Interview at Cherry Lane Theater in NYC
Date:  November 6, 2006


CROWD MEMBER: Youíre an alum of the Cherry Lane, and you were here in . . . ? Way back in 1968?

SHEPARD: Oh, way before then. I did a one-act here in 1964 or í65 that was called Up till Thursday, and then, of course, later came True West.

CROWD MEMBER: As an actor, what do you expect from your writers, and as a writer what do you expect from your actors?

SHEPARD: I donít compartmentalize things like that. Iím not interested in borders so much as I like putting things together. I donít ever look at things so black and white like that.

CROWD MEMBER: You had a play called Angel City, and you gave instructions to the director of that play. You said to anyone who directs this play - and one of the characters turns into a lizard - that what youíd rather have are characters that are fractured whole, with bits and pieces of the characterizations flying off the central theme of the play.

SHEPARD: I really think that we are not just one person. We are a multiplicity of beings, if you want to call it that. Not to get too philosophical about it, but itís very easy for me to see character in the shifting, myriad, ever-changing tableau rather than one part. Weíre used to looking at character in a traditional sense, of being something we can define by behavior or background. You know what Iím saying? But it may not be like that; it may be much more interesting. For me, anyway. It may not be so interesting to lock down the character with specifics. What Iím interested in is this shifting of the character, you know, not the exactness of definition.

CROWD MEMBER: Have you been generally happy as a director, or as a playwright watching a director?

SHEPARD: No.

CROWD MEMBER: Are there any Brechtian influences in your work?

SHEPARD: Brecht influences everything. Absolutely. Thereís a play he wrote called In the Jungle of Cities, in which he pits a librarian against a gangster. An extraordinary play. A simple man, leading a simple life, and this demonic character comes in and says, ďI am going to kill you,Ē to this humble librarian. ďMaybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, I will.Ē And thatís very upsetting, and that play influenced the writing of Tooth of Crime. This thing of total surprise. I think writing is like that. Itís a total surprise. thereís no way you can predict it. No way. As much as you think you know, and as old as we get, it can continually surprise.

CROWD MEMBER: Iím curious about why you rewrote Tooth of Crime so many years later.

SHEPARD: I felt the play was outdated, and I donít think a piece of writing should be forged in iron, and necessarily, the great thing about a play is that it moves and shifts, from production to production, and we see that shift. I mean, Iíve never written a play that I couldnít rewrite.

CROWD MEMBER: In interviews from the í80s you said that a play isnít really thought up; rather, itís something that you catch that sort of exists. How does that work with craft?

SHEPARD: Interesting question. Songwriters that I admire the most - Willie Nelson and Dylan - both feel that way about songwriting. The song exists; itís there, and being out there you need to get a hold of it somehow. Willie wrote  "On the Road AgainĒ on the back of a napkin in about five minutes. Like the Beatles song ďBlackbird,Ē itís so simple that it couldíve been there the whole time. However, it doesnít mean that you donít have to struggle or practice craft. You donít know when itís going to land. Is that clear?

CROWD MEMBER: Is there too much craft in that process?

SHEPARD: I donít think you can have too much craft. Maybe you canít have enough. Itís a funny balance between what we like to call inspiration and what we like to call work. And you canít do without either one. If you hang around and wait for something to hit you in the head, youíre not going to write anything. Youíve got to work. You want to work for something. And these experiences, or accidents, can happen anytime. rough the back door.
For instance, Iíve been working on these stories, fiction, for some time, journals and whatnot, and Iíll be writing a while and take a look at something, and BOOM! thereís a play thatís developing while Iím working on short fiction, and I canít not write it in that moment. Iíll think about all this time Iíve been spending working on this goddamn book, and then, whatís justified?

CROWD MEMBER: Does that change the way you tell stories? Has our cultural evolution - the way technology continues to curb our attention spans - does that affect your cultural outlook?

SHEPARD: Well, culture itself is always gonna be poverty-stricken. We donít live in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or Greece. We live in a destroyed culture. There is no culture here. Itís shreds of stuff . Weíre amongst shrapnel. So if youíre looking for culture to support your attention, then youíre out of luck. The question to ask is ďWhat is attention? Do we even understand the first thing about what attention is?Ē I mean, theyíre these definitions that donít define anything. We donít understand what attention is because weíve
been hammered by non-attention. The thing to do is to try and discover what attention is, what is the substance of it. Itís a tool thatís also true of actors. We work with material that is constantly moving.

