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“If I were a California writer, I would try to describe this sense of easiness and perhaps tie it to the landscape and the climate. I’d write about people in love with their home. But they must deal with the same troubles that afflict other humans, and not only mudslides, earthquakes, and brush fires, but also the dreadful problem of indifference. Spiritual listlessness, what is sometimes included under Sloth, or Acedia, in the Seven Deadly Sins. The inability to carry out one’s duties. Not an easy subject, indifference, but it’s very much part of most good crime novels. Injustice is supposed to arouse us from indifference: an essential test of our humanity. And indifference is the prime target of satire.”
Garrison Keillor Public Radio Q&A

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Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Rhinestone cowboy
Gettin’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone
Glen Campbell signature song written by Larry Weiss

This is as good a time as any to go back to 1975 when Rhinestone Cowboy was the number 1 song in the country.

“I was 21 years old and working on a network series. Glen was the coolest guy…He was the most incredible guitar player I’ve ever seen. People didn’t know that then. [The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour]  was about his persona, but he had played on just about every rock and roll recording session that had come through Los Angeles with The Wrecking Crew and The Beach Boy. He was the go-to guitarist. There are opening licks on certain Beach Boys songs that are all his.”
Writer/Director Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, Misery)
Filmmaker Rob Reiner Remembers Glen Campbell as ‘The Coolest Guy’

“He was one of the premier guitar players in rock and country…People like Eddie Van Halen one time said, ‘Can you get me a guitar lesson with Glen.’”
Alice Cooper on Glen Campbell

“Glen is one of the greatest voices there ever was in the business and he was one of the greatest musicians.”
Dolly Parton

 

 

 

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“‘I just dropped out of nowhere,’ Sam Shepard said of his arrival in New York, at nineteen in the fall of 1963. ‘It was absolute luck that I happened to be there when the whole Off-Off Broadway movement was starting.’ Shepard, a refugee from his father’s farm in California, had spent eight months as an actor traveling the country by bus with a Christian theater group, the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players.”
John Lahr
Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows

“My father was full of terrifying anger.”
Sam Shepard

Over the years I read many times that the first major shift in Sam Shepard’s life that would set him on the path of becoming a great American playwright and a Hollywood actor was his involvement with the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players. Since his recent death I decided to poke around and see what I could find about the Bishop’s Company and how Shepard came to join the group.

Shepard was born in 1943 when the world was at war. The USA joined WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Shepard’s father was a bomber pilot during WWII and had his own battles at home after the War ended in 1945. Being an alcoholic, with various financial setbacks, and nightmares of dropping bombs that killed people was a wicked combination that manifested itself in much conflict between the father and son.

One often wonders what makes a playwright. A lot of prose writers say that it was a love of reading and solitude that made them want to write novels and stories. Dramatists, it seems, are always cursed and blessed with a family member who is a hysteric, and who cannot not make drama.”
Hilton Als, The New Yorker

I don’t know if Shepard and novelist Pat Conroy (whose father was a fighter pilot in WWII and Vietnam) ever got together and compared notes about their childhood, but they had a lot in common having violent and abusive father’s which was reflected in their writings.

Shepard graduated from high school in 1961 and it’s understandable that he could be looking to get away from his father.  What biographers miss is that Shepard graduated from Duarte High School which is only 30 minutes from Hollywood, California.

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But Shepard apparently didn’t have his sights set on Hollywood as a teenager. He was more interested in the nearby California farm land and horse racing at the Santa Anita Raceway in nearby Arcadia. He attended Mt. San Antonio Collegea community college in Walnut which was just east of where he lived. He studied agriculture and animal husbandry.  After a few semesters he appeared to headed toward being a farmer or a veterinarian.

So this is a good time to stop and asked again what changed in his life that put 19-year-old Sam Shepard on track to become a great American playwright?

“When I first left home, I got this paper route. And I was delivering papers all over the — I had a ’51 Chevy, and I was throwing papers all around the houses and stuff. And at the end of the day, I started going through this paper. And the end of it, in the work section, there was this little ad that said actors wanted.

