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Actor-Playwright Tracy Letts Started His Career With a ‘Bang’

Tracy Letts is having a busy fall. The writer-actor, who’s won Tonys both for a play (“August: Osage County”) and a performance (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), not to mention a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County,” has a new play, “The Minutes,” debuting Nov. 9 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, and the latest movie in which he appears, Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” is in theaters after a buzz-magnet bow in Telluride. He’s also got a role in “The Post,” the Steven Spielberg film that rolls out Dec. 22.

His first mention in Variety came in 1992 for a production of “Bang the Drum Slowly” at the Next Theatre in Chicago. Variety’s critic gave the show a mixed notice, and Letts, who’s noted in the cast list, doesn’t get singled out. But hey, the reviewer does write that the director has “fielded some good actors.” Maybe Letts was one of them.

What do you remember about that time in your life?

I was in Chicago; I was working at a lot of great theaters; I was learning my craft, acting. I was making connections in the theater community. Some of these people who were in that show are friends of mine to this day. At the time I was broke ass. We were working for change, really no money at all. I was just going from theater to theater working for chump change, living in — I won’t call it squalor, but living in humble circumstances. And having the time of my life.

What was that production like?

It was at the Next Theatre, which is now defunct, so I think I can say anything about it I want to: The Next was always in trouble. We took the stage knowing that this play had to succeed or they were going under. Richard Christiansen was the critic for the Chicago Tribune at the time, and I think he knew that too because he gave us a glowing review, which we maybe didn’t entirely deserve. It wasn’t a great show. I think it was a good show. It wasn’t a bomb or anything.

What role did you play?

I was miscast. I was playing the grizzled old catcher on the team, and I think I was 25 or 26 when we were doing this. I was the catcher on his last legs.

As a writer, your first produced play, “Killer Joe,” premiered at the Next the following year.

The director Dexter Bullard was an associate at the Next, and he started something called the Next Lab, which was a classroom in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center that he took all the furniture out of and painted black. It became a black box theater: 40 seats. I think “Killer Joe” was the third production in the Next Lab. It ran for eight months.

Do you read reviews?

Yeah, I read ’em all. I read everything. I’m curious what people are saying about the work. Both my works as an actor and as a writer. I read my reviews; I read other people’s reviews. I’m very conscious of reviews.

What do you get out of reading them?

I have a chip on my shoulder, and the reviews quite often knock it off, or place it back on. Sometimes reviews will piss me off, and they’ll goad me to get back to work. Also I would say that sometimes they’re insightful. When they’re insightful and well-written, I do get something from them. It’s very rare that a reviewer has thought of something that the show’s creators haven’t. But the critic’s perspective is different than anybody else’s associated with the piece, and I sometimes find that helpful. I find that edifying.

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