Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts: Two Playwrights and Three Sisters

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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.

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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 Maa's Cell Phone; In the Next Room, or the vibrator play). Letts, on the other hand, penned the ferocious Killer Joe and Bag before constructing the monumental Pulitzer winner August: Osage Comm? 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 Stepper wolf 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 Ybrk 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. 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 MC.

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 direcfor 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, 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. …