News & Articles

Ensemble Member Tracy Letts on writing August: Osage County

2006-2007, Volume 5
by Tracy Letts


While it's rarely a simple matter to pinpoint the precise inspiration for a new play, the genesis of August: Osage County can be traced to my deliberate desire to write for an extant acting ensemble – in this case, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The hope of any playwright is that he or she can, through narrative, tap into universal themes. My first goal was to construct a narrative that holds a bushel of interest and a kernel of truth for the actors of this ensemble.

When reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by a nearly common denominator: place of birth. From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluffs, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people. Their stories are my stories. We share the history of families – mainly descendants of Irish or German or Dutch homesteaders – who forged their ethos from hardscrabble Depression years through the Baby Boom. We share the multi-generational conflict that inevitably arises when Those Who Have Nothing have willed their pride and guilt to Those Who Have Wanted for Nothing. August: Osage County is my attempt to explore this generational schism and the Midwestern sensibility with an ensemble of like-minded artists.

My play is a family story. (As Sam Shepard – still to this day Steppenwolf's most produced playwright – said when asked why he writes so much about family: "What else is there?") And after thirty years of intense artistic collaboration, the Steppenwolf ensemble is another kind of family. The politics of tribalism are common to both. It is my hope that August: Osage County will provide an artistically viable opportunity for Steppenwolf to learn how the dynamics of "family" continue to mold us and our approach to the world.