CROWD MEMBER: Sometimes you direct your own work. What motivates you to direct your own plays and work on your own material?

SHEPARD: What motivates it is not being able to find a director. Itís been a great thing in a way, because Iíve learned much more about production. As a director, you start to understand what it means to talk to actors, what it means to talk to a lighting designer, to work with space. You get to understand what theaterís about, and it is about far more than what you as a writer think. For me, itís been a blessing not to have found the right director.

CROWD MEMBER: Youíve also been an actor. How does that correlate with the approach you take in working with a director?

SHEPARD: Are you talking about film or theater?

CROWD MEMBER: Film.

SHEPARD: Film is a different matter. Oddly enough, there are many film directors who donít understand what acting is even about. Iím telling you the truth. Very few understand, or even care. For the most part, acting in film lm means trying to stay above water. They are far more interested in other matters relating to the production, so as an actor youíre expected to show up carrying the goods. In theater, you get six to eight weeks rehearsal time, whereas in film you show up ready to go. So the rehearsal time in theater is devoted to the actors, which it should be.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you think that will ever change?

SHEPARD: Itíll never change. Thereís too much money in film. Thatís the attitude. Youíre talking about a machine that operates distinctly over money. Thereís no room to mess about with the actors. Filmís . . . terrible.

CROWD MEMBER: A lot of your writing and directing is very musical.

SHEPARD: I am a musician. Iím not a studied musician. Iíve always found that music and writing are entangled.

CROWD MEMBER: How do you prepare for acting in film?

SHEPARD: It depends on the role, you know. But Iíd rather talk about theater.

CROWD MEMBER: What do you consider your best play?

SHEPARD: I donít hang on to them like that. In the second week of the production, Iíve had it. Iím ready to move on to the next thing. Productions can be grueling. But True West a couple years ago, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, was an incredible production because they switched roles every third performance. And the reproduction of Buried Child that Steppenwolf did was a great thing to be part of. For the most part, I donít follow them like that and try to nurse them.

CROWD MEMBER: Could you tell us about the last days of Joe Chaiken? You had quite a moving experience with this longtime friend and collaborator.

SHEPARD: It was strange because I had experienced this earlier with a mother-in-law. He came out of unconsciousness, and you never think of language as being . . . he virtually lost the meaning of words, and it was so weird, because he was so eloquent. I would go out of my way to listen to him. We had exercises to get him out of this locked-down vocabulary, and as we were doing that, he had this idea of an angel - you know, Joe would have extraordinary ideas that came out of nowhere - and I couldnít tell if it was this mythological idea of a certain character, and we originally wrote it as a radio play, and then it became a piece in which we designed it so he could perform it himself. It was about an angel who crashes to Earth and doesnít know how he gets there, so everything is seen through that perspective, which is a shattered reality, and all of the language comes out of that experience. Sometimes the light goes out completely, and sometimes it comes back, and with Joe it went out completely. at piece was about trying to get him back.

CROWD MEMBER: How much does the environment in which youíre writing affect you?

SHEPARD: I think the best writing, for me, happens on the move. When Iím riding in a train or a car. When you donít have a home. Thereís that feeling that when Iím traveling, Iím on fire, so I never figure out why this need to move all the time creates writing. It just goes.

CROWD MEMBER: Have you ever noticed any specific schools or traditions of acting that seem to get your work?

SHEPARD: The actors with the most chops are the ones who gather from all kinds of styles, not just the Methods, not just Chinese eater, not just mimes. They have a taste of many different things and are open to many different things. Theyíre fascinated by everything around them, and - (A crowd member near the back takes a photograph.)

SHEPARD: Donít take any pictures, okay?

CROWD MEMBER: Itís for the theater.

SHEPARD: Okay. Um, itís an interesting thing. Many actors who absorb in an internal way canít do the physical thing. And I always wonder why these things exclude each other. Peter Brook has experimented with this in the past. Actors should have a wide scope. They must have that, in order to bring something new to the theater.

CROWD MEMBER: I did a reading last week where I was praised for my dialogue, but got knocked down for my monologues. When monologues are lyrical and poetic and stand out . . . as someone so familiar with that element, do you ever feel that monologues that inhabit such poetic spins, like Tooth of Crime . . . is there a certain point where you need to cut it off or ďdumb it down,Ē so to speak?

