It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.
I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.
It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:
To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.
And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.
So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.