Sam Shepard is happy to be on Broadway, but it's just a visit by Peter Marks
Source: NY Times - May 28, 1996


At a window table in the roped-off V.I.P. section of that quintessential Broadway hangout, the coffee shop in the Edison Hotel, Sam Shepard sat down and ordered a cup of coffee. All around the restaurant were telltale signs of the alien world he had invaded: Broadway producers and press agents gabbing over bagels and eggs; European tourists poring over listings for the splashy musicals they want to see.

It was not the likeliest place to find a famously private playwright and sometime movie actor who has spent the better part of three decades cranking out weird, wildly theatrical, out-there plays about drifters and faded rock stars and others living on the edge, the sort of play more often viewed from a folding chair in a 60-seat theater in the East Village.

And yet Mr. Shepard suddenly has every reason to linger over his coffee in an industry eatery. For the first time in his career, he is Broadway front and center, right down to the glittering marquee, the marketing strategy and the multiple Tony nominations. His newly rewritten version of his 17-year-old family drama, "Buried Child," opened last month at the Brooks Atkinson Theater to glowing notices after an acclaimed run at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. And no one is more taken aback by the turn of events than Mr. Shepard.

"This is a total surprise to me," he said. "I'm not denying that it's exciting to have a play on Broadway. But this play just happens to fit here. It's not that I'm going to start writing plays for Broadway."

No one would ever accuse Mr. Shepard of being commercial. Over the years, he has experienced artistic success with plays like "True West," "A Lie of the Mind," "Curse of the Starving Class" and more recently "Simpatico." His works are so highly regarded in the theater world that he has been chosen by the Signature Theater, the Off Off Broadway company that devotes an entire season to the works of a single living American playwright, to be the subject of its 1996-97 season.

But the opportunity for success on the scale of a Broadway hit has never come his way, as it rarely does for virtually any serious playwright anymore. Even when the original Off Broadway production of "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, he could not take advantage of the triumph: the play closed the day before the prize was announced.

How much Mr. Shepard craves the wider mainstream audiences that Broadway commands is hard to tell. (He has, oddly enough, achieved greater fame as an actor in mainstream Hollywood films like "The Right Stuff" and "Baby Boom" and because of his long relationship with the actress Jessica Lange than he ever has for his plays.) But during a recent, hourlong interview at the coffee shop, the 52-year-old playwright said he was not concerned about who came to see his play or how long it lasted; what intrigued him, he said, was seeing it onstage again.

"You have to take it with a grain of salt," he said. "It's here today, gone tomorrow. It really doesn't have to do with Broadway. It's just great to see the play have another life."

On the other hand, Mr. Shepard was not uninterested in how the play was treated by the Tony Award voters. With the playwright's blessing, the play's producers convinced the administrators of the awards that because Mr. Shepard had done so much rewriting -- near half of its lines had been altered -- it should be considered for best play, not best revival of a play this season.

"I said, 'O.K., enter the S.O.B.,' " Mr. Shepard said. As a result, "Buried Child" is up for five Tonys on Sunday night, including best new play.

During the interview, the playwright talked about his days as a young writer on the Lower East Side in the 1960's, his worship of modern playwrights like Samuel Beckett ("I think 'Endgame' is just a jewel," he said) and his views on the theater, for which he expresses nothing short of contempt. He rarely goes to the theater, he said, because he finds it so unbearably boring.

"Really, I'd rather watch a rodeo or the Masters," Mr. Shepard, an avid golfer, said.

He described the arrival of "Buried Child" on Broadway as a fortunate fluke that may never be repeated. (In an era when so few new plays land on Broadway, that a Shepard play can open there at all is viewed by many in the theater as a triumph.) He added that it was Gary Sinise, director of both the Steppenwolf and Broadway productions, who had persuaded him to return to the play, which tells the darkly comic story of an American family gone haywire.

"He kept saying, 'How about 'Buried Child'?" Mr. Shepard said. "And I had wanted to look at the play again." Specifically, he wanted to re-examine a character whom he believes he was too young to understand when he created him, that of Vince, the son who returns home to discover that no one in the family recognizes him.

"In many of my plays, there was a kind of autobiographical character, in the form of a son or young man," he said. "The purpose of it, of course, was to write about myself. That character was always the least fully realized. Eighteen years later, you realize, 'That's what he was about.' It's the same in life, when you say, 'That was me?' "

As a young playwright, Mr. Shepard loathed rewriting. Now he finds it "a whole other art form; it's about craftsmanship." In rehearsals, he said, he changed lines on the spot, a practice that reminded him of the beginning of his life as a playwright in the mid-60's, when he would dash off plays in a kind of fever and get them staged almost immediately at the Village Gate and other tiny theaters. "From a writer's point of view, it couldn't have been better," he said.

His idiosyncratic writing routine has changed very little. "Laptop" has not entered his vocabulary. "I write in notebooks, like this," he explained, pulling out a compact spiral notebook filled with his handwriting. "That goes into bigger notebooks, and then to typewriters."

After finishing with "Buried Child," Mr. Shepard began rewriting another of his earlier plays, "The Tooth of Crime," which is to be staged as part of the Signature season. To accomplish that, he had to return to his home outside Minneapolis. The distractions of Broadway were simply too much.