SHEPARD: Itís interesting. Iím writing a monologue now, and I just decided, within the last few days, to let it rip, let it go and not worry about whether itís lyrical or whatnot, and let it spin. And, on the other hand, Iíve done stuff where Iíve let it be very compound, very precise. I guess it depends on where you want to go with it. If youíre gonna do this and itís gonna be onstage, why not let it go? Though you look at somebody like Beckett, who is the master of conciseness. Look at Krappís Last Tape. Itís like acid rain, every word is. You couldnít replace a word in that piece. When he rolls, he rolls in a way in which he couldnít be more precise. But I donít think there are any rules. Itís an interesting problem. And itís interesting for the actor, too. Iíve been guilty of writing way too much and then realizing, Hell, an actor canít do this. Heíll run out of gas. It doesnít make sense.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you write every single day?

SHEPARD: I donít have a process. You have to take the plunge. Itís easy to talk about the process, but itís a confrontation. Youíre confronting a blank page. Itís like drawing. You stare at a blank canvas and it goes from itself. You can call it a process, but youíre studying where this inspiration comes from. I donít even have a specific time I write.

CROWD MEMBER: Does your writing have a destination?

SHEPARD: Sometimes, but often Iíve found when you know where youíre going, it deadens something. If I have some sort of a vague idea - or specific idea - youíre already there, and youíre not allowing yourself to travel to the end. Itís like youíre driving cross-country to Omaha, you know; if youíre dreaming about Omaha the whole time, youíre going to miss the trip. And itís not a bad idea to know where youíre going, but you canít have that thing determine conclusions for you. Whatís in front of you is a big part of evolution. Iím not against having a destination, but that point can sometimes blind you from your trip.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you have . . . ?

SHEPARD: I have a hard time finishing anything I write.

CROWD MEMBER: Could you expand on the comment you had in a previous collection stating, ďI donít want to be a playwright. I want to be a rock star.Ē

SHEPARD: I think I was nineteen when I said that. (Laughs.) I discovered that I never really had a career. Iím just doing what I do. Back in the í60s, everyone wanted to be a rock star.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you ever think of audiences when you write?

SHEPARD: Yeah. Going back to Joe Chaiken, he developed the Open eater, which was a very powerful, experimental practice in which many actors were challenged in their involvement. Heíd do a Brecht play, a very simple, one-act Brecht play, like a clown piece; then heíd, say, ďDo it as though the Queen of England was watching your show,Ē so it changed. ďNow do it as though Muhammad Ali is sitting there. Now do it as though the fascists are about to take over.Ē And it was amazing to see that and how it took over the actors. It led me in a lot of different directions in terms of thinking about the audience. Now, in monologue thatís interesting because you have to consider the language and characters, whether youíre addressing the audience or ignoring them.

CROWD MEMBER:  Thereís a scene in True West in which the character Lee is remembering a scene from a film called Lonely Are the Brave, which is a Kirk Douglas film, and he talks about his horse dying. And no one else onstage has ever heard of that film.  Can you talk a little bit about how that informs the audience?

SHEPARD: Heís the kind of character who would like that movie. Itís as simple as that. Why did he like that movie? Because he saw himself as that guy. Heís the kind of character who would like that movie, regardless of whether or not anyone else liked it. Itís part of his persona, his bravado, his deal. I can say that film made an impression on me. It was one of what they called ďmodern Westerns,Ē and Walter Matthau played the sheriff . It was a nittygritty black-and-white film, almost symbolic, but at the same time the kind of film that never could be made now. Itís a part of America thatís gone now. Itís a part of reality thatís gone. Which is sad. Weíve lost touch with a real character.

CROWD MEMBER: Chemistry onstage. How do you develop it?

SHEPARD: I donít think in terms of chemistry. I know that termís used a lot, but I donít get it. What works well is excellent actors, and when you get those kind of actors together, great stuff happens. Actors who have the chops are like jazz musicians. You donít bring in people who canít play with the band. So if everybody plays well, you can make some pretty great sound. Great actors challenge each other, and before you know it, something happens. I donít get in their way. I think directors get in actorsí way too much and prevent
something worthwhile. There arenít enough directors who trust actors and who nurture. Somehow, in one way or another, I feel the English actors have a better way of creating that spark. They know how to allow characters to arrive.

CROWD MEMBER: How much do you prepare characters for your plays?

SHEPARD: I donít do a lot of character development. I think they . . . come. Pinter is interesting for that. Pinter, from what I understand, starts with almost nothing, and he writes these incredible characters. From a word, from something so tiny, and Iíve always admired that. Itís like painting, again. You set up something and BAM! It becomes something else. Not to say that there arenít writers who consider tapestry. Youíd be hard-pressed to say Shakespeare didnít think about his characters. But thatís never been my fascination as much as the plunge of it all.

