, I was thinking of a kind of comic exploration of that. But then I was, as everybody was, I was totally captivated by the political season and the tribal affiliations that were strong then, stronger now, continue to get even more deeply entrenched. And I’m also from Oklahoma. The subject of the genocide of indigenous people is an important subject to me, my family, where I come from. And as I start to see these groups, as I say, more firmly entrenched the idea that one group is so…just digging their heels in about their version of history, legend versus history seemed to me to be the, I dunno, the stuff of drama. So that’s kind of where the initial impulse came.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. That idea of legend versus history, I mean, of looking at history retrospectively, you know, living in our time, what do we learn from it? What is accountability like? All of these issues come up so much in this play. Anna, I’m sure that was something you were thinking of when directing it.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Yeah. I think for me, it’s, it’s always about kind of just falling into the world that Tracy creates. Whatever world it is. And first kind of spending some time wandering around in it. And then second, you know, kicking the tires and I, I feel equally, well I’m just straight up distressed at how the play has gone from something that was an abstract of our moment to something that might end up being reportage. And that’s, that’s a journey I, quite frankly, did not think we were going to take. But this country continues to surprise me with its ability to disappoint me. So I think that it’s, it’s its own story right now. And, and dramatists like Tracy, who, whether they’re pressured or they’re kind of connected to something that the rest aren’t connected to, for me, it was about making sure that the audience experience the play in the way that life is feeling right now. That there’s a feeling of the play. There’s a tone. And that tone to me is exactly what it feels like to be living in this moment. It’s funny, Tracy, that you bring up that thing about the pitchforks. I was driving back from dropping off the kids and I don’t know why this came into my mind, but I think it was because I was on an earlier Zoom for a big musical that I’m in the process of doing. And three of us on the Zoom have COVID. I’m over mine. The two of them are finishing up, but I still have the brain fog. Which, I thought when people were saying brain fog, it meant like they couldn’t remember things. And it’s not that I can’t remember stuff. It’s that I can’t remember what I just said or what I just did. And so, I was thinking about the fact that I’d been on this meeting with three people who couldn’t think. All of whom can usually think, and we were laughing, but then as I was driving up my driveway, I thought, what if this is how we go out? What if this is like the slow, like, if COVID is just this manifestation of every mistake we’ve ever made? And it’s going to be the story of the, you know, the fall of this empire, of this human, not just of the Roman empire or, you know, of the fall of the kind of human race empire, what will the moment be? And we talked a lot in The Minutes about the tipping point and that tipping point where we, you, go from laughing about the fact that there’s three people that can’t think on a meeting to suddenly a population of people who can no longer put enough thoughts in order to keep the thing going. And this is the way that people get, you know, why doubt. It’s the same conversation about morality, integrity, humanity. And we’ve said it a lot that can change in a minute. And that’s the feeling that, you know, we’re trying to capture in the show.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, and there is a very abrupt change. A moment, of, I should say, a shift. There is a shift in the show. When I say abrupt, I mean, it’s incredibly compelling dramatically. And it feels like the show becomes something else. Although you kind of feel like in retrospect, we could see where it was going all along. Handling that, managing that, uh, as a director and a playwright, I’m interested going from that, you know, very broad comedy to something that’s really horrific. I’m taking the company with you. And how did you manage that, that company sort of comradery? I would imagine that was needed for this.
