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BWW Interviews: By George! How Tracy Letts Remade a Classic

With the year coming to an end, Tracy Letts and the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are showing up on many "best theater of 2012" lists. Letts' performance of George in the Edward Albee masterwork has been hailed as not just superb but historic. George has often been thought of as a meek codependent to the braying Martha, but Letts' George is assertive and undominated, and their relationship seems more naturalistic, and sexier, than ever before. This production of Virginia Woolf, directed by Pam MacKinnon, originated in 2010 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts has been a company member for a decade. Steppenwolf also originated the last Letts project to receive bounteous accolades in New York--though that was a play he wrote, 2007's Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County (earlier this year Steppenwolf produced an adaptation of The Three Sisters by Letts). Amy Morton, who costarred in Osage County and has played opposite Letts many times in Chicago, is Martha in Virginia Woolf. The groundbreaking 1962 drama had a Broadway revival just seven years ago--for which Bill Irwin won a Tony as George--and was famously made into a movie by Mike Nichols. Letts recently spoke with BroadwayWorld about how he's helped make audiences look anew at this American classic.

picWhat was your history with George before this production?
Both of my parents were English teachers, and my dad used to teach this play so I always remember a dog-eared copy of the paperback sitting around the house somewhere. When I first got into acting when I was a teenager, I remember reading this play a lot and speaking the lines aloud. So I can remember playing the role of George when I was 15, 16 years old--in the privacy of my home. I certainly was familiar with the movie. My parents exposed me to some mature work when I was a kid, and I remember the movie pretty vividly.
Amy Morton directed a production of this play at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta [in 2004], and she called me and asked if I would do it. I was a bit young for the part--I was 38 at the time--but I accepted immediately, knowing I could not pass up an opportunity to do this. And then when I did the play, I was working with an actress playing Martha for her third time. At one point I was particularly nervous, probably during previews, and this actress said to me, "You know, if you're suited for these roles, it's the kind of part you will play more than once in your life. So look at this as just your first opportunity to start to learn this guy. You'll get other shots at it." And of course that's the way it turned out. We started this production at Steppenwolf two years ago, and then took it to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., so in some ways this is the fourth time I've taken on the part.

How does it feel to be lauded for making this iconic role, which other actors have made famous and won awards for, your own?
How does it feel? It feels great that people are responding the way that they are. I'm delighted that people are rediscovering Mr. Albee's play. I think sometimes these things, especially because of movies, can become identified with a set of symbols, and we start to forget what they're really about. Streetcar Named Desire is a really good example of that. Brando's performance was so defining, not only of that piece but of him as an actor and of the whole shift in acting style, and yet if you're going to do Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn't pay to sit around and talk about Marlon Brando. You have to figure out who Stanley Kowalski is. If you're doing Glengarry Glen Ross, you're doing a play about Chicago real estate salesmen. And similarly with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's a play about a university professor and his wife, who is the daughter of the president of this small-town college. They're not Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, they're these two people in this town. Well, anyway, it is gratifying to hear that people are responding to the play again, and not just to its iconic status.

picWas it your intention to transform George?
No, I wouldn't say so. There was never a time we sat in rehearsals and said, "We want to reinvent Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We've got a different take on this!" I think in order to do that we would have had to be in discussion about things that other people had done [in the roles]. We didn't really do that. We just opened the script up to page 1 and started work on it, as if it were a new play. That's often our approach at Steppenwolf, whether we're doing a new play or we're doing a classic. It's very actor-based; the questions we ask are actor questions: What am I doing here? What do I want, and what am I willing to do to get it? Those sorts of things. You look at the information that is given in the play about the character, you look at the information that other characters give about the character, and you make choices based on that. There's no payoff in trying to address what other people have done with it.

