Interviews

Sam Shepard, The Art of Theater No. 12

Interviewed by Benjamin Ryder Howe, Jeanne McCulloch, Mona Simpson

This interview was conducted over several days in the living room of a Manhattan apartment by the East River. For the last meeting Sam Shepard arrived at the end of a late-afternoon snowstorm, his leather jacket unbuttoned in spite of the bad weather. He immediately became distracted by an out-of-tune Steinway in the corner, then returned to the couch for a discussion of his recently completed yearlong retrospective at New York’s Signature Theater. He said he had been exhausted by the theater’s rehearsals, by a trip to London the previous week, and by a hectic schedule of public readings. Nevertheless, at the end of the meeting he declined to be driven back to his Midtown hotel, saying he would rather walk back through Central Park instead.

Like many writers, Shepard is easy to imagine as one of the characters in his own work. In person, he is closer to the laconic and inarticulate men of his plays than to his movie roles. Self-contained, with none of the bearing of an actor, he retains a desert California accent and somehow seems smaller than one expects.

He was born on November 5, 1943, on an army base in southern Illinois where his father was stationed. He attended high schools in the Southwest, spent a year in junior college studying agricultural science, then moved to New York with designs on an acting career. In New York he quickly found an interest in writing, which brought him to the emerging world of avant-garde theater on the Lower East Side. A succession of award-winning plays followed: Chicago, Icarus’s Mother, Red Cross, La Turista, and Forensic and the Navigators all won Obie Awards in the off- and off-off-Broadway categories between 1965 and 1968. During this time he was also aided by grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations.

In the early seventies Shepard moved to England, where he began raising a family and writing for the London theatrical scene. The period produced a number of well-received medium-length plays, including Tooth of Crime and Geography of a Horse Dreamer. In 1974 he returned to California, where he had lived as a teenager, and began writing his best-known plays—Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child. He made his feature-film debut in 1978 playing an affluent farmer in Days of Heaven. Though that role brought him numerous offers to continue acting, Shepard has deliberately limited himself to a few movies because, as he says, “the work just isn’t that much fun.” Nevertheless, in 1984 he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. That year he also received the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Paris, Texas, which he wrote and acted in.

Shepard lives in Minnesota with the actress Jessica Lange and their two children.  

 

INTERVIEWER

The West figures predominantly as a mythology in many of your plays. You grew up there, didn’t you?  

SAM SHEPARD

All over the Southwest, really—Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico. My dad was a pilot in the air force. After the war he got a Fulbright fellowship, spent a little time in Colombia, then taught high-school Spanish. He kind of moved us from place to place.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you’ll ever live in the West again?  

SHEPARD

No, I don’t think so. The California I knew, old rancho California, is gone. It just doesn’t exist, except maybe in little pockets. I lived on the edge of the Mojave Desert, an area that used to be farm country. There were all these fresh-produce stands with avocados and date palms. You could get a dozen artichokes for a buck or something. Totally wiped out now.  

INTERVIEWER

True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and Lie of the Mind are all family dramas, albeit absurdist ones. Have you drawn a lot from your own family?  

SHEPARD

Yes, though less now than I used to. Most of it comes, I guess, from my dad’s side of the family. They’re a real bizarre bunch, going back to the original colonies. That side’s got a real tough strain of alcoholism. It goes back generations and generations, so that you can’t remember when there was a sober grandfather.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you struggled with drinking?  

SHEPARD

My history with booze goes back to high school. Back then there was a lot of Benzedrine around, and since we lived near the Mexican border I’d just run over, get a bag of bennies and drink ripple wine. Speed and booze together make you quite . . . omnipotent. You don’t feel any pain. I was actually in several car wrecks that I don’t understand how I survived.

At any rate, for a long time I didn’t think I had a problem. Alcoholism is an insidious disease; until I confronted it I wasn’t aware that it was creeping up on me. I finally did AA in the hardcore down on Pico Boulevard. I said, “Don’t put me in with Elton John or anything, just throw me to the lions.”  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like the drinking might have aided your writing?  

SHEPARD

I didn’t feel like one inspired the other, or vice versa. I certainly never saw booze or drugs as a partner to writing. That was just the way my life was tending, you know, and the writing was something I did when I was relatively straight. I never wrote on drugs, or the bourbon.  

INTERVIEWER

You said the men on your dad’s side of the family were hard drinkers. Is this why the mothers in your plays always seem to be caught in the middle of so much havoc?  