“And I went in and auditioned for this company. It was called the Bishop’s Company. And the great thing about it was that it was a traveling company. It was going to get the hell out of there, you know? So they hired me, and the next day, I was on a Greyhound bus to Bethlehem, Pa., and joined up with the company there. And we toured all over the place and did these one-night stands in churches, which was my first real experience with theater.”
Sam Shepard
Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

It’s not easy to find much online about the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players but it appeared to be in one form or another from the 1950s until its demise in 2007. It’s name (and I image its part of its funding) came from a Bishop in the Methodist Church. It appears they did an eclectic mix of plays including Shakespeare, Shaw’s St. Joan, and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, as well as some original work dealing with social issues.

“We did little short plays, adaptations of literature mostly and we did them in churches. It amazed me that you could just get a bunch of people together and write some stuff and do it and get an audience. People would actually come and see it. From nothing, you could make something brand new.”
Sam Shepard
The Guardian interview in 2003 with John O’Mahony

[Actors in a traveling theatre group] have full-time jobs as actors.  They’re getting the paid opportunity to travel when they’re young. They have jobs with very little supervision – as long as they show up at the right place at the right time, no one cares what they do with the rest of their time.  And, if they’re wise, they are learning experience about performing that can’t be taught in a classroom.  They’ll learn how to perform to amazingly different audiences from day to day and night to night and maintain performance energy regardless of conditions.  That lesson alone is worth the whole tour.
Nathan Thomas
The Best Job in the World

So after eight months of touring and performing Shepard landed in New York City in 1962 or ’63 and decided to stay getting a job as a busboy in Greenwich Village, and set about getting involved in off-off Broadway theatre.

His first play was performed at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in 1964. According to Wikipedia on the second floor of the church was a 30X35 foot space home to experimental theater “in an intimate 70-seat blackbox with sixteen lights and nine dimmers, spare sets, minimal props and a focus on hard-driving language and nihilistic themes, Theatre Genesis became a sharp-edged testing ground for new work.”

“We had no money. I can remember getting props off the street. We’d take Yuban coffee cans, punch a hole in them, and use them for lights. We did it all from scratch, which was pretty incredible.”
Sam Shepard on the Theatre Genesis

Ralph Cook was lay minister of the arts at that Episcopal Church from 1963-1969 and according Playbill, “Mr. Cook decided Theatre Genesis would be devoted to nurturing young playwrights and produce plays that spoke directly to the experience of the downtrodden citizens in the immediately area.”

Shepard’s early one act plays were not universally accepted (the great playwright Tennessee Williams once said he “wouldn’t cross the street to see a Sam Shepard play”), and there are reports that he was discouraged enough to think about moving back home to California, but there was one Village Voice review in 1964 that had to be a lifeline to Shepard who would go on to win 11 Obie Awards for his writing and directing, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

I know it sounds pretentious and unprepossessing: ‘Theatre Genesis… dedicated to the new playwright’ But they have actually found a new playwright, [and] he has written a pair of provocative and genuinely original plays… Shepard is feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramatic structure and moving into an area between ritual and naturalism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theater which evokes the existence behind behavior.”
Michael Smith
The Village Voice

Would Sam Shepard have become Sam Shepard without the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players and Theatre Genesis? We’ll never know. But every writer needs space to find their way.  To find their voice. Because as Shepard said he, “wasn’t born knowing how to write a play.”
Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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Excerpt from 2011 Interview magazine interview:

Sam Shepard: Oddly enough, it was reading Eugene O’Neill [that sparked the idea of becoming writer].. I’d read Long Day’s Journey Into Night and I remember seeing Sidney Lumet’s black-and-white film adaptation [released in 1962], which I still think is one of the best adaptations of anything—of a book, of a play—ever done….But I remember being struck by the idea that it was a play, so I read the play and I read about O’Neill, and in an odd way, there was something that I connected with there . . . There was something wrong with the family. There was a demonic thing going on that nobody could put their finger on, but everybody knew the ship was sinking. Everybody was going down, and nobody knew why or how, and they were all taking desperate measures to stay afloat. So I thought there was something about that that felt similar to my own background, and I felt I could maybe write some version of that.

Michael Almereyda: But it took a while before your plays reflected that kind of model. Had you been writing plays before you saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

Shepard: No. When I first started, I didn’t really know how to structure a play. I could write dialogue, but I just sort of failed beyond that, and kind of went wherever I wanted to go, which is how I ended up with these shorter pieces. I didn’t venture into two-acts or three-acts until, I think, La Turista [1967]. So these things I was writing were all experiments of just tiptoeing into the waters of what it’s like to write a play.