How much of this "new" George is your making and how much comes from Pam's direction?
Boy, that's a tough one to answer, 'cause you never know. Look, if I were left to my own devices, I'd be up there doing something, but I can't imagine how shapeless and perhaps [with] moments lacking in taste it would be. All actors--I don't care how good, how accomplished, how creative they may be--benefit from the guiding hand of a good director. Pam's got a very keen eye, and we had a very keen dialogue based on this story we felt we needed to tell. wanted to tell. Again, you sort of roll up your sleeves with the script and ask yourself: What is the story we want to tell people out in the audience? How do I best tell that story? How can I embody this person in order to best communicate these ideas? you've gotta have a good director to do this, so I don't really know where Pam leaves off and I begin.

picDo you feel George has been mischaracterized by audiences and critics?
I don't know about that. It's easier for me to talk about that in terms of Amy than myself. For instance, if I hear somebody criticizing Amy's performance for not being of a certain size, I get mad about that. She's not Judy Garland in Carnegie Hall, she's a small-town daughter of a university president. I've lived in a small town where a college is, my folks both taught at one. There are certain realities about those towns that are undeniable. The fact is that Martha's a human being, and she's in this marriage, she's a real person. Like I said, it's easier for me to bristle and get indignant on Amy's behalf than mine.

So how do you see George?
I think he's a lot of things. One of the reasons he's such a compelling character is he's very complex. George is not any one thing. I can feel sometimes when I'm out there performing it the sort of sway of the audience as they align themselves with George and go "George is my man," but then George does something that the audience does not like or approve of and you can feel them sort of stepping back and going, How do I really feel about this guy? He's clearly very smart--I mean, monstrously smart--and he's very funny. He has a dry wit, and also a ferocious wit. If you listen to what Martha says about George, at one point she says that he has no personality. Clearly, that's not true. George has kind of an incredible personality, kind of a mesmerizing personality. Similarly, when George calls Martha a monster, a gorgon, a harpy, whatever the words are, you have to call some of that into question too. We don't always call each other what we actually are.
One of the key things about George for me is he loves his wife a lot. And if that's the case, he's capable of great love. Ultimately, that to me makes him a sympathetic character. He not only loves his wife, he's willing to fight for it. That shows a certain fortitude in my mind. Though George is backed into the corner a number of times in the play, he's very resourceful. It would seem as if he has no options, and yet invariably he finds some way out of a jam that he's in--either a small verbal one, or a much larger one in terms of his marriage. So I find a lot to admire in him. He's also damaged goods. He has a troubled history. And if either of these people, George or Martha, was healthy enough to say, "I love you and you're hurting me; please stop hurting me," maybe we wouldn't have a play, but... They're damaged goods, but that's what makes them interesting and ultimately identifiable for audiences.

picDid you stay connected to the play as more than a year passed between the Arena Stage production and Broadway?
One thing we did was we decided to get together as a cast once every couple of months and run the lines. They're famously difficult lines to learn. So we thought maybe there's a way not to lose all of the work we've done on it. We'd lost a lot of the lines, but we were able to simply remind ourselves of the tentpoles of the play: This is where you need to be at this time...Okay, this is the story we're telling. So we did keep it alive for ourselves in that way. In addition, I did play a couple of other parts. I was in Enda Walsh's play Penelope and the Will Eno play Middletown at Steppenwolf. I did another Will Eno play called The Realistic Joneses up at Yale. I wasn't doing with George in mind, but I did think when I accepted those roles there's value in keeping the instrument oiled and functioning. You can get stale if you haven't been on stage in a while. So I thought it was valuable to keep working.

Does this role take more of a toll on you physically than others typically do?
Ohhhh, yes. Most definitely. This part is very demanding and I'm a 47-year-old man, so I have to make sure I get plenty of sleep every night, I have to make sure that I get some exercise, that I eat well. I eat a hell of a lot of protein--me and Amy both. We've never eaten so much meat in our lives. And taking it easy on my voice. Those are things I wouldn't have to be so mindful of playing other parts.

Do you have to be on vocal rest between performances?
Nothing so defined as that. I do try to take it easy with my "social schedule," not that it would be that packed anyway. I seem to find myself in a pattern of seeing a play perhaps once every two weeks--we have Wednesday night and Sunday night off--I see friends every now and again, but for the most part I take it pretty easy. I wouldn't call it "vocal rest" exactly. I'm blessed with a strong set of pipes, so I don't have to do too much to left them recover.

picAre you a different actor from your fellow actors because you're also a playwright?
Oh, God, I hope I'm able to put all that aside, because it's really not useful. The last thing you need when you're playing a part is having the writer part of your brain, or the director part of your brain [guiding you]--it's not helpful. I'm hopeful that I can take things that I learn as an actor and then apply them to my craft as a playwright. But I'm certainly not up there consciously making decisions based on things I know or gleaned as a playwright. One thing I knew about acting even before I ever wrote a play is that language has primacy in the theater. Language is important, especially if you're doing Edward Albee. It's carefully written, and we're carefully delivering his words. We're word-for-word up there, we're honoring his punctuation up there. But I don't think I'm doing that as a playwright; I think I'm doing that as an actor.

