Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts are two of the most frequently produced playwrights in the U.S., and both have strong Chicago roots: he as an eager transplant from Oklahoma, she as a native of the suburb Wilmette.
There the similarities between Letts and Ruhl would seem to end. She has made her name with a wildly eclectic series of plays that have in common a vivid lyricism, leavened by magic-realist flights of fancy (The Clean House; Dead Man’s Cell Phone; In the Next Room, or the vibrator play). Letts, on the other hand, penned the ferocious Killer Joe and Bug before constructing the monumental Pulitzer winner August: Osage County for the actors of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he has been an ensemble member since 2002.
In an unlikely coincidence, though, both playwrights were hired to do “new versions” of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in productions that debuted in 2009. Letts’s bowed at Portland, Ore.’s Artists Repertory Theatre, directed by Jon Kretzu, and Ruhl’s at Ohio’s Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, in a production by John Doyle. Ruhl’s Sisters had another co-production, by California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Connecticut’s Yale Repertory Theatre, in 2011, with Les Waters directing. And Letts brings his Sisters home to Steppenwolf for a run this summer, June 28–Aug. 26, with his August director, Anna D. Shapiro, at the helm.
The two busy writers met recently in New York City to talk about Chekhov, translation, playwriting and other distractions. Ruhl now lives in Brooklyn, and Letts—who also frequently works as an actor—was in town to rehearse his role in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, now running at Yale Rep through May 12.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I understand that in both your cases, you were assigned translations you didn’t love, and then found other collaborators.
TRACY LETTS: When Artists Rep first asked me to do this, they supplied me with a literal translation from what appeared to be an old textbook called Hugo’s Russian Reading Simplified. My first pass through the script was using that translation. It was like math; it was some of the hardest stuff I’ve ever done, just trying to figure out what the sentences were. I got to the end of it and I realized that some of the things I’d done just made no sense; some things were exactly wrong. I was in London at the time doing August at the National, and I went out and I found two others guys’ work—I won’t tell you who they were, but I didn’t care for them. I thought, I’m just going to use these as a guide to sort of make sure I’m not getting something exactly wrong. I got to the end; it was still pretty bad.
It was at that point, through serendipity, that I met a friend of a friend whose sister was a Russian scholar, who as a favor to somebody had done a literal translation of Three Sisters. I got in touch with her through e-mail, and she shared all of her work on the piece, and it was really the Rosetta Stone for me—it really opened the thing for me.
SARAH RUHL: In my case, I was at a rather boring fundraiser with my husband, and I was looking around at all the doctors and lawyers, and there was this woman at my table wearing a red shirt, with these long fingers and white hair, and I was like, “Who are you?” She was a Russian scholar, Elise Thoron. The next day I had my meeting with John Doyle, the director for the Cincinnati production, and when I met him, I said, “I just met this woman last night, and I’d really like to work with her.”
Also, until you find a native Russian speaker, you’re really in the dark. Elise is not a native speaker; so it was crucial to have both Elise, a scholar, and my sister-in-law Natasha, who’s a native Russian. Not only did Natasha have insight into the language but into the culture, too.
Sarah, you’ve said that you were trying to stay as close to the literal translation as you could, and Tracy, you’ve talked about trying to put your own voice into it. Is there an essential difference between these two approaches?
RUHL: Well, there’s a sense in which you can’t help but have your own voice. Usually when I’m asked to work on someone else’s material, I have to believe it’s better than my material or I wouldn’t bother doing it—otherwise I’d write my own play. So I start with the premise that Chekhov’s better than me, I will learn from him, and I will have his words in my head for a while. So I felt very humble approaching the material. It sounds like, honestly, our approaches were not that different.
LETTS: I agree with you utterly about humbling myself: I was like, “Chekhov, you’re the playwright. I’m just here to get out of your way; I’m going to try and communicate your ideas any way I can.” But at the same time, as that intermediary, I have to have a point of view. There has to be a guiding principle going into it—and for me, it was the fact that, as an audience member, I don’t much like going to see Chekhov. They start talking about name days and using the patronyms, and everybody’s got a big beard, and I check out early and often. I’m normally left pretty cold by it. So my guiding principle was, I’m going to try to eliminate for the audience any further act of translation; they’re going to have direct communication with the ideas and the characters, without having to sit there and say, “What is a name day?”
RUHL: I think it’s almost impossible to do Chekhov in this country because of our lack of ensembles. So I’m really interested in seeing the Steppenwolf production, because you guys all have a vocabulary and a relationship and a history. It’s almost an impossible task to say, “Let’s assemble a team of people and do Chekhov for three weeks.” What? How is that achievable?
