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Inside Linda Vista: A Conversation with Ensemble Member Tracy Letts

by Aaron Carter and Tracy Letts

Leading up to the first day of Linda Vista rehearsals, ensemble member and playwright Tracy Letts sat down with Steppenwolf’s Artistic and Marketing teams to talk about the play. Here is an excerpt from the conversation.

Aaron Carter, Artistic Producer: Tell us a bit about the origins of the piece. Where did it come from?

Tracy Letts: I’m never any good at this discussion about where a play comes from— because they come from—I don’t know where they come from, they come from a lot of places, and they come from nowhere. Sometimes I sit down to write a play and I start with a couple of guys, in a room, and they start talking to each other. And then I see if that turns into a play. It never does. (group laughs) It never does! It did with this one. And sometimes, when you’re writing a play, you feel the car start to skid off the road, and you fight to get the car back on the road. But sometimes, you go in the direction of the skid, you say “well, I’ll just see where this takes me.” And that was the case with this play. So a lot of it was very intuitive. But what it began to evolve into for me was a coming of age story about a 50-year-old man. As the play started to take shape, as Wheeler started to find his voice… the play started to dictate its own form, which is a contemporary comedy. I call this play a comedy. I know it has serious elements and there are serious issues at stake, but for me it’s a comedy. If you ask me to define what a comedy is, I’ll do it poorly. I know there are a lot of jokes, I hope people laugh, and nobody dies and we leave the theatre feeling happy. It’s a contemporary comedy set in a modern city.

John Zinn, Director of Marketing and Communications: Why did you choose the setting that you did? Why set the play in California? In San Diego?

Tracy Letts: The play takes place in a neighborhood in San Diego that is split demographically between the Latinx population and Vietnamese population. There are almost no white people in Linda Vista, certainly not in the neighborhood or in the apartment complex we’re talking about. It’s not lost on me that the last category of people who should be bitching about anything in this country are white men, especially white men of a certain age, or above a certain economic status. Some of the things Wheeler is in contemplation of reflect his privileged position—for me understanding that is part of the maturation process.

Another thing is, Wheeler is from Chicago and he’s displaced. He gave up his home 15 years ago, and I don’t think he ever in the course of the play recognizes that giving up your home is literally a disorienting thing to do. He feels like a guy that has much more of a Chicago vibe than a California vibe. Some of that culture-clash comedy comes from his Chicago-ness versus Minnie, who is a millennial Californian; she’s got such a different set of concerns and values than Wheeler does. And I guess I thought, too, from a purely cosmetic standpoint, if you’ve ever been to San Diego—it doesn’t have the gloss of Los Angeles, it doesn’t feel moneyed and cultured in the way San Francisco does— like any beach community it has a crappy cheeseburger-in-paradise feel. But it also has more days of sunlight than any other city in the US. There’s terrific beauty there.

John Zinn: You’ve talked about the Gen X / Millennial gap between Wheeler and Minnie, but we also see Wheeler in conversation with his generational contemporaries and those scenes are very revealing and realistic to a specific moment in one’s life and in one’s relationships.

Tracy Letts: One of the points made in the play is you should be able to trade in old friends for new friends—what’s more valuable to you, old friends or new friends? If you’re not going to change with your old friends or they’re not going to change with you, then what is this relationship you’re stuck in? Are you stuck in a relationship from 30 years ago? Wheeler is stuck; there’s a point that he hasn’t been able to move beyond. I’ve tried to represent him in his most reprehensible moments. We see him creating a lot of havoc but I don’t think he’s a malicious person, I think he’s doing the things he does because he’s lost, not because he’s bad. It’s one of the reasons I love Ian Barford in the part. Ian is sitting very powerfully in his 50s right now. For those of you who aren’t there yet, let me tell you that 50s—there’s a weight to it. On the one hand, it’s very comfortable, I love being in my 50s now, it’s a very comfortable feeling. But on the other hand, it’s an accumulation of a lot of years, and if you’re a person who hasn’t progressed, if you’re stuck… I have a lot of compassion for those guys, and for Wheeler, even though he’s going to challenge us to like him.

Casey VanWormer, Audience Services Director: Is there anything else people should be asking themselves while watching or after watching the play?

Tracy Letts: I find myself as a white man…deaf to certain things. There’s a point in the play where Anita, who works with Wheeler in the camera shop, says to him “I’m going to go back to school, I think I need to move on,” and he says, “No, good, you should!” I wrote it, meaning it to be an encouraging thing. Wheeler is saying to his friend, “That’s a good move for you, I applaud that.” But then I heard it and out of the mouth of a white man it sounds like, “I give you permission to do that—I sanction your decision.” It is absolutely a moment we’re at in this country, right? The light got shone on everything differently after the election; the light got shone on this play a little differently, too. “Wow, that white guy privilege is everywhere.” Everywhere.

Patrick Zakem, Audience Engagement Coordinator: Do you think about how you would situate this play among the body of your work? How it relates to what you’ve been working on recently?

Tracy Letts: That’s a good question, I’ve never really had any kind of plan about the work. It’s not intentional, but when I look back at the work, I always tend to alternate male and female protagonists. I go from a show about a man, to a show about a woman… I’m not sure what that’s about. I think the male protagonists of Superior Donuts, Man from Nebraska, and Linda Vista, there’s a commonality there about guys who are stuck, or don’t recognize the pattern they’re in, or guys who don’t have certain emotional access to something they need to move onto the next thing. That’s not a conscious pattern, it’s just because I’m the guy who wrote the plays—it’s in all of them, and it’s probably something I’m working out myself through the work. I don’t know, you try to write different stuff, but probably when you die, they look at it and say, “Oh, it’s the same thing; he just said the same thing over and over again.” It’s probably the same fucking play with words rearranged.