Though the mentions of Shakespeare writing King Lear in quarantine have mercifully decreased, it’s hard to shake the hustler’s mindset. With this vaccine rollout comes a nagging thought: when the pandemic ends, what will you have to show for it? What projects will you have done? Or—perversely—did you waste this opportunity? Here’s a little antidote for that nagging voice: The New York Times interviewed 75 artists about their experiences creating in a pandemic, and when asked “What’s one thing you made this year?” August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts had an unvarnished answer.
I’ve made nothing. On four separate occasions, I arranged my schedule with [my wife] Carrie so I could have six uninterrupted hours a day to write. All four times, I emerged from my office after two or three weeks, rattled, defeated, feeling lousy about myself. My wife finally said, “Here’s what you have to do: read books, watch movies, cook dinner and take care of our boy.” That is what I’ve done. And while my family is my focus and my joy, from a creative standpoint, this year for me has been a dust storm. I’m normally involved in a number of creative endeavors, in different forms, but the theater is my lifeblood and I don’t know who I am without it. The plug getting pulled on “The Minutes” was truly devastating for me. I feel like a heel even saying that since so many people in this country and around the world are suffering as a result of this pandemic in ways I can’t even fathom. But it’s the simple truth. I can’t do the computer theater, it’s too depressing for me, and I’ve turned down a couple of on-camera jobs because I am just as scared of this virus as I was a year ago. Creatively, I’m lost. It’s why I’m doing this interview. I’m guessing there are some other artists who identify.
This is an honest, sad answer—but it’s also generous. Letts is a Pulitzer-winning, movie-writing, multihyphenate, titanic presence in contemporary American theater. His frustration is evidence that being unable to make art in these times isn’t a sign of your intellect being too weak to barrel through hardship; it’s because making art is intensive and difficult, and these times are, to quote a quote, not normal. It’s a much-needed reminder that it’s fine to not have made anything during COVID. Plus, now someone’s finally admitted in print that Zoom theater can be depressing. Thank you for your service, Tracy Letts!