LETTS: On this Will Eno play, I sat down for the first rehearsal a couple days ago with two couples playing husbands and wives; I’d met Johanna Day before, but the other two actors I met that day for the first time. I had to sort of remind myself, “Oh, this is what people do; this is the way rehearsals normally go.” At Steppenwolf, you sit down on the first day and you’re already sick of the person across the table from you; you’ve known them for so long, they’re already driving you nuts.
RUHL: That first day of rehearsal is horrifying, usually, with actors auditioning for each other. Does that happen at Steppenwolf, when you already know each other
LETTS: No, I don’t think so.
RUHL: So you’re just starting work the first day—that’s so nice.
I’m wondering: Why did you both end up working on Three Sisters, in particular?
RUHL: I always felt personal about this play. I wouldn’t have done just any Chekhov play for the sake of it. I have a sister; my father died when I was 20, and I remember a summer living with my sister in my mom’s house in the suburbs of Chicago and him not being there, and just longing to move to New York, which was my version of Moscow. So I always identified with the loss of it and the dislocation, the longing, the dynamic between sisters.
I also think it’s such a weird play, structurally and in terms of time, and I was really interested in wrapping my mind around that. Three Sisters is: You have a scene, someone arrives for a birthday party, then some time passes, there’s a bad fire, then everyone leaves. It’s very strange, structurally.
Also, it doesn’t have a big takeaway theme, the way I think other Chekhov plays do: Uncle Vanya is about middle age, Cherry Orchard is about the land and who it belongs to. With Three Sisters, it’s a little harder to say what it’s “about.”\
RUHL: Because it’s about life; it’s totalizing. That’s where you feel like you’re kneeling at the feet of a master.
LETTS: It’s really true. After doing this, the line I can draw between Chekhov and Beckett is actually pretty direct. And I would never have thought that before working on this Three Sisters. There’s an existential mindset, and a lot of talk about identity: “Am I really here?” That for me is one of the things that elevates Three Sisters above the other Chekhovs; he’s getting at some core things.
Tracy, have you ever acted in Chekhov?
LETTS: No, I’m sure I’ll get a chance at some point. But you know, a play like Glass Menagerie—it survives even the worst actors. You can’t help but be torn up by the end of that thing, no matter who’s doing it. Chekhov is only as good as the actors who are up there. It will not survive bad acting; they’ve got to occupy fully lived-in characters from the beginning to the end, across the board.
RUHL: I agree. Also, Chekhov for Americans has sort of gone through Britain and come here, in terms of the acting style, the translations. So one thing I was interested in my version was de-Anglicizing it. Some of the English versions have extra verbiage, explicating and formalizing things. I also think the Brits make it all so high-status in terms of class, but in Three Sisters, they’re losing their house, there are gambling debts, one has a job as a schoolteacher, another works in a telegraph office. These are not people with rolling estates and the money to buy exquisite lace dresses that they would change between acts. So it’s a timely play, in terms of what people are going through with houses and debt, and armies occupying towns and leaving. I feel like there’s a reason there are a lot of Three Sisters productions right now.
LETTS: The first reading I did of this was while we were at the National, and one of the English actors said, “Chekhov for us has always been about the difference between being English and being Russian.” Certainly that’s never what Chekhov intended.
What have you learned in the process of working on these adaptations?
LETTS: I’m kinda sick of plot. My plays are pretty plot-heavy. And Three Sisters—I love its lack of plot; I love how he sustains interest, even without a story, in the traditional Western sense, moving us forward. I’ve been intrigued by that, and thinking about ways I might apply that in my work.
RUHL: I think plot is silly. Possibly necessary—one of those silly, necessary things. I remember in high school, I wrote a deeply pretentious short story called “The Absence of Plot.” Even at that time, I was thinking, “How can you have a story without plot?” It’s very hard in theatre, because you have live people you’re trying to keep awake, and plot is one of the things that can do that. But I also think, “What are the other ways of keeping them awake?”
Have your plays been translated?
RUHL: Where’s the craziest place your work has been done?
LETTS: I think there was a Korean production of Bug. I saw a Finnish production of Killer Joe; that was great.
RUHL: There was a Polish Clean House recently that my friend saw; he said that Lane was in a thong and a bra a lot of the time. I saw Eurydice in German; it was three hours long, and they just took out Orpheus’s monologues and replaced them with songs.
