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Playwright Tracy Letts wins drama Pulitzer

“August: Osage County,” winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, was born out of a unique collaboration between the playwright and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“August: Osage County,” winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, was born out of a unique collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts and the place he calls his artistic home — Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company.

“One the great things about being a member of this company is that I could go to Martha Lavey (Steppenwolf’s artistic director) and say, ‘I want to write a very large family drama, three acts, three hours long, 13 characters and have her say, ‘OK. Good. Write it,”’ Letts told The Associated Press Monday in an interview from Chicago.

The result: a critically acclaimed play that premiered to glowing reviews last summer in Chicago.

“There aren’t a lot of places where I could ... get away with that,” said Letts, whose play “Man From Nebraska” also was born at Steppenwolf and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004.

“But they were always very supportive of the idea here. We always look for opportunities to get members of our ensemble (which numbers more than two dozen) engaged in any given play. We are actor-driven.”

“August: Osage County” is a brutal yet darkly comic play of bruising family battles spanning several generations of unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams. And it’s proven to be just as popular in New York as it was in Chicago. The production, currently at the Imperial Theatre (it moves to the Music Box Theatre on April 29), has been one of the hits of the season since opening in December.

“The play is very loosely autobiographical,” Letts said. “There were just some details from my grandmother, my grandfather’s suicide (for example) that I had played over and over in my head for many, many years. I always thought, ‘Well, that’s the stuff of drama right there.’

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“It’s a play I have been working on in my head and on paper for many years now. The stars aligned in the right way with the right actors and at the right time.”

Letts said he did something a little different with “August” than with previous plays, such as “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” both of which have been seen in New York.

“Normally, I think about them for a long time and then write very quickly,” he said. “This one I sort of forced myself not to do that. I would write an act and then put it away for six months time, before getting it out and rewriting it and writing a second act.”

His latest effort, “Superior Donuts,” is scheduled for its world premiere June 19-Aug. 17 at Steppenwolf. The play, set in a dilapidated doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, tells the story of its owner and his young helper, a teenager who wants to improve the business.

“We are having a first reading ... this afternoon. I roll my sleeves up and get humiliated by have a reading of a rough draft of a new play,” Letts said with a laugh.