Sam Shepard, The Art of Theater, No 12
Source: The Paris Review - Spring 1997

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 Yorkís Signature Theater. He said he had been exhausted by the theaterís 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, Icarusís 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 playsóCurse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love, and the Pulitzer PrizeĖwinning 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, ďthe work just isnít that much fun.Ē 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 díOr at the Cannes Film Festival for Paris, Texas, which he wrote and acted in.

The West figures predominantly as a mythology in many of your plays. You grew up there, didnít you?

All over the Southwest, reallyóCucamonga, 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.

Do you think youíll ever live in the West again?

No, I donít think so. The California I knew, old rancho California, is gone. It just doesnít 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.

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?

Yes, though less now than I used to. Most of it comes, I guess, from my dadís side of the family. Theyíre a real bizarre bunch, going back to the original colonies. That sideís got a real tough strain of alcoholism. It goes back generations and generations, so that you canít remember when there was a sober grandfather.

Have you struggled with drinking?

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 Iíd just run over, get a bag of bennies and drink ripple wine. Speed and booze together make you quite . . . omnipotent. You donít feel any pain. I was actually in several car wrecks that I donít understand how I survived.

At any rate, for a long time I didnít think I had a problem. Alcoholism is an insidious disease; until I confronted it, I wasnít aware that it was creeping up on me. I finally did AA in the hardcore down on Pico Boulevard. I said, ďDonít put me in with Elton John or anything, just throw me to the lions.Ē

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

I didnít 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.

You said the men on your dadís 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?

Those Midwestern women from the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault, mainly by men who were disappointed in a way that they didnít 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 schoolóand they just couldnít handle it. There was something outrageous about it. I still donít know what it wasómaybe 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 wasnít like they said, Hey Jack, you know, down the road, Iím 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 . . .

What was your dad like?

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.

Is he alive?

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 donít 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 didnít 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.

Did he ever see one of your plays?

Yes. Thereís 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 Iím 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, ďWhat a bunch of shit this is!Ē 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.

Were you there?

No, I just heard about it. I think thatís 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 wonít return to it, but a certain element has been exhausted, and it feels like why regurgitate all this stuff?

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

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

What sort of musician were you trying to be?

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

How did you end up in New York?

After the falling out with my father I worked on a couple of ranchesóthoroughbred layup farms, actuallyóout toward Chino, California. That was fine for a little while, but I wanted to get out completely, and twenty miles away wasnít 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 Bishopís 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 readóI was so scared I read the stage directionsóand then they hired me. I think they hired everybody.

We traveled all over the countryóNew 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-sufficientówe 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, Iím getting off the bus.

Did you start right in?

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 wasnít a very difficult jobóall I had to do was make a round every fifteen minutesóbut 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.

Did you already think of yourself as a writer?

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

How did you hook up with the theaters?

Well, I was staying on Avenue C and Tenth Street with a bunch of jazz musicians, one of whom happened to be Charlie Mingusís 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. Markís in the Bowery, and he said heíd heard that Iíd been writing some stuff, and he wanted to see it. So, I showed him a few plays Iíd written, and he said, Well, letís 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 theatersóGenesis, La Mama, Judson Poetsóand find a way to get it done. Nothing like that exists now.

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

For a while the big papers wouldnít touch them, but then they started to smell something, so they came down and wrote these snide reviews. They werenít 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.

What were the audiences like?

They were incredibly different. You really felt that the community came to see the plays. They werenít people coming from New Jersey to have a dinner party. And they werenít 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.



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

I was amazed, actually. Iíve heard writers talk about ďdiscovering a voice,Ē but for me that wasnít a problem. There were so many voices that I didnít know where to start. It was splendid, really; I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. I donít 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 theyíre talking about a narrative voice. For some reason my attempts at narrative turned out really weird. I didnít have that kind of voice, but I had a lot of other ones, so I thought, Well, Iíll follow those.

Do you feel like youíre in control of those voices now?

I donít feel insane, if thatís what youíre asking.

What is your schedule like?

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

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

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

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

Iíve got a room out by the barn with a typewriter, a piano, some photographs, and old drawings. Lots of junk and old books. I canít seem to get rid of my books.

So, youíre not a word-processor person.

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

What sort of country is it where you live? (Minnesota)

Farm countryóyou know, hay, horses, cattle. Itís the ideal situation for me. I like the physical endeavors that go with the farmócutting hay, cleaning out stalls, or building a barn. You go do that and then come back to the writing.

Do you write every day?

