Sam Shepard, Signature's 1996-97
Playwright-in-Residence, spoke with Literary Director
Christie Evangelisto about "Heartless", the music of
language, complexity science and heart transplants.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I found out I wasn't an actor. I came to New York
and fooled around with being an actor for a while and
hated the audition process, basically. Just hated being
at the mercy of everyone. So I started to write out of
the frustration of that more than anything.
And you came to New York in the 60's?
I came to New York from the Mojave Desert. Just to get
out of there. To get out of the no-where of out there.
It was very bleak growing up in all regards. Bleak. So I
thought I'd go to New York where something seemed to be
happening. There were a lot of people.
How do you start writing?
I'm always looking for the play that writes itself. Of
course, you never find it. But now and then you get
close to it. And I think "Heartless" comes as close as
anything I've ever written to being a play that writes
itself, in the sense that moment by moment you are not
guiding it and trying to put it through its acrobatics.
There's a big difference between a play having thought
and a play being derived from thinking. And a lot of
times a more intuitive kind of play, a play that happens
out of instinct, carries more thought with it. It's just
unbelievable the amount of stuff that's going on. So you
end up having to narrow things down so things don't
explode. Every once in a while it does explode, simply
out of frustration.
Do you feel like that's how most of your
plays have started?
You always start with some elements, some small
elements, whether it's a predicament or a gesture or
space - it could be very simple stuff - and then it
begins to gather force mainly through dialogue. Dialogue
has a lot of movement to it, a lot of dynamics. Every
second, dialogue is moving and changing.
Has your love of music fed the way you write
plays, the way you think about plays?
Well, writing is music. Language is music. It follows
the same dynamics as music. It has rhythm, tone,
a-tonality, harmony, cadence - all that stuff. I don't
see a distinct difference between the two. Of course,
music, for the most part, doesn't use words until it
becomes song or opera. I was just reading an incredible
thing by Artaud where he said, "Between thought and
gesture lies song." Which I thought was a beautiful
observation. I do think song lies somewhere in that
Over the years you've allied yourself with
Signature, and The Magic, and the Public. How has
working with institutions shaped your career?
Well, you don't have to go through the commercial market
so much. It's always difficult, this thing about the
marketplace. It's sometimes ugly. But you have to deal
with it one way or the other. At The Magic, I was a
Playwright-in-Residence, so I could pretty much do
whatever I wanted to do. It was a small venue. It really
had a feeling of community, because San Francisco is a
relatively small town. The theatre was a small artistic
venue in those days. Now it's grown a lot. It's been
exciting in terms of being able to do what you want to
do. I've been very lucky that way, which is one of the
main reasons I've fallen out of screenplays and not
pursued that, because you are not free. You are
constantly getting advice and people put their noses in
it. Whereas in the theatre, you are still regarded as
the author, which is great. I don't see that changing
either, because theatre is so language-oriented.
You've been working at a place called the
Santa Fe Institute. What's that like?
It's a think tank trying to find if there's an inner
dialogue between different pursuits: science and art and
within science itself, anthropology and quantum physics
and mathematics and all that. They call themselves a
science of complexity - complexity science - which has
now turned out to be a whole branch of science, trying
to find out how things interconnect. Cormac McCarthy and
I are the only two writers there.
Do you work with the scientists?
We don't work with them, we just have dialogues with
them, mainly around lunch or tea or something.
Otherwise, I'm working alone in the library. Actually I
wrote "Heartless" at the Santa Fe Institute in the
library, looking out at Los Alamos. Through snow and
then blinding heat and rain and all that kind of stuff.
It was cool. They've been really generous in allowing me
the time to work. It's great. It's kind of like 'going'
to work. I like the formality of it.
What started you thinking about "Heartless"?
Characters and place mainly. I was in Los Angeles for a
little while. I was in this extraordinary place where
it's really high up and you can see the entire city. And
it was kind of unusual. It was unusual for me because
I've never been in that kind of situation. You feel like
you're not exactly of the city. You're outside it. Then
I'd been thinking for a long time about wanting to write
an intrinsically female play with female characters. I
was staying in a place where until very recently there
had been a dowager - an old woman - who had been there
for a long, long time, who died. And she was being cared
for by many different people. I never met her, but that
played a part in it. It's a funny tapestry when you
start to put it all together. So, I started messing with
these elements - mainly to do with character and place
and predicament - and this idea of the heart started to
really interest me. I realized at the same time that my
interest in it wasn't purely scientific - it was more
this in-between world that someone might find themselves
in if they had a heart transplant. But if you were
walking around with somebody else's heart, it's likely
that you would have thoughts of the other person and
what the person's life might have been like. So it puts
the possessor of the new heart in a funny relationship
to the donor who's, of course, dead, but always with
So I started to play with that idea. And it
interests me still. This in-between existence where you
have the sensation that we're somehow between life and
death. And maybe the dead are even around in a way we
don't understand. There's a wonderful Austrian writer
named Sebald. I don't know if you know him. But his
books always remind me of this sort of netherworld, this
in-between world, where even though he's talking about
the present, the past is still playing a very heavy
role, and everything's in limbo. Every once in a while,
I have this feeling that we are living in our own past.