TRACY LETTS: Well, I will say, first of all, it’s always been part of the play. It was part of the conceit of the play from the first moment I wrote it. I always knew that tone shift was coming in. So it is written. I’m glad that when it happens, it is both surprising and yet inevitable. That was absolutely part of the, uh, construction of the play. It has its challenges. It’s tricky. It’s tricky to pull off. And you depend not only on your director, you depend not only on the deftness of your actors, but you also depend on an audience to take the trip with you. We have found, I think, from the earliest days, you know, when you first put up a new play, you just don’t know if it works until you get it in front of people. You just don’t know if the whole, any, I was like, does this car even run? Will it take me to the, to the corner grocery? And the first time we put it up, I realized, oh, it works. It does work. And there’s a kind of flat affect at the beginning. Audience leans in to watch as they become more and more compelled by the characters. They find them funny and they become really engaged with the humor of the piece. And then by the time we pull the rug out from under them, they’re fully engaged in the piece. And I have to say that when that shift happens, there’s such a long silence in the audience. Pin drop silence. To be able to sustain it for as long as we do, I don’t know that I’ve ever really heard it in the theater before. So it’s really a testament to sort of everybody who’s involved with the thing and yeah, it’s challenging. We’re also, Anna and I, are both blessed and cursed to work with actors for 20, 30, 40 years. And they are not only deeply experienced, but they’re very well-versed in the construction of new work. And so they know how to interrogate new work. They know the questions to ask. You’re not going to get away with anything. You’re not going to pull the wool over any of these actors’ eyes. They’re always going to probe the soft spot and say, this doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t make this make sense. And, Anna and I, we’ll continue to have those conversations and fight those fights until we’re all on the same page about what it is we’re doing.
ELYSA GARDNER: You’ve assembled an amazing cast with some Steppenwolf cast members reprising their roles here, including people like Jeff Still and Sally Murphy and Ian Barford, who are known for their amazing work here on Broadway as well. And they’re joined by Blair Brown, Jessie Mueller, Austin Pendleton, and Noah Reed, in his Broadway debut. Tracy, you were not in the Steppenwolf production, but you’re playing the mayor here. Mayor Superba. I love that name. What inspired you to join this?
TRACY LETTS: Mayor Superba, by the way is named after my refrigerator. My refrigerator was called a Superba and I thought it was a good name for the character.
ELYSA GARDNER: I thought it was some kind of pun on suburbia. The “not superb, but suburb.”
TRACY LETTS: Several different levels, but it was, in fact, my refrigerator. I never wanted to be part of the play. I’ve never wanted to be part of any play that I’ve written. I’ve never written roles for me to play. I remember Laurie Metcalf saying to me, “man, if I could write, I’d write myself the greatest part.” And I said, “that’s just an actor talking. Of course you, you would do that.” And I said, “but as a writer, I just don’t think I could do both jobs as well if I were trying to do them both at the same time.” Bill Peterson played the part in Chicago and he was great and I wish he had done it in New York, but for personal reasons, he couldn’t. And so we started scouting about for an actor to play the role. And we offered it to a lot of people. These guys who are the right age to play this part, they’re not hurting for work. They have their choice of the projects they want to work on. And they are, to be frank, not necessarily appreciative of the joys of ensemble acting. And The Minutes is a play that very evenly distributes the ball among the 11 players up there. So we eventually got to a point on the list where it’s like, well, look, if the only way we can make this happen is if I step in and play the part, then I’ll do it. And I did it. And the only reason I’m able to do it is because of my long collaboration with Anna, because she–I just trusted her entirely. Not only to manage my performance, but even to manage in a sense, my time, my creative energy. To say to me, “now is the time to put on your writer’s hat and join me out here in a conversation about the play” and “now is the time for you to put on your actors hat and stop thinking about the writing of the play and learn how to play your part.”
ELYSA GARDNER: Anna, I know that Ian Barford, your husband, is one of the terrific ensemble members in this play. How did you assemble the cast once, you know, in bringing it first and getting it together for the Steppenwolf production and then moving it to New York two years later. Were there were a lot of gaps to fill in?