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“Sam’s voice was very singular. It was very distinctive.”
Playwright Tracy Letts

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Something in the career of Elvis informs Sam Shepard and [his play] Fool for Love. Perhaps the sheer weight of animal spirits, the flagging optimism over the ramifications of the American dream, the passion that is barely kept in bounds, the lurking undercurrent of violence and destruction, the ghost of the family with its grotesque eccentrics and its dark secrets, the siren song of booze and the open road. But there is much more. Elvis Presley and Sam Shepard signify a change in the structure of American society that cuts much deeper than critical catch phrases like “the birth of rock and roll” or the “death of the American West.”

To both Presley and Shepard is attached the idea of “the noble savage.” They both apparently came from nowhere, reached the top of their professions with no formal training, rapidly became the stuff of popular myth. But beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating artist who has basically altered the way we look at things.

Unfortunately, we Americans like to think of our artists this way, appearing as they often do to us as sort of inspired flower children or imaginative iconoclasts who are floating through the tree tops dreaming their little other-worldly dreams and keeping us pleased and entertained. The simple unassailable truth is that there is no country in the world that places so little value on the enormously difficult and draining process that actually goes into creating the authentic work of art.”
John Lion
1984 American Theatre article Rock’n’Roll Jesus With a Cowboy Mouth

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“We’re on our way out, as a culture. America doesn’t make anything anymore! The Chinese make it! Detroit’s a great example. All of those cities that used to be something. If you go to a truck stop in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, you’ll probably see the face of America. How desperate we are. Really desperate. Just raw.”
Sam Shepard
2004 Interview in The Guardian

Since learning of Sam Shepard’s death a lot of memories have popped up. I was ripe for his writings to come into my life. In 1981 Just a few years after Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West I moved from Florida to go to film school in Los Angeles. There was a James Dean mixed with John Wayne quality to Sam Shepard that drew me to him as a person as well as a writer. Both Dean and Shepard where midwestern guys—Dean was from Marion, Indiana and Shepard from Ft. Sheridan, Illinois drawn to the West.  The promised land of California.

Back then Shepard was dating Jessica Lange and was fond of driving a Ford truck onto the studio lots when he was working as an actor. So I tried to tap into that personal. Back then I wore Tony Lama cowboy boots, road a motorcycle, and eventually got a Ford truck. My studio apartment in Burbank was just down the street from Disney Studios, but it was also right next door to a horse stable.

There was an earthiness that I was trying to hold on to even though I was living in what I was told was a “plastic city.” Sam Shepard was a life line. And a gritty one at that. While taken acting classes I was drawn to doing scenes from his plays.

After graduating from film school I put my stuff in storage and hit the road to experience the great American solo road trip for the first time in my life. It was in the pre-cell phone era of 1984 and it was simply one of the greatest experiences of my life. With no trip ticket to follow I just roamed through America. Up through Big Sir, to Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and then back west through Alabama, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada. (Most carefree time of my adult life.)

When I arrived back in Los Angeles I didn’t have an apartment yet so I crashed some nights at friend’s places. But one night I remember staying at a Motel 6 in the San Fernando Valley and thinking that it just felt like a set for a Sam Shepard play.

Because of a photography job I did while in film school and the year after I graduated I was able to travel all over Southern California. I got to see the clash of cultures up close. From the gangland in South Central, to the prep schools sprinkled around, the Huntington Beach surf culture, the Hispanic and Asian influence, and the sprawling ranch land an hour so west of Los Angeles.

I even did photo shoots in Duarte and Mt. San Antonio where Shepard went to high school and a couple semester in college. And in 1984, if my memory is correct, I went to see my first and only performance of a Sam Shepard play. Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid played the brothers in True West in a small theater in Hollywood.

I bet if you read that play today and watched Fight Club you’d see a connection. Rawness.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Sallisaw, Oklahoma but I have made it to all 50 states. And somewhere in that desire to see the country and the people that live in it is rooted in the Sam Shepard influence I got in my early 20s. And this blog itself, Screenwriting from Iowa….and Other Unlikely Places (with an emphasis on writing and a sense of place) also tips its hat to Sam Shepard—the prophet with a cowboy mouth.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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