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Posts Tagged ‘Steppenwolf Theatre Company’

“Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is what [Eugene] O’Neil would be writing in 2007.”
Jeremy McCarther
New York magazine

“Killer Joe has a strong moral code, bent as it is.”
Screenwriter/Playwright Tracy Letts (on a character he created)

A couple of years ago I drove to Chicago just to see a play written by Tracy Letts. It’s a five-hour drive from Cedar Falls, Iowa to downtown Chicago, but that’s how bad I wanted to see the play August: Osage County. It wasn’t as if I had discovered a hidden jewel, by that time the Letts had already won the Pulitzer Prize and August:Osage County had won the Tony Award for best play.

Though Letts isn’t the most widely known writers outside of theatrical circles, I think that will change this year when they begin to shooting the film version August: Osage Country starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. And also the release this year of the film Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey also written by Letts. (The film was actually completed last year but has wrestled with an NC-17 rating. It now has a release date of July 27, 2012)

Letts’s journey is an interesting one and fits in well with what this blog is all about. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964 and raised in Durant, Oklahoma where he graduated from high school. After a short stint in Dallas doing the actor/waiter thing he moved to Chicago where he got plugged into the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for more than a decade.

Chicago is where his plays August: Osage County and Killer Joe premiered. The first work of Letts’s to be produced as a movie was the 2006 film Bug based on his 1996 play. There is definitely a regional flavor to Letts’s work. Both August: Osage County and Bug are set in Oklahoma and his play The Man from Nebraska is about, well, a man from Lincoln, Nebraska.

There is also a flavor of the classic playwrights Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams in his work. Houses full of dysfunctional people fighting moral, spiritual and personal battles—as well as a few drugs and alcohol issues. Here’s how Letts unpacks some origins of the gritty movie that’s advertised on the Killer Joe website as, “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.”

“I lived in Dallas for a couple of years in the mid ’80s, Dallas cops were in the news round then, busting heads. I had a tough time in Dallas, that hard-scrabble existence, it can be a really hard city for the have-nots. I lived in a trailer myself when I was a kid, for a while, and I was familiar with certain aspects of the lifestyle. The original story this was based on was about a Florida family, but I found it transposed to Dallas quite easily. I’m a big fan of Jim Thompson, the great alcoholic crime writer from Oklahoma, he wrote ‘The Grifters’ and ‘The Killer Inside Me,’ he was some of the inspiration of this. It seemed to fit with Dallas well, they behaved in a way that I thought people from Dallas could recognize. I think it helps that Matthew’s from Texas, and brings a real authenticity to this.”
Tracy Letts
Indiewire interview with Oliver Lyttelton

P.S. Just found this link to a Steppenwolf article where Letts writes about his inspiration for writing August: Osage County. Which happens to involve “reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by the nearly common denominator: place of birth.  From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluff, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people.”

Scott W. Smith

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This blog is not really about Iowa or the Midwest. It’s focus is on screenwriting. But I do put an emphasis on Iowa and the Midwest as it is a fitting metaphor to discuss the process of growing your creative career from unlikely places. Filmmaking in general, and screenwriting specifically, are both usually thought of in terms of L.A. and New York City.

That’s because that is where the honey is stored. It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s the climax found somewhere in the third act. Perhaps it’s best to think of Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. as a good look at Act 1. The set-up of the story. How writers (and sometimes others) prepare for their moment in the spotlight. (Though I do think that new opportunities are popping all over the place outside of traditional Hollywood circles.)

Which leads me to Super Bowl XLIV. The Indianapolis Colts verses the New Orléans Saints.  The obvious Midwest angle to the 2010 game is quarterback Payton Manning and entire Indianapolis Colts team are from the Midwest. A little less know is Colts tight end Dallas Clark (who had seven catches in the game) is from Livermore, Iowa. (pop. 431 ). But those aren’t my focus.

The key three people in this year’s Super Bowl with a Midwest connection are Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter , and the Saints coach Sean Payton.

Drew Brees— After Brees finished his high school career in Austin, Texas undefeated as starting quarterback, he chose to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’m not sure why he ended up in Indiana, but I imagine it had something to do with him being relatively short (six-foot) and known for not having the strongest arm. But he left Purdue with several Big Ten passing records and was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Two days ago he lead the Saints in their first Super Bowl victory and was named the Super Bowl MVP.

Tracy Porter–Late in the fourth quarter, with Peyton Manning appearing to lead a game tying drive, Porter intercepted Manning and ran it back for a touchdown sealing the victory for the Saints. (Just happens to be the same guy who intercepted Brett Favre in the NFC title game just a couple weeks ago that sealed that victory.) Porter played college ball at Indiana University.  How did a kid from Louisiana end up playing for a college not known as a football powerhouse? Probably because he was undersized and just started playing football in his junior year in high school. But his time in Indiana served him well. The school in Bloomington is less than an hours drive to Indianapolis. Porter said after the game, “I’ve been watching (Manning) since my time at Indiana put up points on the scoreboard.”

Sean Peyton— Payton was born in California but raised in Naperville, Illinois (just outside Chicago) and played quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University in  Charleston, IL. When his playing days were over he began assistant coaching and gained experience at various schools including Indiana State, Miami University (in Ohio), and at the University of Illinois. He eventually made his way to become an NFL head coach in 2005 with the New Orleans Saints. The team was long known as the “aints” and in the year before he took over had a record of 3-13. In his first season the Saints were 10-6 and first in the NFC South and Payton was voted NFL Coach of the Year by AP. This season the Saints finished 13-3 and are now Super Bowl champs for the first time.

So there you have it, three men originally from outside the Midwest, who were shaped by their experiences in the Midwest and who would all go on to achieved the highest level of success in the biggest game of their chosen field.

Be faithful in the little things.

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P.S. You may never have heard of Eastern Illinois University, but it has more than one tie to the NFL as Brad Childress, head coach of Minnesota Vikings, Mike Shanahan, head coach of Washington Redskins (and who just happened to be the head coach when John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowls), and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo are all alumni of the school. Hollywood? Actor (and Juno producer) John Malkovich attended Eastern Illinois before transferring to Illinois State and going on to help found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Scott W. Smith

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