NEA Arts Magazine

The Windy City to the Great White Way

Steppenwolf Theatre's August: Osage County Takes On Broadway

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Rondi Reed and Amy Morton

Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Rondi Reed and Amy Morton in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The December 5 New York Times review of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County raved, "It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years." A greater compliment couldn't be paid to a new play, but the accolades also go to Steppenwolf Theatre, where the play first found a home.

The Chicago-based, Tony Award winning theater produced August in its 2006–2007 season as part of the New Plays Initiative, a program designed to support playwrights at every stage of their careers. The play's world premiere was supported, in part, by an FY 07 NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant. Steppenwolf Executive Director David Hawkanson acknowledged that the NEA's early support meant a lot to the company, especially since the grant was awarded through the NEA's panel system. According to Hawkanson, being vetted by the NEA meant that the theater's peers had recognized the importance of Letts's play, despite it being a difficult and unusual one to produce.

Structured in three acts, running nearly three hours, and featuring a large cast of 13 actors, the classical scope of Letts's darkly comic take on family dysfunction is unusual in today's budget-conscious theater world. August was, however, the perfect undertaking for Steppenwolf, where the collaborative atmosphere allows for such artistic risk. Tracy Letts, director Anna D. Shapiro, and seven of the 13 cast members are all part of Steppenwolf 's permanent ensemble of 41 members.

"Having gained both the artistic and personal maturity to give voice to the play, Tracy was met by a network of artistic colleagues who gave vision and voice to the characters living in his head," said Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey. "Knowing that he had both an artistic home...and a field of ensemble actors whom he could trust to create the complex and intimate relationships of his play allowed August: Osage County to emerge as it did."

A nearly sold-out run of August, which premiered in Steppenwolf 's Chicago home on June 28, garnered six Jeff Awards, the city's top theater accolades. Prior even to that debut, the play was generating interest among Broadway producers. More impressive, the production moved to Broadway with 11 of its original 13 cast members, an unusual move when name recognition in a cast can help sell Broadway tickets.

The play's anticipated opening at New York's Imperial Theater might have been delayed until early December due to the stagehands' strike, but it's expected to attract nearly 300,000 theatergoers during its 16-week run. When the Chicago Tribune dubbed August: Osage County" staggeringly ambitious [and] staggeringly successful," it was presciently describing the play's winning ways on the Great White Way.