July 27th was the one-year anniversary of the death of Sam Shepard, writer-actor-director. Someone I always felt in my bones. On the 29th, I sat in what looked like a ‘pieced-together’ theatre in a warehouse space bordered on one side with a gallery showing fabulous works, and a market of crafts and cultural goods on the other. There were black walls, and rough wood risers with rows of seats clearly salvaged from another theatre, their glory days long gone. The stage was a large platform two steps up.
I love this sort of space. To me, it always says ‘earnest art performed here.’ I love the intimacy, too. Here, 200 seats in a wide semi-circle around the stage. Perfect for the series of readings billed as An Evening Honoring the Work of Sam Shepard.
I thought about that night for days afterwards.
I’ve been to readings of plays before. The distillation to the heart of the work they present appeals to me. How the action’s pared down to words, facial expressions, tone & inflection in the voice. How they require a different level of engagement when there’s no set or scenery to distract. The hotel room is the one I see in my mind. That sunset she gazes upon out the window is the one I see in my mind.
There were 19 readings over the 90 minutes. Three actors each time. Each choice showcasing what I’d not seen with such precision before…full character, story, and stakes embedded in the scene. I didn’t need to know the entire story. The mysteries remained a mystery, and I was still satisfied. I believe it’s what he meant when he said he’s not interested in the explanations.
“I’m interested in the provocation. Explanations are a dime a dozen. I think it’s a cheap trick to resolve things. . .stick to the moment to moment thing of it.”
The provocation keeps it going for us. Our mind and heart feeling the full story. As a writer, it blew me away. Where the story really is.
I’ve never seen a play written by him, tho he’s written 44, and received a Pulitzer + multiple Obie Awards for his plays. And yet, I recognize his work when I see it onscreen, every time. I’ll watch a movie and think, this feels like Sam Shepard wrote it, and I’d be correct. It’s his Voice.
I talk a lot about a writer’s Voice being their SuperPower. Both as a tool for empowerment, and as a way of expressing one’s authentic self in the work. Sam Shepard’s is a clear, true signature of tone, subject, theme, pace, timing, and atmosphere. We know he knows what he’s writing about. We know he’s in it. We are always in our most authentic work.
He was living here in Santa Fe when I briefly met him. A friend worked at the Santa Fe Institute where he was a SFI Miller Scholar. He wrote on a typewriter in the library there. A window facing the Jemez mountains above his desk. Cormac McCarthy sat and typed on his own typewriter close by. I admit I was in awe, standing in that inner sanctum where masters create. As luck had it, another friend wanted to off-load two vintage typewriters I thought he may be interested in, and he walked into the building before I left.
What impressed me most from that seven or so minutes we talked was his presence to the moment, and to me. I viscerally felt his attention.
Later I thought how I’m drawn in every moment he’s onscreen. His manner holding my attention through each movement and word, whatever the role, so that I lean in. John Sayles is the only other person I’ve ever spoken to and observed interacting with others who has that same sort of presence to the moment & person. It’s something rare to experience. Total Presence.
I believe the #1 question we must answer for anything of note we do is ‘What does this thing (writing, teaching, fill in the blank) mean to me?’ Because the answer is the key that opens us up, and keeps us moving to do the thing. It’s what keeps me at this desk editing draft after draft. + The answer gives us purpose, whether we’re aware or not. I found his answer to the question in the program notes from that night:
“I started writing to keep from going off the deep end. I was breaking ice with myself. I can remember being dazed with writing, of finding I had these words inside of me, these voices, shapes, light, elements that cause anyone to make a journey.” Connection.
And of his early works,
“They were chants, they were incantations, they were spells, or whatever you want to call them. You get on ‘em and you go. To say they were well-thought-out, they weren’t. They were a pulse.” Follow the Pulse.
Years ago when he and writer/singer Patti Smith were collaborating on a play, she told him she was nervous writing for the stage, this being her first time. What he told her is my mantra.
“You can’t make a mistake when you improvise,” he said.
“What if I screw up the rhythm?” she said.
“You can’t. It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”
No fear in screwing up. Create your own beats. Support one another.
Sam Shepard was poetic, real, and full of contradictions. A reviewer said we get a chance to explore the hidden pieces of ourselves when we view his work. Perhaps that’s what I’m always looking for when I see him onscreen. As if these pieces are hidden in plain sight, to be found if we look long or hard enough. It’s the biggest lesson, because it’s exactly what living life fully is about.
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