From moment to moment, every moment is dying and we are
going on to a new one. It's strange. I recently came
across a photograph book of Beckett - that I had never
seen before - when he was very, very old - in his last
days. It was remarkable to see those photographs - some
of them were from the 70's in Tangiers and latter ones
were from 1989 in Paris - and you see this man whose
entire life has been about being. And you see him
disintegrating - his body - but you see that the man is
still in his body. It's really remarkable.
Why did you want to tell this story with women?
Maybe because I thought I had gone as far as I wanted to
go with male characters, that they were beginning to
decay and I needed to rejuvenate them. And it was kind
of exciting suddenly having female characters. The only
man in the play is lost in his whirlwind of indecision
and confusion and lostness and doesn't know where to go
and finds himself in the midst of females. And a kind of
madness ensures. It always confuses me a little bit when
people ask what a play is about. A good play has
resonance. Ideas come without you forcing them. Saying
"I'm going to write a play about the Civil War", or "I'm
going to write a play about Republicans or Democrats" -
it's so boring.
But, on the other hand, when you let
things go - when you allow the characters and you allow
the situation to have a life of its own - things come.
Jealousy comes. Abandonment comes. Lostness, like I was
saying. Hierarchy. All of these different notions start
having an interplay. You're not bringing that to the
bench, you know, bringing that into the room and saying
let's write a play about jealousy. It's coming out of
the predicament and the situation, which is what's most
fascinating about making a play. Suddenly you realize
that this play is going to embody all these things - it
wants to embody all these things - and you are there to
help it along. You're not bringing that to the bench,
you know, bringing that into the room and saying let's
write about jealousy. It's coming out of the predicament
and the situation, which is what's most fascinating
about making a play. Suddenly you realize that this play
is going to embody all these things - it wants to embody
all these things - and you are there to help it along.
In rehearsal the other day, you
referred to the monologues in the play as "whirlwinds"
or "hurricanes." Can you talk about that?
This play has been through many transformations. It had
three definitive drafts. It started out as a three-act
play, which I threw out. The only thing that has really
remained the same is the first 10 pages. Everything else
has come from letting it sit and going back to it. In
this version I rewrote Lois' speech about her fall, one
of the 'whirlwinds' you just referred to. It started to
come out and I realized that the thing that made it
valid for me was that it came out of character and not:
"Well, we gotta have some reason for having her the way
she is, in the wheelchair." That wasn't the reason for
it. It came out of the character wanting to explain what
happened on the day when this calamity took place. So I
started to write about her walk at night and seeing the
drive-in and getting closer and closer and seeing it was
James Dean and then describing that fabulous scene from
"East of Eden".
Lois IS in it! I had no idea. She was
like 16 years old. She was a baby. I had no idea she was
in it. So the play has that kind of funny, uncanny
prescience about it. And I don't know what this is, but
it's been continually like that since I started working
on it. It goes in leaps and bounds. Also, I'm still
working on it. Still finding bits and pieces.
Can you talk about the songs in the play?
I wanted to write little poem-songs - almost childlike
songs - that rhymed intentionally in a sing-song way -
somewhere in between talking and singing. I want the
actors to invent the tunes. I don't want a composer to
come in and set the stuff. So, again, it goes in these
surprising directions. You don't expect any of them to
sing, and all of a sudden they sing. But I didn't, in
any sense, want it to be a musical.
Do you like musicals?
Yeah. Some. But I would never try to write one. I feel
like dialogue is another kind of music. When it's really
happening, it's music. I worked on a Caryl Churchill
piece called "A Number". It was incredible how
percussive and rhythmic and musical it was.
Why did you want to do "Heartless" at Signature?
Well, I came here when it was nothing but concrete,
everyone wearing hard hats. Way back... A year ago. We
have to walk around with the foreman and he had
blueprints under his arm. I saw the space and said,
"Well, this is the perfect space for this thing I am
working on." Because it's so wide. That's what convinced
me more than anything else: the space. I'm not crazy
about the neighborhood. It's like a no-neighborhood. But
the building itself and the endeavor are fantastic.