Tonight at 7:45pm, Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters will dim their lights in honor of Sam Shepard, playwright, actor and director who died of complications of ALS on Thursday, July 27 on his farm in Kentucky.
Shepard often permitted the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in tiny Shepardstown, WV to mount his later plays’ American debuts. Ed Herendeen, who founded the acclaimed new play festival in 1991 and remains its Artistic Director told us, “He premiered his last few plays in Ireland, and premiered The Late Henry Moss in the theatre where he got his start, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. But other than that, you had to come to Shepherdstown to be the first to see a new Sam Shepard play.
“We’re very proud of our history of working with him. We produced four new plays by Sam starting way back in 2002 with The Late Henry Moss, and in 2005, The God of Hell. We did Ages of the Moon in 2011 and then Heartless, the last play we worked on in 2013.”
What’s the first memory that comes to you?
“We were working on Ages of the Moon – we were doing the first American production – and I remember meeting him backstage when he was acting in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. I went in with some really deep questions and his question to me was ‘Do you have a really good prop guy? Because you’re going to need one.’ If you remember in that play there is a fan in the ceiling on the porch that one of the characters shoots with a shotgun and it falls down. He actually gave me the name of the prop guy who worked on it in Dublin. We got in touch with him and he worked on the fan and sent it to us.”
What attracts you to a Sam Shepard play?
“I came up in the days as a director when Sam’s plays were playing off-Broadway. What attracted me then was his sense of rhythm and tempo. You know he was a drummer so his plays had a great poetic rhythm and tempo to them. He was ‘a rock and roll genius with a cowboy mouth.’ I think Patti Smith coined that term for him.”
In Rolling Stone magazine this week, Patti Smith remembered her friend as a willing adventurer who “liked packing up and leaving just like that, going west. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but where he could wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work.”
“When I was in grad school in the 70’s,” Herendeen continued, ”Sam Shepard was already an icon, a uniquely American voice. I was drawn to his early work – especially his early plays – Curse of the Starving Class, True West and the Pulitzer Prize play Buried Child where he was really taking a serious look at the American dream.
“He wrote about the American family, wrote about the problems of American family, and later like in The Late Henry Moss he was always writing about his demons, one of them was his relationship with his father . In Henry Moss, his father was a character who comes back from the dead. I always enjoyed the struggle of dealing with his plays and his ghosts.”
“It’s very difficult to escape your background. You know, I don’t think it’s necessary to even try to escape it,” Shepard told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1998. “More and more, I start to think that it’s necessary to see exactly what it is that you inherited on both ends of the stick: your timidity, your courage, your self-deceit, and your honesty — and all the rest of it.”
It was his father’s alcoholism that drove him away from home and landed him with a traveling theatre company, he told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. His father’s reaction: “He broke windows and tore the doors off, stuff like that.”
Herendeen continued: “I remember seeing him on TV where he was in the first two seasons of Netflix’s Bloodlines. It seems like he could have written it himself.”
Did you know he had ALS?
“No I did not.
“I personally considered him, up until yesterday, to be the greatest living American playwright. And now he joins Eugene O’Neill, Tennesee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilson. American theater is very sad but the work will live on just like those other legends. His voice was so unique and I look forward to seeing generations of people discovering his plays.
And, as you mentioned, unlike most playwrights, they will also be able to see him in his movie and TV performances.
“Right. He had that double nature: Sam Shepard the actor, the cowboy, the iconic male – Gary Cooper they compared him to. And he was a poet. In True West he was both characters, the Lee character and the poetic character so in some ways if you analyze his work you see both sides of him – the artistic and spiritual side and the male macho cowboy. And he was a musician. Some people get zapped with a lot of talent.”
Ed Herendeen and I spoke the day after he closed CATF’s 17th season, and its first which offered six plays. “I’m very proud of this one. We presented plays by playwrights most people never heard of.” And then, possibly thinking of the unexpected news of Sam Shepard’s passing, Herendeen added this note to writers: “If you have something to say, say it.”