Sam Shepard Was One of the Good Ones

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“In real life we don’t know what’s going to happen next. So how can you be that way on a stage? Being alive to the possibility of not knowing exactly how everything is going to happen next – if you can find places to have that happen onstage, it can resonate with an experience of living.”

Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born on November 5th, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. His parents were both teachers and his father, a retired bomber pilot, also ran a farm. As Shepard puts it, he was also a “dedicated alcoholic”, who brought disunity to the family.

The Shepard’s lived a transient lifestyle, and eventually arrived in California, where Shepard started to define the man he would become. When not in class or working on a horse ranch down in Chino, he could be found experimenting with acting and writing, chiefly poetry. At the time, it was an interest, nothing more.

After graduating in 1961, Shepard enrolled at the Mount San Antonio Junior College, where he studied agriculture. There, he was exposed to art the likes of which he’d never experienced before: jazz, abstract expressionism, the writing of Samuel Beckett. His interest enflamed, and became a passion.

When the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players – a travelling theatre group –  came through town, Shepard leapt at the opportunity to travel with them. For the next two years, he would travel America, honing his skills, and experiencing a fresh perspective on life.

Eventually, he settled down in New York, working as a busboy at a local nightclub while developing his first plays; avant-garde pieces for performance on Off-Off-Broadway.

He was a natural. In 1964, Cowboys and The Rock Garden debuted as a double bill. Two years later, he won the first three of six Obie Awards he’d claim over the next three years with Icarus’s MotherRed Cross, and Chicago – which he wrote in just a day.

The win was unprecedented, as was Shepard’s ability to explore various genres. La Turista was a bleak chamber piece. The Unseen Hand, which would inspire Richard O’Brien to create The Rocky Horror Show, science-fiction.

“The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness”, mused Shepard, who spent the rest of the decade expanding his horizons. He wrote two screenplays, and played drums for The Holy Modal Rounders on two of their albums.

Marrying actress O-Lan Jones in 1969, the family moved to the UK, where Shepard continued to explore new avenues for his talent.

“When you hit a wall – of your own imagined limitations – just kick it in.” 

He’d publish a book, travel as a musician in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, first act on screen, first direct in the theatre, and teach throughout the 70s, all while continuing as a playwright.

Buried Child, one of the plays in his Family Trilogy, would see him awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. In 1983, his performance in The Right Stuff resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In all, Shepard wrote 44 plays, 14 films, and a range of short stories, essays, and songs. He won 10 Obie Awards in 18 years – an incredible feat. Beyond his Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award nod, he was nominated for an Emmy, was recognised in 2009 as a PEN/Laura Pels Award as a master of the theatre, and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

“I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster…The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

Sam Shepard died on July 27th, 2017.

Over 50 years, Shepard set a precedent for excellence in the arts that transcended his accolades. He was a visionary, an inspiration, whose words will carry on in the many industries on which he left his indelible mark.

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