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Letter from the Artistic Director on Superior Donuts

by Martha Lavey

When Tracy Letts, Anna Shapiro, Amy Morton and I met to discuss the 2007-2008 season, we knew that we were centering the season around the question of “What does it mean to be an American?”. Together with the artistic office, we had been reading a group of plays, discussing projects with our ensemble directors, and negotiating the balance we hoped to achieve with new work, extant plays, and production scale and tone. We knew we wanted a new work and Tracy said, “I have a new play—it’s not finished yet but I can have it ready for ‘07-’08.” We had just produced Tracy’s play, August: Osage County, and were excited about the prospect of introducing another play by one of our ensemble writers. It was a risk, to program an unfinished play on the season, but we bet on Tracy’s tremendous talent and on our commitment to ensemble relationships. It was a good bet. Tracy finished his play—despite the huge commitments on his time and concentration that ensued when August went on to a Broadway production. On April the 7th, Tracy was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for August. The tidal wave of attention that has been, felicitously, showered on August, Tracy, and Steppenwolf is a gift and a joy. The theater and our artists have been graced with accolades and we feel enormously fortunate to be the recipients of such good will. The challenge for the writer, in the face of such success, is: what’s next? As Tracy would be more able than I to attest, writing a play is a lonely occupation. No level of outside world clamor and approbation can alleviate the hard task of sitting down with one’s ideas and parsing them into a play. In fact, that outside world attention can create a unhelpful pressure—a sense of expectation that might serve as an inhibition to a writer. The possibility that success can provide its own inhibitions for the writer is yet another reason that we are so grateful to have programmed Superior Donuts on our 2007-2008 season. The “what next?” had already been registered by the time that August sprung into such spectacular, public success. The writer was committed; he was in his artistic home; he was set to his task. The joy of the exercise is that Tracy knew, even before August had moved on to its most visible platform on Broadway, that he wanted his next play to be a work in an alternate key. Where August was a huge work—a multi-generational story of family writ on the epic scale—Superior Donuts was to be a more intimate piece. August surveys Tracy’s roots in Oklahoma, the home of his birth. Superior Donuts is set in Chicago, the home of his adult choosing. It is, as Tracy has said, his love letter to this city. The key-change was deliberate and, happily for the writer, the production of the new play was secure. As a theater, and as Tracy’s artistic home, our commitment is to the artist—our hope is to provide the writer an open space to pursue his voice as he sees fit. If Superior Donuts is a love letter, it is, too, a story of loss. (As may be inevitable in every tale of love.) The Chicago that forged the character of our hero, Arthur Przybyszewski, is slipping away. The institutions and personalities that defined that Chicago are fading and a new Chicago is hustling its way onto the stage. Tracy sets the play in Uptown—a port of entry for Chicago’s marvelously diverse immigrant population. In doing so, he captures the bubbling, conflicting energies of people struggling for survival, people fighting to gain purchase on a sense of belonging and prosperity. Arthur, representative of a previous generation of immigrants, is confronted with a challenge: can he maintain his place in this revised landscape? Will he fight for what he loves (and might lose) or will he, like so much of what has shaped him, fade away? The energy of the new, the present, the urgent, forces his hand. He is challenged to declare himself... or fade away. One of the keen insights that Tracy brings to this perennial life challenge is to situate Arthur, who came of age during the Vietnam War, in this changed Chicago world. So much is in flux: Arthur’s generational journey, the city’s changing ethnic landscape, the country’s political disposition. This conflux of forces pressurizes the rite of passage to which the play bears witness. What will Arthur become? What will our city become? Our country? What are the forces that shape each and what are the values they obtain? You will sense the echo of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard (a play that Steppenwolf produced, under ensemble member Tina Landau’s direction in our 2004-2005 season). Cherry Orchard is the story of a group of people unable to adapt to a changed world—and what follows in their wake. Coincidentally, it is Tina Landau who directs Superior Donuts. This is the first time that Tracy and Tina have worked together. (As Tina has said, “I always wanted to work with Tracy but I always figured it would be with him as an actor.”) So here we go: a new play by Tracy Letts. A play set in Chicago, directed by Tina Landau. In its home at Steppenwolf. We are thrilled to offer you a new play by Tracy Letts—his love letter to the city we love.