CROWD MEMBER: How did True West come about?

SHEPARD: My mother had gone to Alaska, and I was housesitting for her in California, and I was completely alone, with crickets, and I started to dream this thing up. It just started to come. I wrote it in its entirety in that house.

CROWD MEMBER: When you were beginning as a playwright, did you have another playwright you looked at for guidance?

SHEPARD: Beckett. Heís the only guy. He could be the only playwright on earth. atís all we need is Beckett. I idolize Beckett from every aspect. He represented the epitome of the modern playwright. Nobody was doing that stuff . You gotta understandóI mean, you probably do understandóthat nobody was doing what he started. He totally reinvented it. He absolutely stood it on its head. ere had been nobody like him.

CROWD MEMBER: What do you think about the current state of American theater, and where do you think itís going in the future?

SHEPARD: I donít care. Iím only concerned with writing plays. I start worrying about the state of American theater, and Iím not going to get anything done. Iím sorry, but Iím not interested.

CROWD MEMBER: Did you love theater and decide you wanted to get into writing, or did you fi rst love writing and see theater as a perfect conduit?

SHEPARD: Actually, I was interested in music and acting, but I didnít want to do the audition thing. I hated the audition thing. I wanted to be autonomous, and writing offered me a part of myself, to take a notebook and go to a coffee shop and write. I didnít have to depend on anyone, and I didnít need the money that a filmmaker needs. I love that immediacy, and also that thing about dialogue: itís a kind of way about doing music. atís a comparative form of literature for me. Written literature just stays in a book, and with theater you can go and do things in space and time. So playwriting, where you can build from nothing, you can incorporate just about anything into. Theater will swallow whatever you feed it, you know. You can put painting or sculpture into the acting; you can film or have fi lm onstage; itís the whole thing. It has so much potential. And yet we think of it as this primitive form, but maybe thatís why people keep coming back to it, for its rawness. And I also love that itís language spoken. Itís language that hits a room.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you go to the theater?

SHEPARD: Sometimes. Iím not a big fan of stuff . Every once in a while, you get surprised. I know thereís some good stuff out there.

CROWD MEMBER: Did you see Pillowman?

SHEPARD: Yeah.

CROWD MEMBER: What did you think?

SHEPARD: Well, heís a wonderful writer, Martin McDonaugh. He is one of the guys. But thatís not my favorite play of his. I love e Beauty Queen of Lenane.

CROWD MEMBER: I donít want to put a negative spin on it, but thereís a lot of physical violence in your plays. Why do you include that?

SHEPARD: Because life is violent. Violence rules the world. So why not embrace it? We live in extremely violent times, in this world. Iím not all for heads rolling, but this is a violent country, is it not?

CROWD MEMBER: Are you drawn to country music or singer-songwriters in general, or something similar?

SHEPARD: Iím not particularly interested in forms. Thereís wonderful stuff coming out of country music. ereís a whole thing going on right now with old-time music, and this thing, with traditional instruments being played in new ways, that pushes the envelope. When youíre seeing someone playing the banjo like a saxophone, itís a push. I love the idea of breaking new barriers. Itís gotta be like that. I donít think itís good to sit with one method and say thatís the end-all.

CROWD MEMBER: Youíve mentioned painting repeatedly tonight. Is that another hobby?

SHEPARD: No. I draw a little bit, but painting is not something I do. I wish I could, but thereís two things I canít do: painting and novels. Scratch those off the list.

CROWD MEMBER: Would you share with us what a beginning is for you?

SHEPARD: I think beginnings are by far the most exciting. atís where the fire starts. I have no problem with beginnings. But then then you have to go on your nerve, and you have to follow your nerve, and thatís why beginnings are also very important. Itís just like music: you have to start with just the right note, or else the song can go bad fast. Itís a question of paying attention to the potential. Not to say that you want to get tight and constricted with what that start is, but itís paying attention to where that start should be. Take Krappís Last Tape, with the banana in the drawer. Itís total surprise. Comes from nowhere. This guyís listening to tapes; then he pulls a banana out of the drawer and puts it in his mouth. All of a sudden, itís a comedy. He eats the banana, puts it on the fl oor, and slips on it later. Itís absolutely brilliant.Itís like a physical psych gag.

