Sam Shepard’s Magic Time

Present at the creation in the late, great playwright's San Francisco years: watching an American "seeker and experimentalist" at work

By MISHA BERSON

Motorcycles would vroom into the massive parking lot at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, a former Army facility being transformed into an arts complex. And if I looked out of the right window from my warehouse office, I’d see Sam Shepard roaring into the parking lot alongside John Lion, the artistic head of the Magic Theatre.

Wearing leather jacket, blue jeans, and shades, his dark hair flopping over his forehead, Sam was so cool he could’ve been an extra from the iconic hipster film Easy Rider. But at that point (in the late 1970s) he was already famous in his own right, at least among theater folk, for his cowboy-beatnik charisma and his sui generis, rock-the-genre plays, like The Tooth of Crime, The Unseen Hand, and Suicide in B-Flat.

Shepard in the halcyon days.

By 1978 Lion’s Magic Theatre, a bastion of renegade playwriting, had moved from its Berkeley storefront into a bare-bones new home in a Fort Mason warehouse. And Shepard was the company’s playwright in residence.

The new theater would be inaugurated with Sam’s latest work, Inacoma. So lucky me: fresh out of college, I was working as the performing arts coordinator at Fort Mason, and aspiring to be a drama critic just when Shepard was crafting some of his most potent and influential plays.

Of course I took every excuse to nose around rehearsals for Inacoma. It was like nothing Sam wrote before or afterward, that exploration of the twilight psyche of Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman who triggered an early “right to die” controversy after falling into a long coma.

Except for the song lyrics, I recall the piece as largely nonverbal and probably as close to performance art as anything Shepard ever authored. I discreetly watched from the unfinished bleacher seating as he developed the piece, intently focused on his intrepid cast (which included his gifted then-wife, O-Lan Shepard), conferring with them in a soft reedy voice tinged with twang. Reflecting the eclectic theatrical inventions bubbling up in San Francisco back then, Inacoma emerged from movement and musical improvisations, yielding images of spinning orderlies in white jumpsuits and a Quinlan-like character who rose from her hospital bed to dance.

What I gleaned from that now-obscure production was that Shepard was a true seeker and experimentalist, an artistic stretcher and prober, forever scouting for not just his literary voice but his voices. Such freedom was plentiful in San Francisco then. The musicality of his approach also struck me. He was a drummer and guitarist, and had been a member of the cult psychedelic folk band the Holy Modal Rounders. Later he told an interviewer that anything he wrote or directed was for him a piece of music, composed of tones and rhythms, pauses and crescendos.

Shepard made a different kind of music when, after Inacoma, he turned his hand to the family sagas unveiled at the Magic. These were heavyweight, unsparing tragicomedies that cemented his theatrical reputation and reach, and his influence on generations of playwrights to follow.

The first blast was the Magic’s premiere of Buried Child, a ritual burial of the happy-American-nuclear-family ideal, thick with poisonous secrets and incestuous sins rotting in depleted heartland soil. The virtuosity of the language, the deft mixture of giddy and bleak comedy, surging despair and Gothic surrealism made it a nightmare scenario, an exorcism that in the initial production was overwhelming. What a weird, apocalyptic fusion of absurdism and naturalism — and hip as hell to boot.

Buried Child won Shepard his only Pulitzer Prize and boosted his theatrical reputation exponentially. And though it felt audaciously new on opening night in 1978, the play soon prompted the first critical comparisons between his writing and Eugene O’Neill’s – which Sam at that point rejected. Back then he struck me as diffident but unaffected in person, genial but immersed in still waters running very deep. But with the national press he could be flippantly coy. He wouldn’t claim any literary influences, and liked to pass himself off as a good ol’ naïf on the range. The diffidence actually wasn’t a pose. It just wasn’t the whole deal.

(Decades later Sam would tag O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night as “the greatest play ever written in America,” and say how he deeply regretted never meeting Samuel Beckett. And his longtime friend and former lover Patti Smith reported that he read incessantly.)

While Buried Child was shattering on a subliminal level, the Magic debut of True West, Shepard’s Cain-and-Abel cage match, was a visceral charge that keeps on giving. Hilarious and ultimately horrifying, it brilliantly deconstructed the fracturing-American West ethos in all its falseness and masculine gravity. It was an ethos Shepard absorbed and questioned as an Army brat growing up in Duarte (a small, dusty Southern California community, just off Route 66) and later on his ranch in rural Marin County, near San Francisco, where he lived with O-Lan and their son Jesse during the Magic years and raised rodeo horses.

True West debuted on one of the Magic’s two compact stages in a tempestuous production directed by Robert Woodruff, Shepard’s theatrical alter ego in this fecund era. In the original Magic cast, Peter Coyote (who, incidentally, had been a roguish hippie in the California wilds, before finding stardom in Hollywood) played the successful screenwriter Austin, while a scarily volatile Jim Haynie was his barbaric drifter brother Lee.

Even more than Buried Child, the premiere of True West, with a broadly smiling Sam in attendance, stays vivid in my mind. He was pleased with the play, which drilled beyond facile psychology and obvious biblical archetypes, and stripped away civility to unmask a primitive mirror image. How funny and dangerous it all was, this ripping through the ties and myths that bind, ending on a chord of suburban comedy of the absurd and mutual destruction. (Though Sam was criticized for the “maleness” of that and other plays, they sure spoke to this feminist female.)

Shepard at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Later in the extended run, I watched as the devolving Austin (then played by a Shepard favorite, Ebbe Roe Smith, later a writer and actor in Portland) feverishly made toast in one of the dozen-plus toasters stolen by Lee. Suddenly, behind the actor’s back, a toaster burst into flames. The audience murmured nervously but no one cried out. Maybe it was part of the action: a pyre of burning Wonder Bread as an incendiary metaphor for the last showdown at the not-OK corral.