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Well, when we first were doing it at Steppenwolf, you know, the first cast is always the ensemble. Steppenwolf is an acting ensemble, the programming and the casting is really led by the ensemble members’ interests. It’s a really rare place where actors have a little bit more agency than they maybe do in the rest of the world. And, you know, Tracy’s certainly had certain people in mind for certain parts. And then of course, that always shifts up in certain ways. Somebody says, oh wait, can I–I’d really rather do this. And can I either audition for that or can I, you know, opt into it? Can we just be talked into it? So we cast primarily from the ensemble at first, and then when we moved the first time, there were a couple of Steppenwolf ensemble members who couldn’t, or didn’t want to come to Broadway. They’ve all been, so it doesn’t have quite the novelty it has the first time you go. And there are a couple with families and things that they just, you know, didn’t want to be away from those other priorities. And so we did some recasting. And, in all honesty, we did have to do some shifting and some recasting just in terms of ticket sales. You know, when we did August: Osage County in 2008. Right, 2008. Nobody knew who anybody was up there. And I think Tracy and I would argue that was part of the fun and the success of the thing. This ability to, as an audience member, kind of completely suspend your disbelief and pretend this was really happening. I think the current financial model on Broadway, just that makes it, makes it really hard, especially with an American company. Somehow, the Brits, bless their hearts, still seem to be able to bring their companies. But for us, it’s really challenging. Jeffrey Richards is, you know, one of the few producers who will do everything he can to keep as many Steppenwolf people as possible. So we did some recasting based on basically what people wanted to be doing and what the, what the show needed in order to be competitive in the marketplace.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Well, as a way of wrapping up, I’d love for you to tell me a bit about your work dynamic after all these years of working together as the particular–not that you work together constantly, but you know each other very well at this point. And is there a particular quality that you look for in each other’s work that, that draws you back to each other?
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: I can say that I trust if Tracy thinks that I should do a play of his, up to a point, right. He trusts, up to a point, if I want to do one. So we have that, like, I think that we would both feel very comfortable if I said to Tracy, “oh, can I direct that?” If he said, no, I would trust that. So I trust his no, which is way more important, frankly, than trusting somebody’s yes. In every aspect of moving through something. We have a very consistent connection in life. In day-to-day life. It’s not like we talk everyday on the phone or anything cuckoo like that, but we’re aware of each other’s state; we’re aware of where each other is in the world. We’re aware of what is preoccupying the other. And so going into a room to do this job that we both love so much with the kind of comprehensive awareness of where your partner is in life, especially as we get older and, and work, oddly is not the most important thing anymore, or is for most of our life together. It’s all crazy. It’s something we share. We are, in quote, very competitive, very ambitious. It’s been a huge engine for us, but there’s a kind of comprehensive understanding of one another as people that I actually really think helps us both do our job better. I appreciate feeling known by Tracy when I’m working and I try to return that favor. And so, I think the dynamic is of real trust. And even though there are times where I think if some directors or playwrights would watch us, they’d be like, “wow, that line is blurry.” Like Tracy’s giving a direction over there and Anna’s got a thought about the way the line is said. That’s not a very nuanced read of what we’re doing because when Tracy steps in, and is perhaps directing something, it’s because he’s writing that moment. He’s just writing that moment in the room. And if I have something to say about what something is saying, I’m not rewriting anything, I’m directing through the words at that moment. And I think he and I understand that about each other and it makes the process, for me, really fun. And I feel like I am the best at this job in a room with him. And I think it makes the actors really happy. I think they really like it. So I think that’s, that’s, that’s, what’s special about it. There’s a kind of comprehensive connectedness.
ELYSA GARDNER: Is it different working with the actor and the writer? I’m sure it is, just in terms of what you do.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: I think that what I will say is that when we first did it two years ago, the actor was more fragile than I remember him being. The writer’s never fragile. I’ve never experienced Tracy as fragile he’s so–he’s just all in, as my husband always says about Tracy, he’s all in. But he was a little bit more fragile and I remember asking him about it and we talked about it. But what’s been cool is that–whatever happened over the two years of COVID–that fragility now is gone. So, there’s like the actor I remember plus like 10,000. So it’s been really fun to direct him, cause he’s a brilliant actor. He was even brilliant when he was fragile. But he, I like watching him be able to kind of stretch everything. But I will say I do really miss having him sit next to me in the process. Just that, that I missed a few times. Like profoundly.