SHEPARD

Those Midwestern women from the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault, mainly by men who were disappointed in a way that they didn’t understand. While growing up I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family. These were men who came back from the war, had to settle down, raise a family and send the kids to school—and they just couldn’t handle it. There was something outrageous about it. I still don’t know what it was—maybe living through those adventures in the war and then having to come back to suburbia. Anyway, the women took it on the nose, and it wasn’t like they said, Hey Jack, you know, down the road, I’m leaving. They sat there and took it. I think there was a kind of heroism in those women. They were tough and selfless in a way. What they sacrificed at the hands of those maniacs . . .  

INTERVIEWER

What was your dad like?  

SHEPARD

He was also a maniac, but in a very quiet way. I had a falling-out with him at a relatively young age by the standards of that era. We were always butting up against each other, never seeing eye-to-eye on anything, and as I got older it escalated into a really bad, violent situation. Eventually I just decided to get out.  

INTERVIEWER

Is he alive?  

SHEPARD

No, a couple of years ago he was killed coming out of a bar in New Mexico. I saw him the year before he died. Our last meeting slipped into this gear where I knew it was going to turn really nasty. I remember forcing myself, for some reason, not to flip out. I don’t know why I made that decision, but I ended up leaving without coming back at him. He was boozed up, very violent and crazy. After that I didn’t see him for a long time. I did try to track him down; a friend of his told me he got a haircut, a fishing license, and a bottle, and then took off for the Pecos River. That was the last I heard of him before he died. He turned up a year later in New Mexico, with some woman I guess he was running with. They had a big blowout in a bar, and he went out in the street and got run over.  

INTERVIEWER

Did he ever see one of your plays?  

SHEPARD

Yes. There’s a really bizarre story about that. He found out about a production of Buried Child that was going on at the Greer Garson Theater in New Mexico. He went to the show smashed, just pickled, and in the middle of the play he began to identify with some character, though I’m not sure which one, since all those characters are kind of loosely structured around his family. In the second act he stood up and started to carry on with the actors, and then yelled, “What a bunch of shit this is!” The ushers tried to throw him out. He resisted, and in the end they allowed him to stay because he was the father of the playwright.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you there?  

SHEPARD

No, I just heard about it. I think that’s the only time he ever saw a production.

You know, all that stuff about my father and my childhood is interesting up to a certain point, but I kind of capsized with the family drama a long time ago. Now I want to get away from that. Not that I won’t return to it, but a certain element has been exhausted, and it feels like why regurgitate all this stuff?  

INTERVIEWER

I read somewhere that you started writing because you wanted to be a musician.  

SHEPARD

Well, I got to New York when I was eighteen. I was knocking around, trying to be an actor, writer, musician, whatever happened.  

INTERVIEWER

What sort of musician were you trying to be?  

SHEPARD

A drummer. I was in a band called the Holy Modal Rounders.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up in New York?  

SHEPARD

After the falling out with my father I worked on a couple of ranches—thoroughbred layup farms, actually—out toward Chino, California. That was fine for a little while, but I wanted to get out completely, and twenty miles away wasn’t far enough. So I got a job delivering papers in Pasadena, and pretty soon, by reading the ad sections, I found out about an opening with a traveling ensemble called The Bishop’s Company. I decided to give it a shot, thinking that this might be a way to really get out. At the audition they gave me a little Shakespeare thing to read—I was so scared I read the stage directions—and then they hired me. I think they hired everybody.

We traveled all over the country—New England, the South, the Midwest. I think the longest we stayed in one place was two days. It was actually a great little fold-up theater. We were totally self-sufficient—we put up the lights, made the costumes, performed the play, and shut down. Anyway, one day we got to New York to do a production at a church in Brooklyn and I said, I’m getting off the bus.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you start right in?  

SHEPARD

Not immediately. My first job was with the Burns Detective Agency. They sent me over to the East River to guard coal barges during these god-awful hours like three to six in the morning. It wasn’t a very difficult job—all I had to do was make a round every fifteen minutes—but it turned out to be a great environment for writing. I was completely alone in a little outhouse with an electric heater and a little desk.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you already think of yourself as a writer?  

SHEPARD

I’d been messing around with it for a while, but nothing serious. That was the first time I felt writing could actually be useful.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you hook up with the theaters?  

