Poet In Between Worlds:  An interview with Sam Shepard
Source: Signature Stories - Summer 2012


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 in-between world.

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 them.

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.