ELYSA GARDNER: And Tracy, how would you compare the experiences? By the way, there was nothing fragile about Mayor Superba [laughter] that I noticed when you were on stage.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: That’s right.
TRACY LETTS: Well, I’ll say this. I’m very fortunate to know some, some great directors and to have. And I think I’ve just been very lucky too with–I’ve had the kind of luck of the draw with directors. I can say with every play that I’ve written, in terms of first productions, premiere productions of plays, and that’s nine plays. I’ve written ten. One, one, apparently, will never be produced. But of those nine that have been produced, with every one of them, I had a very clear picture in my head of the way that play was going to look. And the nine premiere productions looked nothing like the picture in my head. None of them looked anything like the picture in my head. They were all better. They were all so much better than what I saw in my head. I don’t know other playwrights who have this experience. So either, they’re working with lesser directors or they just have a different expectation of what their plays are going to look like. But I just feel real damn lucky. And after having that experience with Anna now over 30 years, I’m entirely trusting when she tells me. I didn’t know Noah Reed from Adam. I have not seen Schitt’s Creek. I did not know who he was. I could not have recognized him in a lineup. And when Anna says to me, “he’s the guy,” I say, “okay, he’s the guy. Let’s do it.” And he’s, she’s absolutely right. He is the guy. He’s superb in the part. And again, it’s just trust that’s evolved over 30 years time. Anna and I don’t fight much in the rehearsal room because we don’t need to fight. If one of us is mad enough to fight, then they’re probably right. [chuckles] So the fight gets dropped pretty quick.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wow. That’s, that’s a little bit of wisdom you’ve just imparted there. I hope some playwrights are listening. [laughter]
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: So do I. [laughter]
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, listen, it’s been such a treat to have you both on. Is there anything…I know, Anna, I was intrigued when you mentioned working on a musical–on a big musical. Is there anything you’re working on now that you would like to discuss or…?
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Oh, no, no, that’s okay. I’m so happy to be talking about The Minutes. I can’t tell you. I’m so, so, so proud of it. I’m so excited that we did it. It’s great.
TRACY LETTS: What’s your music–say what your musical is! You can…
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: My musical is The Devil Wears Prada.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh, that’s right. Oh my goodness. How silly of me. I’ve read that. Of course.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: We go into rehearsal on the 20th. So, in less than two weeks.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wow. And Tracy, are you, anything you’d like to mention? Aside from, I know, you’re always multitasking.
TRACY LETTS: I am. I have a couple of adaptations in the work. But the truth of the matter is I have found it, well, I was going to say hard, the truth is impossible to write anything original during this pandemic. Now, that sounds like a lament. I suppose it is. But the truth is that working on stage again, being back in a rehearsal room, being back up on stage with these people, seeing these gifted actors every night–I have the best seat in the house–has absolutely got my theatrical imagination stewing again. So I am eager to get back to work on something original for the stage, but nothing in the works right now, no.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, and you, having a couple of little kids will also keep you pretty busy. I’m sure. [laughter]
TRACY LETTS: Pretty busy as it turns out, yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: But, well, again, we look forward to that. Look forward to all your future projects and thank you for spending some time with us. Stay safe and healthy.
TRACY LETTS: Thank you.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Fantastic to talk to you.
ELYSA GARDNER: You too. Thanks.
ANNA D. SHAPIRO: Bye-bye.
TRACY LETTS: Bye.
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway, and to find tickets to your next show, you can visit BroadwayDirect.com. And if you liked our show, please follow us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And don’t forget to share and rate Stage Door Sessions so that fellow theater fans can find us too. This podcast is produced by BroadwayDirect and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and Paul Art Smith, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to seeing you again on Broadway.