If anyone knows what it takes to be a man, it should be
For 30 years he has stood as the maverick of American
theater, pounding out two-fisted tales about the Wild
West, fast cars and rock 'n' roll.
In 1983's "The Right Stuff," he portrayed test pilot
Chuck Yeager with uncommon familiarity, marching proudly
from the wreckage of a crash that would kill any mortal
being, his face blackened with ash, his helmet firmly
tucked under his arm.
If one needs further evidence, consider that he lives
with the estimable Jessica Lange.
But when asked Thursday afternoon for his definition of
a real man, Shepard flinched.
"I don't feel like giving that right now," he said,
wiping his weathered face with a long hand. "I know what
it isn't: The stuff that's offered up in beer
commercials. What? What? Bud Light? I can't believe men
are duped by this. Do you have to take a six-pack
everywhere you go? Wear your baseball cap backward?"
Shepard's low-key, no-nonsense appearance Thursday at
the University of Minnesota's Rarig Center was designed
so students could ask one of the nation's most
challenging playwrights about the theater. But it may
have been more satisfying simply to hear the renegade
artist chew the fat.
In the world according to Shepard, e-mail is evil.
Modern machines, including the tape recorder, are to be
avoided. "Rent," the current toast of New York theater,
lost its reason for being the moment it appeared on the
cover of Newsweek. He has little use for Broadway, where
a revival of his play "Buried Child," which won the
Pulitzer Prize in 1979, is running to rave reviews. It
is the first time a Shepard play has appeared on
Broadway, which has more to do with director Gary
Sinise's massive production than with Shepard's desire
to see his name in lights.
"It's a tourist deal," he said, dressed in a dark-blue
sweatshirt, a casual vest and faded blue jeans. " `Cats'
on one side of the street, `Phantom' on the other.
There's nothing wrong with that. But I don't see where
my plays fit."
Shepard, 52, has made few appearances in town despite
the fact that he and Minnesota native Lange moved to
Stillwater with their family last year. He has not seen
any plays here and didn't seem terribly interested in
one student's suggestion to work with the Guthrie
When another student asked the playwright about how to
deal with plot, Shepard said he has little use for it.
"I saw a film last night," he said. "Guess I missed it
when it was around before. It was called, `Usual' . . .
uhhh. . . . "
" `Suspects'!" cried several students.
" `Usual Suspects.' It had an unbelievable plot," he
said, squinting. "But I'm thinking: Is that as
interesting as following a character?"
After the session, Shepard continued to chat with
students outdoors, smoking and sipping on a can of Coke.
"It was nice to see him as a human being, because you
put this kind of person on a pedestal," said Shannon
Farrell, a 23-year-old theater arts major. "I was just
amazed he came. He's such an isolationist. Poor Jessica
Lange has to go to everything by herself."