BY VANESSA CATE
Most people in the theater community have some connection to the works of Sam Shepard. How could they not? – he wrote 44 plays in his lifetime. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. The Broadway production of the drama was nominated for five Tony Awards in 1996. In the Los Angeles area, he worked briefly with the Padua Hills Playwrights’ Workshop, which was founded in 1978 by Murray Mednick. The Padua Playwrights and other offshoots of the group today continue to share Shepard’s (and Mednick’s) focus on the very structures of lyricism in language.
On Thursday July 27th, 2017, Shepard died in his Kentucky home. He was 73. His death was the result of complications of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The very first play I ever reviewed for Stage Raw was a version of Buried Child at the Whitefire Theatre. I was no stranger to the work, in fact I had met my most long-term relationship when he auditioned for one role with a monologue from the same show. The material was a look into playwright Sam Shepard’s inner turmoil; the writing, haunted and raw and vital and beautiful. He brought a new language to the American stage, infusing a kind of masculine trauma with poeticism.
Not only a renowned playwright, Shepard was an actor as well. He even received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film The Right Stuff. Other on-screen works include performances in Steel Magnolias, Day’s of Heaven, Mud, Black Hawk Down, August: Osage County, and most recently Netflix’s Bloodline. He was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role in TV movie Dash and Lilly. As he grew older he took on acting gigs more frequently, as he said doing one movie could pay for 16 plays.
Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943. Samuel Shepard Rovers VII lived throughout the Southwest as a child, planting seeds in his psyche for future work. His tumultuous family life, including his alcoholic ex-Army pilot father, played a tangible role in his writing. “They’re a real bizarre bunch,” he said of his family in an interview in The Paris Review in 1997. “Going back to the original colonies. [My father’s side of the family]’s got a real tough strain of alcoholism. It goes back generations and generations, so that you can’t remember when there was a sober grandfather.” Shepard himself struggled with alcoholism throughout his life.
Shepard moved to New York in 1963. There he became part of the off-off-Broadway movement. “As far as I’m concerned, Broadway just does not exist,” he said in a 1970 interview with Playboy magazine. Much like his peer, Edward Albee, Shepard’s distaste for Broadway didn’t stop many of his later plays from being produced there.
Shepard is best remembered for the rawness in his wrenching plays. True West and Fool for Love, were nominated for Pulitzers. All are commonly revived, and you’ll likely find some iteration of Shepard classics in any given season.
“I always felt like playwriting was the thread through all of it,” Shepard said in 2011. “Theater really when you think about it contains everything. It can contain film. Film can’t contain theater. Music. Dance. Painting. Acting. It’s the whole deal. And it’s the most ancient. It goes back to the Druids. It was way pre-Christ. It’s the form that I feel most at home in, because of that, because of its ability to usurp everything.”
Apart from his stage work, Shepard wrote poems and short stories. His novel, The One Inside, came out February of this year and offered a highly personal narrative about a man losing control of his body and looking back on his life, channeling the symptoms of ALS.
“Something in the body refuses to get up. Something in the lower back. He stares at the walls,” Shepard wrote. “The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to.”
He is survived by two sisters, Sandy and Roxanne Rogers, as well as three children: two children (Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker) were from his nearly 30 year relationship with Jessica Lange. His son Jesse Mojo Shepard was from his marriage with actress O-Lan Jones.
He is also survived by a body of work that will endure in the bloodstream of American theater.