Printers Row Lit Fest: Tracy Letts and Mary Zimmerman talk shop
Chicago theater took center stage quite literally at the lit fest formerly known as the Printers Row Book Fair yesterday. Longtime Tribune critic Richard Christiansen interviewed auteurs Tracy Letts (Bug, August: Osage County) and Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses, The Arabian Nights) at the festival’s Central Stage. A standing-room crowd heard the dapper Christiansen lead the playwrights through a genial 45-minute discussion of their approaches to writing and staging.
Letts and Zimmerman waxed professorial as they described diametrically opposed writing regimens. Letts incubates his plays over long stretches of time, putting drafts aside for six months before revising them, while Zimmerman’s adaptations emerge from intense bursts of work prompted by the arrival of rehearsals. Asked about influences, Letts acknowledged August’s debt to the tradition of the American family play, but complained that some critics have seen illusory allusions: “I’ve never seen or read The Little Foxes, for instance.” Zimmerman won applause from the bibliophiles in the audience by mentioning her love of Proust, though she cited Peter Brook’s legendary production of the Indian epic Mahabharata as her formative influence.
Discussing Lookingglass’s current revival of her Arabian Nights, originally produced in 1992, Zimmerman pointed out the political resonances that our Iraqi adventure has lent the play. “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” she observed, and place names such as Basra, the Tigris, and Baghdad itself have acquired darker connotations in the years since the initial staging.
Letts, currently at work on a screenplay for the film adaptation of August, did his publicist no favors. “Oh, it’s terrible,” he laughed. “Avoid the movie at all costs.”