(Side note: One of my early reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly of True West. A mutual friend told me Shepard really liked my notice and considered it perceptive — an unexpected, exhilarating stroke for a budding theater critic.)

While Shepard’s work had always been imaginative there was new structural muscle and agility in True West, an assurance and maturity without the loss of theatrical surprise and thrill. He wasn’t running from traditional play structure – he was refueling and co-opting it.

Also in 1980, he continued to experiment with his friend and fellow innovator, New York actor-director Joseph Chaikin. For a summer series at Eureka Theatre (the same SF company would develop the first half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America), the pair co-created Savage/Love, a solo “stream of consciousness concerto” that was a followup to their well-received monologue-with-music, Tongues.

A skein of tuneful, bleak, tender reveries on the torments of love, Savage/Love strung together moody tone poems with brief interludes of live music. It was trancelike and stirring when Chaikin performed it at the Eureka, costumed (somehow rightly) in a postal worker’s uniform.

While collaborating on the piece, Joe (whom I got to know better, later) and Sam taught a workshop I attended. As a novice performer, with a literal mind, I just couldn’t get what Joe wanted from us in the exercises he devised. Was it plugging into some metaphysical wavelength one simply had to intuit? Or access through more training and experience than I ever had?

It was all rather humiliating, not pleasing the “masters.” (I gave up on acting soon after.) But the invaluable compensation was simply listening to Sam and Joe talk, at length, in very poetic and impassioned terms, about the capability of actors to transform themselves without falsity or pretense – and how transporting that plane of alternate aliveness could be.

Sam’s last play of that Magic Theatre period was Fool for Love, which premiered in 1983. He had recently gone through turbulent life changes, becoming almost by accident a movie star – a wry, enigmatic, quietly heroic dreamboat in films like Days of Heaven and The Right Stuff. For the women around him this wasn’t terribly surprising: up close, Sam was so ruggedly handsome it was hard to look him in the eye; it was like staring into a blazing sun. Yet he wasn’t a preener, as evidenced by the crooked front teeth he didn’t bother to get fixed. He was also a “natural”: when the camera turned on he was entirely present, a neo-Gary Cooper.

By the time Fool for Love debuted in 1983, Shepard and film star Jessica Lange had fallen passionately in love, thereby ending Sam’s marriage to the delightful O-Lan, and his fulltime residence in the Bay Area. But his vital relationship with the Magic continued some years after he traded his motorcycle for a pickup truck.

The theater buzz around San Francisco was that he was directing Fool for Love himself. He was insisting on unusual sound effects. On opening night I heard what that meant. In their tumultuous reunion at a desert motel, the ex-lovers Eddie and May (played to ferocious perfection by Ed Harris and Kathy Baker) literally bounced off the set’s four walls. The walls had microphones and amplifiers embedded in them, creating a reverberant pounding effect like a tom-tom, which punctuated their highly physical battle through repulsion and attraction, belonging and betrayal – interrupted at times by the searing headlights of the car of the unseen character The Countess.

All the while, actor Will Marchetti sat in a rocking chair downstage, identified only as the Old Man – a codger reminiscent of crusty Dodge in Buried Child and other father figures inspired by Shepard’s own alcoholic, elusive, damaging dad.

But such biographical parallels, while interesting, are not ultimately meaningful. Like many great writers, Shepard transformed the raw stuff of his own life (and demons) into prose and dialogue through restless, persistent exploration and imagination. I couldn’t say how he did it.  Or how he persevered as a writer,  like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, long after the acclaim dwindled.

“The great thing for me, now, is that writing has become more and more interesting,” he said in a 2010 interview with The Guardian newspaper. “Not just as a craft but as a way into things that are not described. It’s a thing of discovering. That’s when writing is really working. You’re on the trail of something and you don’t quite know what it is.”

I’ll always be grateful I was present at the creation of those plays. They expanded my own view of what theater could be – the landscape, the possibilities, the unvarnished and wild American soul.  Countless playwrights have imitated Shepard since then. None could match the original thing.

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The great American playwright Sam Shepard died last Thursday, July 27, 2017, at his home in Kentucky. He was 73, and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

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Misha Berson writes for the Seattle Times, American Theatre, crosscut.com, and other outlets. Her books include Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause Hal Leonard Inc.).

5 Responses. Have your say.

  1. david hyry says:

    Misha –
    Inacoma was my first show at Fort Mason and hearkened an era. I worked on tech for True West and continued the ride. Thanks for the as lived remembrance of our shared experience.

  2. Robert Atkins says:

    Misha: so nice to read this–true and beautifully written–and to discover it was written by you.
    Thanks!

    • Misha Berson says:

      Thank you Robert! Glad to know you’re teaching and writing up a storm. Ah, those days at the Bay Guardian….Such a lot of great art to write about!

  3. Lynn Rosen says:

    “Side note: One of my early reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly of True West. A mutual friend told me Shepard really liked my notice and considered it perceptive — an unexpected, exhilarating stroke for a budding theater critic.” Seems Shepard was spot on in all regards. Beautifully done, Misha. Thanks for sharing your perceptions.

  4. Susan Banyas says:

    Beautiful tribute MIsha, recalling a time when art at Ft. Mason set the bar and then everyone went to the bar. You really capture the tone of the times and the genius at work and love. I’ll never forget Sam Shepherd in Days of Heaven, the betrayal and vastness of loss and love. Thanks for this!

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