Maybe you’d have to be a theatre person to really – and I mean really – “grok” what Sam Shepard meant. It’s one thing to be an audience member, listening to his words, experiencing his plays, Fool for Love, True West, Buried Child (etc.), and it’s another thing entirely to be a part of that world, to have to grapple with his plays by actually PLAYING them, or directing them or – as a playwright – trying desperately to get out from under his awesome shadow in order to find your OWN voice, a voice AS indelible as his. You get to know a playwright on an intimate level when you get up in an acting class or a rehearsal studio and say his lines, be those characters, try to work stuff out, get into his dreamspace. Because it is a dreamspace. He is one of the dreamiest of playwrights. The yowls of pain from theatre people today have a particularly personal sound to it, one I share. It was already a bad morning because of the loss of Jeanne Moreau (not to mention the general state of the world: every morning is a bad morning), but Sam Shepard too? He was one of OURS. We grappled with him, loved him, were intimidated by him, NEEDED to work on his stuff … because if you’re an actor, you need to try Shepard, just like you need to try Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Williams.
I want to share one of my favorite things I’ve read today, from my friend Dan Callahan, actor, writer, theatre folk:
When I lived in the East Village, I would sometimes see Sam Shepard at Cafe Orlin off Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. He was always by himself, and always seated under the Brassai photograph of a man and an ecstatic-looking woman in a booth. Shepard was always reading a book, brow furrowed, unsmiling, very solitary, very romantic in the Eugene O’Neill sense of that word. He wrote many major and very funny plays; they’re tragic plays, but there’s usually a laugh every other line, too. When I saw him, I would often say under my breath, “Why Harry York,” which is what his long-time partner Jessica Lange says to him in the last scene of “Frances” (1982). I liked having my eggs and coffee near him because he was clearly not pleased about anything, and I felt like that was an example. He had our number.
There are a couple of famous productions I wish I could go back in time to see. Sam Shepard and Patti Smith in Cowboy Mouth is one of them.
Many have written gorgeous essays about his film career. His presence as an actor. The indelible mark he made whenever he appeared.
But the plays … THE PLAYS …
In that spirit, I want to point you to my pal Isaac Butler’s beautiful essay in Slate, told from a theatre artist’s perspective. The Genius of Sam Shepard Was Relentless, Without a Break