SHEPARD

Well, I was staying on Avenue C and Tenth Street with a bunch of jazz musicians, one of whom happened to be Charlie Mingus’s son. We knew each other from high school, and he got me a job as a busboy at the Village Gate. The headwaiter at the Gate was a guy named Ralph Cook. Ralph was just starting his theater at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, and he said he’d heard that I’d been writing some stuff, and he wanted to see it. So, I showed him a few plays I’d written, and he said, Well, let’s do it. Things kind of took off from there. New York was like that in the sixties. You could write a one-act play and start doing it the next day. You could go to one of those theaters—Genesis, La Mama, Judson Poets—and find a way to get it done. Nothing like that exists now.  

INTERVIEWER

Did off-off-Broadway plays get reviewed back then?  

SHEPARD

For a while the big papers wouldn’t touch them, but then they started to smell something, so they came down and wrote these snide reviews. They weren’t being unfair. A lot of that stuff really was shitty and deserved to get bombed. But there was one guy who was sort of on our side. His name was Michael Smith; he worked for The Village Voice, and he gave a glowing review to these little one-act plays, Cowboys and The Rock Garden. I remember that distinctly, not because of the praise but because it felt like somebody finally understood what we were trying to do. He was actually hooking up with us, seeing the work for what it was.  

INTERVIEWER

What were the audiences like?  

SHEPARD

They were incredibly different. You really felt that the community came to see the plays. They weren’t people coming from New Jersey to have a dinner party. And they weren’t going to sit around if they got bored. The most hostile audience I faced was up at the American Place Theatre when we were putting on La Turista. They invited all these Puerto Rican kids, street kids, and they were firing at the actors with peashooters.  

INTERVIEWER

Did it take a long time to find your particular voice as a writer?  

SHEPARD

I was amazed, actually. I’ve heard writers talk about “discovering a voice,” but for me that wasn’t a problem. There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. It was splendid, really; I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. I don’t mean to make it sound like hallucination, but there were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves, and it seemed like the natural place to do it was on a stage. A lot of the time when writers talk about their voice they’re talking about a narrative voice. For some reason my attempts at narrative turned out really weird. I didn’t have that kind of voice, but I had a lot of other ones, so I thought, Well, I’ll follow those.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like you’re in control of those voices now?  

SHEPARD

I don’t feel insane, if that’s what you’re asking.  

INTERVIEWER

What is your schedule like?  

SHEPARD

I have to begin early because I take the kids to school, so usually I’m awake by six. I come back to the house afterwards and work till lunch.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any rituals or devices to help you get started?  

SHEPARD

No, not really. I mean there’s the coffee and that bullshit, but as for rituals, no.  

INTERVIEWER

What sort of writing situation do you have at home? Do you have an office?  

SHEPARD

I’ve got a room out by the barn with a typewriter, a piano, some photographs, and old drawings. Lots of junk and old books. I can’t seem to get rid of my books.  

INTERVIEWER

So, you’re not a word-processor person.  

SHEPARD

No, I hate green screens. The paper is important to me.  

INTERVIEWER

What sort of country is it where you live?  

SHEPARD

Farm country—you know, hay, horses, cattle. It’s the ideal situation for me. I like the physical endeavors that go with the farm—cutting hay, cleaning out stalls, or building a barn. You go do that and then come back to the writing.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you write every day?  

SHEPARD

When something kicks in, I devote everything to it and write constantly until it’s finished. But to sit down every day and say, I’m going to write, come hell or high water—no, I could never do that.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you write when you’re acting in a film?  

SHEPARD

There are certain attitudes that shut everything down. It’s very easy, for example, to get a bad attitude from a movie. I mean you’re trapped in a trailer, people are pounding on the door, asking if you’re ready, and at the same time you’re trying to write.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you actually write on the set?  

SHEPARD

Film locations are a great opportunity to write. I don’t work on plays while I’m shooting a movie, but I’ve done short stories and a couple of novels.  

INTERVIEWER

What was it like the first time you saw your work being performed by actors?  

SHEPARD

To a certain extent it was frustrating, because the actors were in control of the material and I wasn’t used to actors. I didn’t know how to talk to them and I didn’t want to learn, so I hid behind the director. But slowly I started to realize that they were going through an interpretive process, just like anyone else. They don’t just go in there and read the script.  

INTERVIEWER

Did becoming an actor help you as a writer?  

SHEPARD

It did, because it helped me to understand what kinds of dilemmas an actor faces.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you impressed by any particular school, like Method acting?  