LETTS: You know, I was spending a little time with Edward Albee when I was working on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [a Steppenwolf production slated for Broadway in the fall, with Letts as George], and casually, at some point, I mentioned my Three Sisters. He gave me some grief about it; he didn’t feel it was something I should be working on, because I don’t speak Russian. And yet later in the same conversation he said something about Chekhov being a better playwright than Ibsen, and I said, “How do you know?”
It goes back to the impossible task of translation. It’s necessary, or we wouldn’t know these plays. Whether you can be familiar with Chekhov’s language or not, the ideas are universal, they’re very human, so they’re valuable to explore, even if we’re taking our own personalized stabs at the language.
RUHL: In a way, producing a play is like a translation—translating this ideal on the page into this difficult, messy, bodily form.
LETTS: People ask me, “Does it look like what you thought it was gonna look like?” It doesn’t ever look like what I thought it was gonna look like. I get a very specific idea in my head about the way it all looks, and what it winds up looking like on stage isn’t anything close to what I imagined—it’s always better, because of all the other ingredients that have been thrown into the mix by all the other collaborators. I mean, you’d have to believe that it’s better, or you shouldn’t be a playwright; you should probably work in a different discipline. Theatre is a kind of mysterious act of translation that’s so imperfect and so flawed, but I’ve learned to love the flawed nature of it.
And most of the best writing I’ve done wasn’t outlined or gone over beforehand; it came out of my head while sitting at the typewriter, without a lot of pre-thought.
RUHL: I don’t do outlines. But I do think of playwriting as longform improvisation— bodiless improvisation. Perfect for me.
Tracy, you have an acting career, and Sarah, you have three young children—you both have responsibilities that compete for your writing hours.
LETTS: Writing was something I’d done my whole life, and as a professional in the theatre, it was something I did to fill a lot of the downtime I had as an actor. I’m fortunate that I have less downtime as an actor now, but it means I really have to carve out time to write. Whatever my neuroses or psychoses, they’re both valuable for me, acting and writing. I need to do both or I’ll climb up in the clock tower with a rifle, and nobody needs that.
RUHL: The last two years have been hard. When I just had one kid, it was easier, and now I have three, so just multiply the contingencies by three. For example, I was really late on the draft of Dear Elizabeth [a new play based on letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell] for Yale Rep, and my husband said,
“Look, you need to go away and finish this thing. I’m giving you three days in the Berkshires for your birthday.” Then our family got the stomach flu, and the babysitter got the stomach flu. Usually if anyone even has a whiff of a fever or a stuffy nose I drop everything and stay home, but I was so desperate, I was like, “I’m sorry, I have my reservation at the hotel, and I’m off to do my writing!” And I left my husband with three vomiting children and one vomiting babysitter and I went and finished my draft.
LETTS: All that stuff makes for a good playwright. Playwrights don’t get objectivity—they don’t get out of the stream of life and stand outside of it and say, “That’s what life is.” You’ve gotta kind of be in the mess of it to be any good at it. Do you write every day?
RUHL: I used to; I don’t anymore. I write when I can.
LETTS: I’m convinced I do it all wrong—I go months at a time without writing. When I read about these sons of bitches, like John Updike, who wrote his three pages every day, regardless—I hate guys like that.
Tracy, you said “typewriter” earlier—do you actually write on a typewriter?
LETTS: I do—a manual typewriter. That’s a change, just in the last couple of years. I started to become aware of what the screens are doing to me. They were affecting my attention span. So I started making a conscious decision to get more and more of that stuff out of my life. I put my Kindle in a drawer and started reading hard copy books. I started getting the newspaper in solid newspaper form, and I’ve switched to the typewriter. I do have an iPhone, and I’m addicted to it, but I’m trying to get more and more of that stuff out of my life.
RUHL: I remember when the Internet started, and I found it disgusting—the idea that the Net would be mixed in with my text, my manuscripts. I found it horrible. And then you get used to it, and you’re like, “Of course there are images of, whatever, J. Lo, on my computer, and that’s mixed with my poetry and checking my e-mail and looking somebody up on Wikipedia.” I don’t think it’s good but it is the situation.
LETTS: I should be better about taking notes. I have a lot of great ideas that never see the light of day because I don’t. I always sort of tell myself, “Well, if it’s a good enough idea, it’ll be there whenever, anyway.” I don’t know that that’s true.
RUHL: I think so. If it doesn’t hang around for two years, it doesn’t have staying power.