When something kicks in, I devote everything to it and write constantly until itís finished. But to sit down every day and say, Iím going to write, come hell or high wateróno, I could never do that.

Can you write when youíre acting in a film?

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

Do you actually write on the set?

Film locations are a great opportunity to write. I donít work on plays while Iím shooting a movie, but Iíve done short stories and a couple of novels.

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

To a certain extent it was frustrating, because the actors were in control of the material and I wasnít used to actors. I didnít know how to talk to them and I didnít 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 donít just go in there and read the script.

Did becoming an actor help you as a writer?

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

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

I am not a Strasberg fanatic. In fact, I find it incredibly self-indulgent. Iíve seen actors come through it because theyíre strong people themselves, because theyíre able to use it and go on, but Iíve also seen actors absolutely destroyed by it, which is painful to see. It has to do with this voodoo thatís all about the verification of behavior, so that I become the character. Itís 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 itís for the audience. Hey, man, Iím in my private little world. What you talkiní about? Iím over here, Iím involved with the lemons. On film, of course, it works because of its obsessiveness; but in theater itís a complete block and a hindrance. Thereís 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.

Is it true that you wrote Simpatico in a truck?

Well, I started it in a truck. I donít like flying very much, so I tend to drive a lot, and Iíve always wanted to find a way to write while Iím on the open road. I wrote on the steering wheel.

Really? What highway were you on?

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 Iíd 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.

How do you decide that a play is finished?

The only way to test it is with actors, because thatís who youíre 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 itís what I imagined it to be. The best actors show you the flaws in the writing. They come to a certain place and thereís nothing there, or they read a line and say, OK, now what? That kind of questioning is more valuable than anything. They donít have to say anything. With the very best actors I can see it in the way theyíre 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 weíll get away with it. A good actor wonít let me. Not that he says, Hey, I canít do this; I just see that heís stumbling. And then I have to face up to the problem.

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

Well, no. I donít think you can write a play without thinking of the audience, but itís a funny deal, because I never know who the audience is. Itís like a ghost. With movies you have a better notion of whoís watching; there itís the whole population.

Do you do a lot of revisions?

More now than I used to. I used to be just dead set against revisions because I couldnít stand rewriting. That changed when I started working with Chaikin. Joe was so persistent about finding the essence of something. Heíd say, Does this mean what weíre 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.

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

Itís 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.

Do your characters always tell you where to go?

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 Iíve 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.

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

Yeah, but I think the whole notion of control is very nebulous. I mean, what kind of control do you have, Vladimir? Donít get me wrong, I think heís a magnificent writer. I just question the whole notion of control.

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

Originally the monologues were mixed up with the idea of an aria. But then I realized that what Iíd written was extremely difficult for actors. I mean, I was writing monologues that were three or four pages long. Now itís 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.

What was the genesis of Fool for Love? Your plays donít often have a male and a female character in conflict like that.

The play came out of falling in love. Itís such a dumbfounding experience. In one way you wouldnít trade it for the world. In another way itís absolute hell. More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in a man to manifest, oddly enough.

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

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 couldnít 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. Itís still not satisfying; I donít think the play really found itself.

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

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

Why?

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. Thatís genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bachís melody lines are like heís running away.

Maybe thatís why jazz appeals to you, because it doesnít have any endings, the music just trails away.

Possibly. Itís hard, you know, because of the nature of a play.

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

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

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

Really? I canít even remember how Angel City ends.

The green slime comes through the window.

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

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

You donít 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. Itís easy in the theater to create boredomóeasier than it is in movies. You put something in motion and it has to have momentum. If you donít do that right away, there isnít any attention.

Do you have a secret for doing that?

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 itís inherent in dialogue. Thereís a kind of dialogue thatís continually shifting and moving, and each time it moves it creates something new. Thereís also a kind of dialogue that puts you to sleep. One is alive and the otherís 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, moonódifferent! And the actors would say to themselves, Of course itís different. Why didnít I see that before?

Is an ear for dialogue important?

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

What changes?

Itís being listened to in a direct way, like something overheard. Itís not voyeuristic, not like Iím in the other room. Iím 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.

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

The stuff that had the biggest influence on me was European drama in the sixties. That period brought theater into completely new territoryóBeckett especially, who made American theater look like it was on crutches. I donít think Beckett gets enough credit for revolutionizing theater, for turning it upside down.

How were you affected by winning the Pulitzer Prize?

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. Itís denser, more intricate, better constructed.

Do you have a favorite among your plays?

Iíll tell you, Iím not attached to any of it. I donít regret them, but for me itís much more thrilling to move on to the next thing.