SHEPARD

I am not a Strasberg fanatic. In fact, I find it incredibly self-indulgent. I’ve seen actors come through it because they’re strong people themselves, because they’re able to use it and go on, but I’ve also seen actors absolutely destroyed by it, which is painful to see. It has to do with this voodoo that’s all about the verification of behavior, so that I become the character. It’s not true Stanislavsky. He was on a different mission, and I think Strasberg bastardized him in a way that verges on psychosis. You forget about the material, you forget that this is a play, you forget that it’s for the audience. Hey, man, I’m in my private little world. What you talkin’ about? I’m over here, I’m involved with the lemons. On film, of course, it works because of its obsessiveness; but in theater it’s a complete block and a hindrance. There’s no room for self-indulgence in theater; you have to be thinking about the audience. Joe Chaikin helped me understand this. He used to have this rehearsal exercise in which the actors were supposed to play a scene for some imaginary figure in the audience. He would say, Tonight Prince Charles is in the audience. Play the scene for him. Or, Tonight a bag lady is in the audience.  

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that you wrote Simpatico in a truck?  

SHEPARD

Well, I started it in a truck. I don’t like flying very much, so I tend to drive a lot, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to write while I’m on the open road. I wrote on the steering wheel.  

INTERVIEWER

Really? What highway were you on?  

SHEPARD

40 West, the straightest one. I was going to Los Angeles. I think I wrote twenty-five pages by the time I got there, which was about five hundred miles of driving. There were these two characters I’d been thinking about for quite a while, and when I got to L.A. it seemed like I had a one-act play. Then another character popped up; suddenly there were two acts. And out of that second act, a third. It took me a year to finish it.  

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide that a play is finished?  

SHEPARD

The only way to test it is with actors, because that’s who you’re writing for. When I have a piece of writing that I think might be ready, I test it with actors, and then I see if it’s what I imagined it to be. The best actors show you the flaws in the writing. They come to a certain place and there’s nothing there, or they read a line and say, OK, now what? That kind of questioning is more valuable than anything. They don’t have to say anything. With the very best actors I can see it in the way they’re preceding. Sometimes I instinctively know that this little part at the end of scene two, act one is not quite there, but I say to myself, Maybe we’ll get away with it. A good actor won’t let me. Not that he says, Hey, I can’t do this; I just see that he’s stumbling. And then I have to face up to the problem.  

INTERVIEWER

So, as you write, your thoughts are with the actors, not the audience.  

SHEPARD

Well, no. I don’t think you can write a play without thinking of the audience, but it’s a funny deal, because I never know who the audience is. It’s like a ghost. With movies you have a better notion of who’s watching; there it’s the whole population.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you do a lot of revisions?  

SHEPARD

More now than I used to. I used to be just dead set against revisions because I couldn’t stand rewriting. That changed when I started working with Chaikin. Joe was so persistent about finding the essence of something. He’d say, Does this mean what we’re trying to make it mean? Can it be constructed some other way? That fascinated me, because my tendency was to jam, like it was jazz or something. Thelonius Monk style.  

INTERVIEWER

How do your plays start? Do you hear the voice of a character?  

SHEPARD

It’s more of an attitude than a voice. With Simpatico, for instance, it was these two guys in completely different predicaments who began to talk to each other, one in one attitude and the other in another.  

INTERVIEWER

Do your characters always tell you where to go?  

SHEPARD

The characters are definitely informing you, telling you where they want to go. Each time you get to a crossroads you know there are possibilities. That itself can be a dilemma, though. Several times I’ve written a play that seemed absolutely on the money up to a certain point, and then all of a sudden it went way left field. When that happens you really have to bring it back to the point where it diverged and try something else.  

INTERVIEWER

On the subject of control, Nabokov, for one, spoke of controlling his characters with a very tight rein.  

SHEPARD

Yeah, but I think the whole notion of control is very nebulous. I mean, what kind of control do you have, Vladimir? Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a magnificent writer. I just question the whole notion of control.  

INTERVIEWER

The monologue has become something of a Shepard trademark. You are famous for your breathtaking ones, which you’ve referred to as arias.  

SHEPARD

Originally the monologues were mixed up with the idea of an aria. But then I realized that what I’d written was extremely difficult for actors. I mean, I was writing monologues that were three or four pages long. Now it’s more about elimination, but the characters still sometimes move into other states of mind, you know, without any excuses. Something lights up and the expression expands.  

