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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.