Has Edward Albee influenced you as a playwright?
Sure. Absolutely. He's influenced me as a playwright; he's influenced you as a writer, as a person. I think his influence is far-reaching, not only to the theater but to American culture. I think that he's such an important voice in post-World War II literature that he's had a huge impact on all mediums. Now, I can't necessarily point to things directly and say, "Well, that comes from Albee." I hope my writing is personalized enough that my writing is about me, just as Mr. Albee's writing is about him. But there's no doubt that he's had influence.

You've been well-received in New York as both a playwright and an actor. Has it made you consider relocating here?
Work has brought me here a lot, and I enjoy coming here and sharing my work. But it's not my city. I live in Chicago, I love Chicago, it's the right temperament for me. I enjoy being able to come here as a kind of ambassador and bring Chicago-style theater to New York. But the idea of permanently transplanting here...I'm 47, I'm very comfortable where I am, I don't feel the need to make a change like that.

picAre there differences between Chicago and New York audiences?
Probably. I don't know exactly what they are. For one thing, there's a tourist trade that exists here that fuels so much--of Broadway, in particular. Are the audiences different? I don't know. I know that at Steppenwolf we're very fortunate to have audiences that embrace new work. We will have just as many audiences complaining about the lack of new as we have complaining about the lack of extant plays. Chicago's great for that. It's why I think it's the best city that I can be in as a playwright: I's a city that really embraces the new. I'm sure there are audiences in New York who want that too, but it's just a question of economics. It's so expensive to produce theater in New York, it's hard to take a risk on new plays. But in terms of the audience response to this show, it's very similar in New York as it was in Chicago.

What about the media in the two cities?
Oh, God, that's a monumental difference. In some ways it's the biggest difference. There's so much media here, so much more than there is in Chicago. Chicago, we have two newspapers, and Time Out magazine, and a couple of free weeklies, and three or four websites...it just can't compare to New York in terms of the media attention. New York also lures a lot of really good journalists--I've met a lot of sharp minds writing about the theater in New York. It actually gives me some hope for the theater, to know that there are people writing about the theater here who are very engaged in the life of the theater, in the lifeblood of the theater.

Now that the Les Miserables movie is about to open, the next big stage-to-screen adaptation everyone's awaiting is August: Osage County [which will star Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor]. Do you have any secrets from the set to share?
I wasn't there! I did write the screenplay, and I went to location for one day. We were in rehearsal for Virginia Woolf, so I could not be there for any of the shoot. I went there the first day that everybody arrived, and we sat around the table and did the table read. It was fun, and it was kind of a nervous room, as it always is on the first day. There were a lot of heavy hitters in that room. They asked their questions, and they were good questions, and I answered them; then they took me out and showed me the house; and we had dinner and I flew back. So I'm afraid I don't have any juicy stuff. All the reports I got from the set were "boring," in that they were reports of glowing professionalism. I've got no bad behavior to report.

What will you be working on next?
You know, I don't have the slightest idea. I normally have things booked a year or two in advance, but I very intentionally kept the decks clear for Virginia Woolf and after. I just don't know how long the show is going to run--it's an open run. They're selling tickets till the end of February. Also, I just wanted to give this all of my energy. I didn't want to be occupied with thinking about the next thing. I can't lie about the fact that this is a--what would you call it?--a new peak as an actor. I've been acting my whole life, and to find myself at 47 years old making my Broadway debut in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is heady stuff. I'm very grateful, and I'm very conscious of the opportunity I've been given, so I'm just trying to give it my all.

Photos of Tracy, from top: three scenes as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the second two with Amy Morton as Martha; with Brenda Barrie in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's 2011 production of Middletown; his headshot; in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with (from left) Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon. [Production photos by Michael Brosilow]

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