Tag Archives: Playwrights

Many, Many Bewildered (and Sad) Breakfast Faces: RIP, Sam Shepard

There will be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. And by “toast” I mean theater-related joy. And by “the neighborhood,” I mean “American theater.” And by “this morning,” I mean… well, I don’t know how long, but it’ll be longer than a morning.

Actor, playwright, and director Sam Shepard has died at the age of 73.

I first learned about it in a piece in Broadway World, which is worth checking out. You can also read about his life and work in:

Many of us picked up this book yesterday and leafed through it.

I’m not the only one of my generation of theater folk who feel this loss on a personal level. There are many playwrights like Shakespeare or Pinter or Wilson of whom I’ve either read or performed or seen productions of nearly all their works. But Sam Shepard is somewhat different.

Shepard has a distinct, American voice that resonated with so many of us. It was years since I had read or seen all of Kaufman and Hart. It would be years before I would connect with the work of Eugene O’Neill (that’s another tale). Sam Shepard was alive now and pushing his creations out into the world, where we too were training and working to make our marks.

Decades before Neil Gaiman was to tantalize us with his tales of American Gods, Sam Shepard was constructing a uniquely American mythology with plays that were simultaneously gritty and real, yet surreal and absurd. His characters often lived on the edge of society and frequently violated societal norms. There were no gods so much as forces of nature and Fate that his fabulously flawed characters would contend against when they weren’t fighting with one another.

I had many classmates who never looked at me quite the same way after they had seen me play “Mike” in a college production of “A Lie of the Mind.” It’s a disturbing yet incredibly human fairy tale set in a immediately recognizable yet unknowable America. At first, Mike seems like a more sensible character than his parents or brain-damaged sister. By the time he carries half a deer carcass on stage, you realize just how quietly crazy and savage Mike might truly be (and his exit from the play, presumably to start a whole new dysfunctional family cycle, is uncomfortably real). Sam Shepard wrote characters that rich into which actors can dive and explore, with motivations so plausible, audience members can wonder where the character ends and the actor begins (hence my classmates’ apprehension).

And those plays are still with us, thank goodness. If you haven’t checked any of them out (or any recently), do as Craig Mazin advocates: locate a copy of True West and read it out loud. His many parts in films are likewise, thankfully preserved for the ages — and his appearance always bodes well for whatever film in which he appears. Outside of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, is there a better film icon for American manhood than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager?

(Come on! I can’t be the only guy who watched The Right Stuff repeatedly growing up).

Yeah Harold Pinter had acting turns too, but he subverted the sound barrier with pauses, not breaks. You see, I’ve studied Shakespeare, I’ve enjoyed Pinter, but with Shepard, you had someone to aspire to, with a voice from your tribe. On the one hand it’s silly and illogical and not something to motivate you… but in the best tradition of so many of his characters, by God it did.

He was inspirational as a playwright. He was moving as an actor. As both, he connected story to audience in a way you long to do as an artist.

Is that a man? Damn right it is.

Edward Albee, RIP

2016 really isn’t getting any new fans as our cultural icons continue to shuffle off this mortal coil in a manner that befits the most macabre dance number imaginable.

I'm going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

I’m going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

Playwright Edward Albee is dead, as reported by NPR, the New York Times, and others. I suppose he wouldn’t mind, what with his work exploring death, gloom, and despair. He was also 88, which I’m sure actuaries would assure me is “pretty old,” statistically speaking.

I don’t care. As a playwright, Albee had a voice. A beautiful, absurd, deeply disturbing voice to be sure, but a voice you don’t forget.

(You can actually hear his voice in this 8-minute interview on Fresh Air from 1984).

I first encountered this voice in high school with The Zoo Story. It wasn’t simply reading the play as a diversion in English class. My idle teenage hands had been repurposed to be a stage technician, so I was the chap responsible for the blood pack necessary at the end of the play. The blood pack didn’t always work to my liking –sometimes a bit more Sanjuro than desirable– but I went on to do blood effects for other productions. More importantly, my interest in this playwright, Edward Albee, began.

Watching the production, even in our inexpert high school hands, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Albee violates cultural comfort zones not unlike Pinter and other contemporary playwrights. But more than that, his characters are fascinating: intense, driven, and deeply, deeply flawed. Crafted with such specificity, you can’t help but try and understand the nature of what’s broken — even when you, yourself, might not have much in common with them.

Or so you think at first.

It could be, as Leo Tolstoy pointed out, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet among that specific unhappiness, there are some recurring themes. In fact, Albee summed it up thus:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity — who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.” -Edward Albee

How else could us countless college students tasked with studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — probably his best known work — relate to the struggles of George and Martha (and I suppose Nick and Honey)?

Amid the games like “getting the guests,” there are those questions of identity. How do you see yourself? How do you want to be seen? How much can you bear to see what you have done or have become? As you approach adulthood, you begin to see how many decisions you need to make involving how much you buy into socially constructed pretense and ritual. Where will you toe the line? Where will you stand out? Must you stand out? What do you lose by doing either?

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” -Edward Albee

That overarching theme is why I think Albee will resonate for decades to come: it’s timeless and –in the hands of Albee– well executed. His expert exploration of mortality and mistakes is also why he’ll be missed. Because it wasn’t simply The Zoo Story and Woolf. He had been steadily writing impactful plays for the better part of 50 years, Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? being some of his more recent celebrated works.

But at least we’re left with his works… which does also leave us with a question: at the end, was he visited by a young man doing calisthenics?