News & Articles

Artistic Director Interviews the Playwright

by Martha Lavey and Tracy Letts

INTERVIEW Martha Lavey: Tracy, when did you start writing Superior Donuts? Tracy Letts: I started the first rough draft of Superior Donuts over a year ago. ML: At which point you had already written August: Osage County and it was being produced, is that right? TL: Well, we were not in rehearsal yet, but there were drafts of August and the play had been cast. ML: But you hadn’t seen it manifest yet. TL: Right. ML: And you started writing again? TL: Yes. August is a very big play and I knew that I wanted to have something else in the pipeline before it came out. I knew that it would be very hard for me to generate a new project once August premiered if I didn’t already have one in motion. ML: Why? TL: One of the biggest issues any writer deals with is the critic that sits on their shoulder and jabs them in the neck while they are sitting at their computer or typewriter and tells them, “That’s no good! People aren’t going to like that!” It’s very hard to get rid of that little devil and clear your mind to tell a story. Given the nature of August, which was very personal to me and which had a kind of epic scope to it, I thought that the production would raise the bar for my next work. Therefore, I needed to have something already in motion to silence that little critic. ML: Your first play, Killer Joe, was very successful. Did you experience that inhibition of success with your subsequent play, Bug? TL: A little bit, yes. There was no way I could anticipate the success of Killer Joe. I thought we were going to run for a few weeks in a little theatre in Evanston and that was going to be it. I really did. But before I knew it we were playing the West End in London. The bar had definitely been raised. It’s happened to me with all of my plays. There also comes a moment in the process when the play no longer feels like it’s a part of you. It takes on its own life, its own energy. This has happened now with August. I look at the play and I don’t recognize it as my own anymore. Because of that distancing, every time I sit down to write a play I feel as though I’ve never written one before and I’m starting from scratch. ML: When you started Superior Donuts, having not seen August in production yet, did it come out in a fairly fluid manner? TL: I think it did, actually, because I think August made me a better writer. With each play I feel a little more confident, as one should. I had been doing such intensive work on August that the wheels were pretty well greased, in a way. When it’s going that way, I don’t tend to head down a lot of blind alleys. I know the story I want to tell. ML: In late 2006 as we were preparing for our season exploring what it means to be an American, you brought me what was then Act 1 of Superior Donuts, which I thought was really persuasive. And you thought you could finish the second act. And then... TL: And then my world changed a great deal, for two reasons primarily, the first of which was the success of August and its subsequent move to Broadway, which, again, could not have been predicted. The move was very time consuming because there were rewrites involved and there was a lot of press. And obviously it was complicated too by the fact that not only was my father in the play but he was also diagnosed with lung cancer during that period. So Superior Donuts got shoved way to the back. ML: And when did you pick it up again? TL: In January of this year. ML: And you decided that it wasn’t going to be two acts. TL: Well, I wrote the second act and realized there was no compelling reason to interrupt the flow of action. For there to be two acts, I think there should be a compelling reason in the structure of the piece. ML: Tracy, what was the instigating idea or image that sparked Superior Donuts? TL: I can almost never answer this question. It’s really hard for me to track backwards. It always seems to me it was a variety of things, a scattering of seeds that suddenly take root somehow. I’ve lived in Chicago for 22 years now, which is longer than I lived in Oklahoma. All of my plays previous to Superior Donuts have been set in the Plains. August was such a catharsis for me and my family that I felt a real need to put that part of the country behind me for now, not to say that I won’t revisit it again. I wanted to explore my current home. I’m a Chicagoan. I’ve been here for too long not to call myself a Chicagoan, and I love my city. Well, as with any big city, you have a love/hate relationship with it. I do, anyway. I was interested in exploring what my city means to me. ML: How old were you when you came to Chicago? Twenty years old? TL: Yes. ML: What made you come? TL: I followed a girl. ML: So you had a place to live? TL: No, I didn’t really. She was living with other roommates, and eventually she and I moved in with each other. I had eschewed college and gone to Dallas to pursue acting for a couple years. Obviously, theatre is not a big part of the culture there. And I was scared of New York and Los Angeles, and I didn’t have any money. I remember driving here the summer of ‘85, which was the first time I visited Chicago and I just loved it. ML: Where was your first residence? TL: An apartment on Waveland, a couple blocks from Wrigley Field. As a total coincidence, it’s apparently the same apartment Terry Kinney lived in when he first moved to Chicago. ML: Did you feel like a country boy at all? TL: Yeah, absolutely. I did feel very out of place. ML: When I came to Northwestern from Detroit I remember standing in line with all these other theatre majors from New York who were discussing what was currently on Broadway. I felt like such a rube. I thought, “Everybody knows about the theatre except for me.” TL: I think what trumped that feeling for me, Martha, was acceptance in the theatre community. I had never had a lot of acceptance until I discovered theatre. Upon discovering people with whom I had a common language and interest, I was so delighted. I remember at one point thinking Superior Donuts was about an immigrant experience, that this city is a melting pot. There came a point when I realized I don’t know anything about the immigrant experience. It was only later when I started thinking about my journey to Chicago from Oklahoma when I thought, “Well, I am an immigrant, in a sense.” You know, there’s a big difference between Durant, Oklahoma and Chicago, Illinois. I hope Superior Donuts is an exploration of Chicago storefront experience. Superior Donuts is about a Polish American donut shop owner, Arthur Przybyszewski. He has a small shop in Uptown that’s been in his family for 60 years. He hires a young Black fellow, Franco Wicks, to work with him in the donut shop, which is in disrepair. Arthur seems to have slipped out of the matrix of life. ML: It feels to me that ethnicity does play a role in Superior Donuts in a robust, irreverent way. I’ve noticed that in Chicago people identify by their ethnic background. It’s acceptable to identify yourself as Irish or Polish in Chicago. I don’t know if that’s true everywhere. TL: It’s certainly not true where I came from. I had never heard it before in my life, other than the identification of Native American blood which was sort of necessary in Oklahoma. I never heard distinctions made between Irish Americans, English Americans, German Americans. ML: Here you do though, right? TL: All the time. Every day. ML: Should we add any concluding remarks? TL: The play’s a comedy. You get to talking about all the other reasons a play comes into being and you forget to talk about the entertainment value. I think Chicago audiences are going to get a kick out of this play.