September 30, 2010

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Gary Grant, professor of theatre at Bucknell University, discusses Sam Shepard's contributions as a playwright, actor and author, as the Department of Theatre and Dance prepares to host two events focused on his works:

  • Family Weekend Showcase, "Savage/Love," by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard, directed by Bucknell junior Ali Keller. It will be performed Friday, Oct. 1, and Saturday, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Tustin Studio Theatre. Admission is $4 a person.
  • "Shepardfest," featuring short plays, monologues and short stories by Shepard. Directed by Grant, each performance will begin at 8 p.m. in the Tustin Studio Theatre on Oct. 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 and Nov. 1. Tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for students and senior citizens.

Q: Sam Shepard is a prolific playwright, author and actor. What makes his work exceptional?

A: Sam Shepard has a 45-year career with better than his share of masterpieces. He has written plays that are going to be produced and studied by theater artists and scholars and students for generations. Shepard's "Buried Child," "Fool for Love," "True West" and "A Tooth of Crime" are all at the level of American classics such as "Death of a Salesman," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Long Day's Journey into Night."

Shepard also is a prolific writer, and you might say he is a writer's writer. He explores his own impressions and understanding of his life and the life of the world around him through the written word, and he can communicate these insights with impact in his writing. One of the things people often say after watching or reading a Shepard story is, "I've had that experience, but I never thought of it as clearly or in that way."

Throughout the course of his career, Shepard has been versatile and flexible and risk-taking enough that he has written in many different genres. He has written five collections of short stories, several essays and directed two films. In addition to that, he is a great performer. He has this ear for the way an actor would speak lines and the way an actor goes about understanding character, because he is an actor.

In New York, there is always a buzz with a new Shepard play. When Sam Shepard writes a play, people are excited about it. They want to know what he is thinking about now and how is he writing. Often, in any individual season in New York, and this happened this past season, you will have a brand new Shepard play like "Ages of the Moon," a revival of a major play like "Lie of the Mind," and you will have the publication of his latest collection of short stories.

Q: How would you describe Shepard's style as a playwright and what does his work say to you about his perceptions of the American psyche?

A: Shepard is a great storyteller, and he's a storyteller in the manner of Mark Twain. He tells a story in a very straightforward manner, right from his hip, but there's at the same time this kind of ironic distance. There is this self-observation and watching what's happening in the story itself, and that produces a lot of humor.

Shepard's plays are set in the most ordinary of circumstances, but outrageous things happen. The characters are so interesting, there's an unrelenting progression to the plot and the language is so descriptive and so visual that you are compelled to suspend your disbelief. Things are as they seem to be, and they are not as they seem to be, and sometimes this incongruity frightens terribly or makes us uneasy. But usually in a Shepard play, these juxtapositions are very funny.

Q: Your research focuses on Sam Shepard and his work. How did you become interested in this topic?

A: I experienced some Shepard plays in high school and college. When you see a Shepard play, you really don't forget it. Around 1979, when I had to come up with a dissertation topic, I found out that Shepard's notes and journals were thrown in a trunk in Nova Scotia, where he was living at the time. From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, he was working at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, so I got that address and sent him a letter and said, "Is there any way I could get a look at these notes and journals?" Much to my surprise he wrote back and said, "Sure, go ahead. You can have whatever access you want, and I'm in the process of sending these things to an archive at Boston University."

When I got to Boston University, literally, this stuff was in boxes. The boxes were filled with notebooks and notes with Shepard's observations, conversations he had heard or imagined and things that he thought about. There were ideas for plays, little dialogues between two characters, or simply his thoughts on life and his experiences. One napkin might say, "I'm in a Holiday Inn, and I'm drunk, and whenever I think about writing, I feel so..." There were letters there from Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.

I became fascinated with this material. I continually made trips there to get an inside view into how this person wrote. I was really lucky with the timing, because in 1979 Shepard was nominated for a supporting Academy Award in "Days of Heaven," his first movie, and the next year, in 1980, he won the Pulitzer Prize for "Buried Child." So the access door to him was closing very, very fast.

Q: How has Shepard influenced your own work?

A: When I first started directing Shepard's plays, I was fascinated by the violent language, loud rock and roll music, trance dances and blaring lights. But later, I learned by talking to actors in his plays that what they really love about playing Shepard is the language.

As a result, in my later Shepard work, instead of getting up on stage and finding the kind of movement that's involved and discovering these extreme eccentric characters, I begin at the table. We sit at the table and go through all of the script line by line and look for the rhythms, the tempo, the kind of internal rhyme and poetic metaphor that he has going on in everyday dialogue, and we try to discover how the language gives insight into the characters. Shepard helped me learn in my artistic work to listen more deeply.  

New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

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