Thursday, August 3, 2017

R.I.P. Sam Shepard

The most exciting evening I'd experienced as an audience member of professional theatre to that time, and really never to be surpassed, was seeing Curse of the Starving Class at the Public Theatre in 1978, by a playwright unknown to me named Sam Shepard.

 I walked into the Public Theatre in complete innocence. At that time the Public was like a multiplex of live theatre, with as many as four plays on stage every night. I chose Curse of the Starving Class partly because of the title, and mostly because there was a ticket available.

 Apparently in the cast were Olympia Dukakis, Pamela Reed and Michael J. Pollard, but it was the writing that blew me away: the words. They expanded my conception of what was possible at this level. Either at intermission or after the play I bought a copy in the lobby of Angel City, Curse of the Starving Class & Other Plays by Shepard.

 Although I would later see another original production--Fool for Love ( with Will Paton the week after he took over the role from Ed Harris)--plus the PBS filming of the Steppenwolf production of True West, and a production somewhere of Buried Child, my main experience thereafter would be reading his works--other plays and play collections, and his prose pieces in Motel Chronicles. All about the words.

 Shepard was a downtown Manhattan star before he became a movie star, and his lore was everywhere there. Wikipedia has him meeting Jessica Lang on the set of a movie, but legend of that time said he met her when she worked as a waitress at the hip downtown bar where he hung out.

 Shepard influenced others, and helped establish a theatre of words for awhile (the most successful of which probably was David Rabe's Hurlyburly which made it to Broadway.) This was much to my predilections as a writer, though I realized that I was not comfortable enough with violence to write quite like he did, nor as a consequence would I reach such deep places in an audience. But those long arias of words, spoken in one play by an actor playing drums, were riveting.

I saw all his movies for awhile, including the one he directed, Far North. Though his New York Times obit refers to his play A Lie of the Mind as "great," at the time reviewers called it disappointing, as I recall. He seemed to fade into the firmament by the end of the 1980s, though he kept writing and acting.

 Oddly then, it was only a couple of years ago that Fool For Love was first produced on Broadway. I don't know when Shepard was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that varies a great deal in his symptoms and progress, but always ends the same, as it did for my father. It's said that Shepard dealt with it with the same stoic dignity of his on-screen persona.

 At the New Yorker, Patti Smith writes an intimate memorial. I had no intimate or even actual relationship, but he touched my life nevertheless, and that's as much as I can honestly write about him. Sam Shepard died at age 73.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.