INTERVIEWER

What was the genesis of Fool for Love? Your plays don’t often have a male and a female character in conflict like that.  

SHEPARD

The play came out of falling in love. It’s such a dumbfounding experience. In one way you wouldn’t trade it for the world. In another way it’s absolute hell. More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in a man to manifest, oddly enough.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you know when you started Fool for Love that the father would play such an important role?  

SHEPARD

No. I was desperately looking for an ending when he came into the story. That play baffles me. I love the opening, in the sense that I couldn’t get enough of this thing between Eddie and May, I just wanted that to go on and on and on. But I knew that was impossible. One way out was to bring the father in.

I had mixed feelings about it when I finished. Part of me looks at Fool for Love and says, This is great, and part of me says, This is really corny. This is a quasirealistic melodrama. It’s still not satisfying; I don’t think the play really found itself.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any idea what the end of play is going to be when you begin?  

SHEPARD

I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster.  

INTERVIEWER

Why?  

SHEPARD

The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bach’s melody lines are like he’s running away.  

INTERVIEWER

Maybe that’s why jazz appeals to you, because it doesn’t have any endings, the music just trails away.  

SHEPARD

Possibly. It’s hard, you know, because of the nature of a play.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever tried to back up from a good ending? Start with one in mind and work backwards?  

SHEPARD

Evidently that’s what Raymond Chandler did, but he was a mystery writer. He said he always started out knowing who did the murder. To me there’s something false about an ending. I mean, because of the nature of a play, you have to end it. People have to go home.  

INTERVIEWER

The endings of True West and Buried Child, for example, seem more resolved than, say, Angel City.  

SHEPARD

Really? I can’t even remember how Angel City ends.  

INTERVIEWER

The green slime comes through the window.  

SHEPARD

Ah, yes. When in doubt, bring on the goo and slime.  

INTERVIEWER

What is it you have in mind when you think of the audience?  

SHEPARD

You don’t want to create boredom, and it becomes an easy trap for a writer to fall into. You have to keep the audience awake in very simple terms. It’s easy in the theater to create boredom—easier than it is in movies. You put something in motion and it has to have momentum. If you don’t do that right away, there isn’t any attention.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a secret for doing that?  

SHEPARD

You begin to learn an underlying rhythmic sense in which things are shifting all the time. These shifts create the possibility for the audience to attach their attention. That sounds like a mechanical process, but in a way it’s inherent in dialogue. There’s a kind of dialogue that’s continually shifting and moving, and each time it moves it creates something new. There’s also a kind of dialogue that puts you to sleep. One is alive and the other’s deadly. It could be just the shifts of attitudes, the shifts of ideas, where one line is sent out and another one comes back. Shifts are something Joe Chaikin taught me. He had a knack for marking the spot where something shifted. An actor would be going along, full of focus and concern, and then Joe would say, No! Shift! Different! Not the same. Sun, moon—different! And the actors would say to themselves, Of course it’s different. Why didn’t I see that before?  

INTERVIEWER

Is an ear for dialogue important?  

SHEPARD

I think an ear for stage dialogue is different from an ear for language that’s heard in life. You can hear things in life that don’t work at all when you try to reproduce them onstage. It’s not the same; something changes.  

INTERVIEWER

What changes?  

SHEPARD

It’s being listened to in a direct way, like something overheard. It’s not voyeuristic, not like I’m in the other room. I’m confronted by it, and the confrontational part of theater is the dialogue. We hear all kinds of fascinating things every day, but dialogue has to create a life. It has to be self-sustaining. Conversation is definitely not dialogue.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you acknowledge the influence of playwrights like Pinter and Beckett on your work?  

SHEPARD

The stuff that had the biggest influence on me was European drama in the sixties. That period brought theater into completely new territory—Beckett especially, who made American theater look like it was on crutches. I don’t think Beckett gets enough credit for revolutionizing theater, for turning it upside down.  

INTERVIEWER

How were you affected by winning the Pulitzer Prize?  

SHEPARD

You know, in a lot of ways I feel like it was given to the wrong play. Buried Child is a clumsy, cumbersome play. I think A Lie of the Mind is a much better piece of work. It’s denser, more intricate, better constructed.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite among your plays?  

SHEPARD

I’ll tell you, I’m not attached to any of it. I don’t regret them, but for me it’s much more thrilling to move on to the next thing.