Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Tracy Letts about his work on Arthur Miller's All My Sons.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? You are not only an award-winning actor, but an award-winning playwright as well. Where did you get your acting and playwriting training? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Tracy Letts: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma. My parents taught at a small state university there. I was educated in public schools. I didn’t go to college. I learned how to act and write from peers, from mentors, from observation, from experience. My parents were hugely influential on my creative life. They both had wonderful and surprising second careers, my father as an actor and my mother as a writer. They were both funny and mercurial and passionate and curious. Gifted storytellers.
TS: Why did you choose to do the role of Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons?
TL: I’ve been trying not to act on stage – it’s too damn hard. In fact, this is the longest I’ve gone without being on stage since I was fifteen years old. But when the offer came to play Joe Keller, I said, “I don’t think I can call myself an actor anymore if I don’t do this.” It is one of those plays that made me – not just me, so many of my fellow artists – aspire to do this work.
TS: What do you think the play is about? Why do you feel it is important for audiences to experience this play now?
TL: The play is about responsibility, one’s responsibility to the world versus one’s responsibility to oneself. I think that’s a vital theme for any American to contemplate in 2019. Vital.
TS: What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to play Joe?
TL: It depends on the gig, but I’m not a big research guy. In the past, I’ve immersed myself in books and trips to the library and too much time on the internet. I don’t find it all that helpful. In a well-written play, the dramaturgy is on the page. I have to figure out how the guy walks and talks.
TS: How is this character relevant to you? What do you find most challenging/exciting about this role?
TL: Miller’s greatest gift as a dramatist might have been his ability to create characters who represent larger societal forces but still live as idiosyncratic, flesh-and-blood people. Joe is a man in full, not just an idea. I love the things about Joe that make him human…his humor, his love of family, his appreciation for beauty, his attendance to simple pleasures, his insecurity, his terrible grief.
TS: You are the author of August: Osage County, which is also a family drama. As a writer, were you influenced by the plays of Arthur Miller? Which plays of his have the most resonance for you as a writer?
TL: Every playwright working today has been influenced by Arthur Miller, whether they admit it or not, whether they like it or not. My favorite Miller play is All My Sons.
TS: Some academics say Miller was the “moral voice” of America when he wrote this play. And that he was the heir apparent to the Greeks and Ibsen. Do you agree? Why or why not?
TL: Eh. “Moral voice,” “heir apparent.” That’s all legacy jazz, and I don’t get into it. I like what I like. Having said that, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to claim that All My Sons is a foundational American play.
TS: What is important to you when you are collaborating on a role with a director?
TL: A good eye. Actable notes.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
TL: I struggle with it, frankly. I can’t tell you the number of times in the last couple of years that I’ve wondered, “Why did we bother writing All My Sons and To Kill a Mockingbird? Artists have been telling stories of love and compassion, of responsibility and reconciliation, since humans acquired language. Right now, from where I stand, it doesn’t seem to have done us much good. What happened? How have we failed?” And then I splash some water on my face and pour a cup of coffee and head back to the typewriter. I don’t know what else to do.
TS: What advice can you give young people who say they want to act or write for the theatre?
TL: Read fiction. Don’t watch garbage. Make your own work. Don’t create what other people want you to create. Don’t create what you think will sell. If you’re a writer working on an original piece, take some time to think about what you’re making. A lot of time gets wasted on bad ideas that probably should have been killed in the planning stage. Read reviews if it helps you make your next thing. Don’t read them if it keeps you from making your next thing. Celebrate the success of your peers. The success of others, even your competition, doesn’t take anything away from you.
If you go to college – and I highly recommend you do – study English or Drama or your specific discipline. If you want to be an artist and your parents are not in the arts, they will tell you to get a “fall back” degree, like in “Business” or “Accounting.” Your parents are wrong. If you have a fall back, you will fall back.
Travel, meet people, knit a scarf, read the paper, go to a museum, get married (or not), get a cat, climb a mountain, try a different city for a while. Live a life. It’s hard to make things and it’s even harder to make great things. Be hard on yourself as an artist. Work harder. While our culture worships celebrity, it frequently shames artists, especially struggling artists. Never apologize for being an artist. Look people in the eye and say, “I am an artist.”