But the writing canít be vague. It has to be specific. Peter Brook wrote a fabulous book called The Empty Space, and what heís saying is, at the end, theater is this blank canvas, which is probably the most exciting thing in the world, and yet frightening. at, to me, is the essence of how you follow. What do you see happen? Say youíre sitting in the audience, and youíre the only one there. What do you see happen? What would you like to see happen? What completely surprises you? Itís as wide-open as that, and not getting too concerned with the process and big ideas and politics. What physically happens between the audience and the play? Have you seen Slavinís Snowshow? Clowns are boarding trains in which they become the train. Itís an extraordinary piece in which they stare at the audience. Just by that, the audience goes nuts. Itís technique, and yet, at the same time, itís doing its own thing. Great theater.

CROWD MEMBER: How do you make yourself fi nish things, if itís such trouble?

SHEPARD: Iím actually working on something that I started many years ago, and seeing its core value. Lot of times, you start something brand new and let it fl utter away before you know it. You have to agree to work on the piece.

CROWD MEMBER: Could you give us an example of writing something like Buried Child?

SHEPARD: I dipped into this family thing for a little while, and I didnít really want to write family plays. It is that American tradition, those family plays, so I thought of writing something that hadnít been exposed or touched on. en I started working on it, and it turned out to be pretty dark, and I wanted it to be a comedy, so that was the first time I started drawing up characters from my past and messing around in that territory: family-gone-wrong.

CROWD MEMBER: Can we go back to Beckett for a second? (Shepard nods.) Did you get into his work as a distant admirer or did you actually know him?

SHEPARD: No. Itís one of my biggest regrets. I wish I had met him.

CROWD MEMBER: Did you ever act in any of his works?

(Shepard shakes head no.)

CROWD MEMBER: Would you like to?

SHEPARD: Maybe.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you find there are enough places to put on your plays?

SHEPARD: Thereís never been a political involvement. I was lucky enough to come from the í60s, where Off-Off Broadway was the only alternative. Broadway was locked up, Off-Broadway was as locked up as Broadway, all commercial theater. The doors were closed to experimental theater. And we invented it. And we said, ďOkay, letís go do it in that space, that cafť or that church.Ē The fire department was trying to close us down all the time because we didnít have exit signs over the doors, and we just did it. We madeit happen. Iím not sure if that vitality still exists now, but I can tell you, Off - Off Broadway existed because we said, ďTo hell with Broadway, and to hell with commercial theater. Weíre going to do it our way in the spaces available because we believe in it enough.Ē

I find it hard to believe that the city has changed that much, that people who want to get stuff done canít get those things done. Somewhere. Take Ellen Stewart (from La MaMa). is was a bulldog of a woman. She put plays on regardless. Get it done. I donít know if there are people like that around anymore. I find it hard to believe itís a political element or economic element. I mean, goddang, if people want to get stuff done, theyíll find a way to get it done. Donít you think? What do you think? I donít know.

CROWD MEMBER: How do you know when a playís done?

SHEPARD: You write things in different states of mind. After a long day of writing, once you sleep on a story, that next morning isnít the same as when you were engaged the previous night. You look at it later and realize it isnít at all how you imagined it to be. So when you write a play ten years ago, and then come back to it, youíre a different person. So I think, Why not rewrite it in that new light?

CROWD MEMBER: How do you know when to do that?

SHEPARD: The play has a rhythm. You gotta listen to it. Youíll know. I hate endings. I can tell you that. Always. Trying to force something. Not fun. Beginnings are extremely fun, middles are . . . (grumbles) and endings suck.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you do a lot of rewrites based on rehearsals with actors?

SHEPARD: Around actors, yeah. Often times, good actors are great at finding bad writing. If youíre watching your actors and listening to actors, theyíll find a problem. A lot of times Iíve rewritten almost entirely around an actor. They find that communication with character. Ed Harris is like that. Heíll just say, ĒWhat is that?Ē and he just knows what is and isnít working.

CROWD MEMBER: Do you write a lot of stage directions?

SHEPARD: I donít like stage directions that much. I like them abbreviated and concise. The problem with stage directions is that youíre trying to locate the space, and the point of view is always shifting. So you have to work in the blueprint. So the best way to create direction is probably the traditional method, which is from the proscenium. You have to sort of designate where itís happening. Look at Beckettís stage direction. Itís very specific and
precise.

CROWD MEMBER: Is there any advice you can give us?

SHEPARD: Plunge in.