Northwestern professor directs Tracy Letts’ new play at Steppenwolf


Source: Madeline Long

Actors rehearse “The Minutes,” a collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts and Communication Prof. Anna D. Shapiro, the show’s director. The production began previews Nov. 9 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre.

Eunice Lee, Reporter


During a contentious presidential election, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts turned conflict into comedy.

The political satire “The Minutes,” which began previews Nov. 9 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, marks the fifth partnership between Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro, a Communication professor.

The play is a comedy recounting the events of a fictional small-town council meeting. Shapiro said she envisioned directing a fun yet “provocative” play that encourages difficult conversations about the current political system.

Artistic producer Aaron Carter, who has taught courses at NU, said he was excited for this collaboration between Shapiro and Letts. In addition to the creative team, Carter said many of the ensemble members knew each other from working together on previous projects, making the rehearsal room feel like “a bunch of old friends having a good time.”

The partnership crafts a journey that takes viewers to an “unexpected place,” Carter said. While “The Minutes” appeals to a light-hearted audience, he said the play’s core addresses a much larger issue.

“We begin in this world that we think we recognize,” Carter said, “but we end up somewhere quite unfamiliar. We need to consider many different right answers to understand better where we all need to be going.”

Shapiro said she takes a very personal approach in her directorial style, as live theater is a means to have an “intimate conversation … with the world.” She said she wants the play to be entertaining, but still compel audiences to consider the deeper message.

“My vision is that you’re laughing until you’re not laughing anymore, and hopefully, you’re thinking and contemplating,” she said.

Shapiro said she usually approaches a play’s characters by determining how actors move on stage. In “The Minutes,” she said she struggled to reach the same understanding through just dialogue. With the setting as a city council meeting, most of the play’s plot comes from verbal debates, not physical action.

Despite some artistic challenges in the rehearsal process, the cast’s collaborative nature was a positive influence, Carter said. Although each artist came into the process with their own creative mindset, they didn’t compete with each other, but rather tried to incorporate everyone’s different perspectives, he said.

Second-year MFA directing student Alex Mallory, who assistant directed “The Minutes,” said she attests to Shapiro’s capability to inspire collaboration between artists. During production, when Shapiro is in a rehearsal room full of designers, a dramaturg and a playwright, she is “extremely generous” with every voice in the room, Mallory said.

“She begins every rehearsal process with a unifying idea that brings the artists together in a way that puts everyone in dialogue with the story,” Mallory said.

Shapiro said she finds it exciting to carry the responsibility to create an atmosphere where a group of strangers can laugh together about difficult topics.

“I believe in the whole communal act of theater,” Shapiro said. “I hope ‘The Minutes’ is a really great opportunity for everyone in a room to talk about where we are, in a way that’s a little bit more generous — with a bit more humor — than we do in our everyday lives.”

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