News & Articles

The Currency of a Classic

by Amy Morton, Tracy Letts and David New

David New: Amy, let’s start with you talking a little bit about your history with David Mamet—when did you first become aware of his work? Amy Morton: I first became aware of him when I was taking acting classes at St. Nicholas Theatre. He was sort of in residence there and teaching classes—not one of mine—and also giving writing workshops. That’s where a lot of his stuff was first produced. I think I was about 18 or so when I first became aware of him—and so I’ve always been keenly interested in his work. DN: Did you see any of his plays when they were first produced in Chicago? AM: A number: Glengarry Glen Ross,Revenge of the Space Pandas, American Buffalo, Oleanna—as well as the Remains Theatre Ensemble’s productions of Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. DN: And, subsequently, you have acted in and directed his plays. AM: I acted in The Cryptogram, here at Steppenwolf. The first time I ever worked on his stuff as a director was at Remains Theatre Ensemble. As a company member, I accepted—I don’t know why!—the job of putting in actor replacements for both Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. DN: You hadn’t directed the production, but you were putting in replacements? AM: Yeah, because the director was out of town. But then the first Mamet I fully directed was Glengarry Glen Ross at Steppenwolf. DN: Were you hooked from the start of working on his plays? AM: Yeah. I was very into his work right from the start. DN: And Tracy, had you acted in any Mamet plays prior to Glengarry at Steppenwolf? Tracy Letts: Yeah, I had done a previous production of Glengarry, directed by Anna Shapiro at The Big Game Theatre. I played the same part—I played Williamson. I think the first time I was ever even aware of Mamet was the movie The Verdict. I think it was the first time I ever heard of him—because that’s a great screenplay. One of my favorite Mamet speeches to this day is in the screenplay for that film. Perhaps only then did I start to read his plays. Because, you know, growing up where I grew up, we didn’t get a lot of Mamet; we didn’t get a lot of access to that kind of thing. I think the first Mamet play I ever saw was Sexual Perversity in Chicago. It’s a piece that was performed a lot by other groups because it was very easy to stage for young theatre people. The first thing I did, though, was that production of Glengarry with Anna, and then I got a chance, of course, to do it again years later with Amy. DN: Amy, since you acted in The Cryptogram, I’ll ask both of you questions from an actor’s point of view. Much is always made about Mamet’s language—does it require a different approach in the rehearsal hall? AM: I would think—for me anyway, and I don’t know if other actors and directors would agree—but for me there’s a technical requirement of memorizing those damn lines and being able to really rapid fire the speech. I mean, it really goes fast—it goes really, really fast—and, in my opinion, that’s the way it’s done the best. DN: And that requires that mastery, right? AM: Yeah, you really have to have those lines down, and that’s what can drive you insane. TL: The trick for me is not just to be able to say it fast, it’s also to be fully invested in whatever the circumstances are and then say it fast. And then communicate all that at breakneck speed. That’s hard to do. That’s the trick, I think. Trick—I hate the word trick—it’s not a trick, it’s a—what is it? It is what you do on any other play; it’s just that the language demands a kind of clarity and alacrity. If you’re just able to learn the lines and do it fast, then you are just doing it fast. And I’ve seen those productions, and those are deadly. You want to say, “You’re just talking fast—you don’t really know what you’re talking about or care what you’re saying.” DN: Right, because there’s an outward rhythm that belies the interiority of these people right? TL: Yes. DN: And the actor has to mine what’s inside, what the shifts are inside, all the time moving through with tremendous speed. TL: And you can say that about Shakespeare as easily as you can say it about Mamet. It’s equally true in both cases, I think. DN: Amy, you’ve wanted to direct American Buffalo at Steppenwolf for a long time. What is it about the play that you find compelling? AM: I just think it’s one of his best. I think it’s moving and really funny. I think it’s without cynicism, and I really like that because I think that his later works got cynical—and I don’t mean in a bad way. But this one to me feels naïve, almost, and therefore becomes, for me, even more moving. DN: Amy, the play was written and is set in 1975—is it important to keep that particular period when you tell the story? AM: It is. Technically, strictly technically, there’s a lot in there that places it in that time—when Teach says in Act Two, “and so who knows what time it is offhand? Jerks on the radio? The phone broad?” Well, does that still exist anymore? Being able to call up and get the time? Also, it’s like Glengarry—they’re completely different plays if somebody pulls out a cell phone. You know what I mean? It doesn’t work. I also really like the ‘70s for this. It makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see Tracy in those stupid clothes. TL: You know, I didn’t move to Chicago until ‘85. I’ve seen Chicago change a lot in 20 to 25 years. I can only imagine what those changes must have been like between ‘75 and ‘85. Chicago has such a rich history of crime and criminals and gangsters, but at the same time, Chicago was for a very long time—and still is to an extent—not just a city but also a town. I think that’s where some of the naïve take that Amy is talking about comes from. They’re not only in this great American city, but they’re also in this Midwestern town. I get that vibe from that play from a time and place that I don’t even really know, but that I can put myself in, in my imagination. Amy, do you know what I’m talking about? AM: Yes, I do know what you’re talking about, and, in a strange way, it’s sort of the same flavor of Superior Donuts in that it’s a very neighborhood play. People talk about things that are in the neighborhood: restaurants, people, stores that you can tell they’ve known since forever and ever. That’s really not the case anymore in Chicago. You don’t get to know a place forever and ever because they don’t last that long anymore. TL: Right. My point, better put, is what Amy just said. AM: There is very much a time and place. And I just can’t picture this play in a different time—it doesn’t jell for me. DN: It’s also interesting that some of the articles in the shop, a number of them, are vestiges of Chicago’s history. TL: Well, it’s in that tradition of tough Chicago writing. That goes back to Nelson Algren and The Man with the Golden Arm and James T. Farrell and Studs Lonigan—which I think is even Studs Terkel’s namesake. I think that is part of Chicago’s literary tradition: a kind of bare-knuckles, tough—well, hell—even for that matter The Front Page, which is also tough in its language—and fast. There’s a kind of fast pattern to that language, as well. So I think Mamet fits very squarely in that Chicago literary tradition. I think one question that a lot of people might ask is: why are you doing this again? It’s been done, and it’s been done again, and we know this material really well in Chicago. And yet, I’ve talked to so many people—younger people—who’ve never seen the play done. I guess to me—just thinking about that Chicago literary tradition also, some of these things that have a kind of modern classic status about them—for me, they become like Canterbury Tales, and they need to be told again and again and again. And the fun in the retelling of them is—well, how are they going to tell this story as opposed to how the last group told that story? Sometime ago, I would have had a chip on my shoulder, actually, about doing this again—why revisit when there are so many new stories that need to be told? But, I think it has real value, real currency, in that tradition of retelling our stories. This is also a very particular time for Chicago—in the history of Chicago and even Chicago theatre. So I think it pays to revisit some of the shoulders of the storytellers we’re building on.