"Emotional Territory": An Interview with Sam Shepard
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"Emotional Territory": An Interview with Sam Shepard CAROL ROSEN Sam Shepard is, of course, a conundrum. He is undoubtedly one of the most intuitive practitioners of what Cocteau called "poetry of the theatre," creating a personal, concrete, physical language of the stage to be apprehended sensually . This encoder of American signs onstage is also an actor's playwright, among the most subtle and sympathetic chroniclers of characters' emotional states since O'Neill. Yet although he occasionally still produces a new play, most recently Slales of Shock in 1991, Sam Shepard now works primarily in prose and films. He has just completed filming Silelll Tongues, a "truly different Western" about an 1870S Indian Medicine Show, which he both scripted and directed. Shepard feels incredibly "lucky." He often says so, and he often laughs. His gift for writing is one he accepts; he never expects to run dry and will easily discard work that strikes him as gone awry; this gift has delivered him from his demons. His demons - "actual demons" he used to reel in the air and in his lire - have mercifully left him in peace. Like one of his own characters who crashes through a rear wall of the stage, leaving a jagged silhouette in his place, he has escaped. Trying to maintain some degree of privacy, Shepard consistently turns down requests for interviews. For my book on his work, Sam Shepard: A Poelic Rodeo, forthcoming from Macmillan, however, Shepard graciously talked at length about myth, character, music, food, and women in his plays; his influences in the theater and his method of writing and revising; his work as a film director and prose writer; the Gulf War; broken pacts and emotional territory. Apologetic whenever he hears himself sounding "esoteric" or "intellectual," he is, of course, both. With Shepard, famous for "burning bridges" and "escaping" to "new territory," every conversation is a discovery. He is, after all, the most original and vital playwright of our age. Here, in the following abbreviated "soundbites" from our interview (which Modern Drama, 36 (1993) J ┬ęCopyright Carol Rosen, 1993 2 CAROL ROSEN was previewed in the Vii/age Voice [August 4, 1992]), are excerpts pertaining to Shepard's theatrical style, use of stage imagery, concepts ofrhythm, myth, voice, and transfonnations, and his continuing sense of character as fluid, among other topics of interest to Modem Drama readers. The full-length interview will be included in my book on Shepard's work. It is the flIst interview of substance Shepard has granted in over a decade. ON DIRECTING Have you as a director developed your own particular way to communicate with actors? Is there a Shepardesque actor? When I started, with the first play I ever directed in London, I was terrified of the situation because I'd never done it before. So I immediately conferred with two people who I thought were the best directors in the world. One was Peter Brook and the other was Joe [Chaikin]. I sort of talked to them at length about the process and all that kind of stuff. When I went in, I found myself sort of trying to imitate certain things from their points of view, but discovered that it was futile, that you have to deal with the actors that you've got right in front of you and find out what the experience is like: directing. You can't use a formula to approach it, so I never developed a formula for it. .. . I like actors who are incredibly courageous and enthusiastic. I think Malkovich is a good example: extremely intelligent, fearless, and enthusiastic. Just does not give a shit about how this fits into somebody else's idea of what it should be, just goes for ideas that are completely off the wall. They may be wrong but he'll go for them. STAGE VS. FILM: METHODS OF EXPLORING EMOTIONAL TERRITORY But it's very clear, there are certain things you can do ollfilm that you can't do on stage or ill a novel. There are several images in "Far North," for example - the loon, the shot of an eagle /lying with a horse, the shot of the horse's profile...