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Saying so long to a theatrical hero

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Saying so long to a theatrical hero (AP file Photo/Charles Sykes)

Actor and playwright Sam Shepard dead at 73

“I’ll develop my own image. I’m an original man. A one and only. I just need some help.”

-      - Sam Shepard

 

The playwright Sam Shepard, whose surreal, hallucinatory brilliance offered theatergoers a unique and intense deconstruction of family dynamics, masculinity and the American dream, passed away on July 27 at his home in Kentucky. He was 73.

He was also one of my heroes.

I could go through Shepard’s extensive written output – he penned 44 plays in all, along with plenty of fiction, a handful of screenplays and a multitude of songs. I could talk about his great (and greatly underrated) work as an actor. But there will be plenty of remembrances that feature that information in the coming days.

I’m going to talk about how Sam Shepard is the reason that I love the theater.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a college student just beginning to figure out what my passions were. I was in an introductory theater class – the first one I had ever taken. I’d been in a couple of plays in high school, but I had never considered the theater with any real seriousness.

And then I read “True West.”

I had read drama as literature, but never had I encountered something so visceral and searing. I needed more. And so my next trip to the bookstore yielded a copy of the Shepard collection “Seven Plays,” which included not only “True West,” but the other two works in Shepard’s magnificent Family Trilogy (“Curse of the Starving Class” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child”) as well. There were also early works like “The Tooth of Crime” and “La Turista” and experimental texts from his collaboration with Joseph Chaikin (“Tongues” and “Savage/Love”).

It’s no exaggeration to say that that book changed my path. I still have that same copy, some 20-plus years later. It’s definitely worse for wear; the pages are wrinkled and the binding split ages ago and the whole thing is held together with duct tape. But it’s still on my shelf.

My Shepard connection only grew the next year, when I was cast as Tilden in a production of “Buried Child.” It was the most challenging, complex role I had ever played. The production was stark and bleak, demanding more of me than I ever guessed I’d be able to give. It was the show that made me finally understand that the stage was meant to be a part of my life. To that point, I had paid lip service to the potential power inherent to the theater, but now I bone-deep knew that power, had experienced it firsthand.

The passion engendered by that production – the best work of my college career – kept me engaged and involved over the next few years. This was the period when I first took the stage with Penobscot Theatre Company; it was also the time that I was part of the founding of Ten Bucks Theatre Company. And it was with that latter group that my greatest Shepard experience took place.

I got to be IN “True West.”

I played Lee opposite Putnam Smith as Austin under the direction of Adam Kuykendall; Julie and Ron Lisnet were also part of the cast. It was a stripped-down, experimental production; there was no set other than a table and chairs and there were no props. The environment was created by lights, sound … and us. It had a killer classic rock soundtrack, some wild fight scenes and one of the most memorable curtain calls you’re ever likely to see.

And if it isn’t the best work that I personally have ever done, at the very least it’s in the conversation.

There are a lot of playwrights whose work I love. But you can only have one first theatrical love; Sam Shepard was mine. And now he’s gone, taken too soon with too many words left unwritten. No doubt there are hundreds out there just like me tonight, hearts broken by the loss of a man who seemed too tough, too archetypal to do anything so common as to die.

I never got to say thank you for what he did for me. He opened the door to a world that I have loved and embraced for over half my life. Sam Shepard gave that to me. And for that, I will forever be grateful.

 

“You may not know it but I did a little art myself once. I fooled around with it. No future in it.”

-      - Lee, “True West”

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