Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
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Introduction to the Exhibit
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Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
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Regional Theatre in Virginia

Setting the Modern Stage

Sam Shepard


The fantastic thing about theatre is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theatre is – that you can be watching this thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that’s the sort of added dimension.
-- Sam Shepard in an interview in “American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard” (Theatre Quarterly, p.187)

The 1960s ushered in an era of radical change in American culture. The younger generation challenged the established beliefs and mores of a post-World War II affluent society, creating a counterculture that made itself felt in all aspects of the country’s life, not least of all the performing arts. Leaving his home in Duarte, California, as a teenager, Sam Shepard became the preeminent playwright of this rebellious movement.


Upon setting out from home in 1962, Shepard joined a traveling theatre group called the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, ending up in New York City the following year. The experimental theatre of Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway provided a proving ground for the young actor/playwright/musician. Shepard’s first plays to be staged were two one-act plays entitled Cowboys and The Rock Garden, put on by Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in October 1964. More one-act plays followed in rapid succession during the next few years, three of which won the Village Voice OBIE Award for Distinguished Plays in 1965-66—Chicago, Icarus’s Mother, and Red Cross. Shepard’s first two-act play, La Turista, won the same award in 1967-68. Currently, Shepard has accumulated over a dozen OBIE Awards, not only for writing but for directing and sustained achievement as well.


Shepard’s plays are filled with images and characters drawn from his own personal experience and from American popular culture, including rock music, science fiction, and Westerns. In his essay “Language, Visualization and the Inner Library,” Shepard describes his playwriting and use of language, writing: “…words as tools of imagery in motion. I have the feeling that the cultural environment one is raised in predetermines a rhythmical relationship to the use of words. In this sense, I can’t be anything other than an American writer.” To date, this American writer has authored over forty plays, including The Tooth of Crime, Curse of the Starving Class, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, States of Shock, and The Late Henry Moss.


In an interview with Kevin Sessums twenty-four years after his first play appeared in New York, Shepard characterized the nature of his work as follows:


The great thing about writing is that in the course of going after it, it teaches you something. You start out thinking you know something about it, but then you discover you hardly know anything. And the more you do it, the more things begin to inform you about where you’re going. Now I’ve come to a point where I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t have a kind of wholeness to it. I’m not interested anymore in little fragmented bits and pieces of stuff that might be interesting for five minutes. I need something that has more of a definite wholeness to it. That has a sense of being a story that’s already been told…and that you’re just coming to it.

Since his first explosion onto the stage, Shepard has remained the theatrical voice of his generation. However, he has continued to push the boundaries of his creative talent, succeeding in the realms of music, art, poetry, acting, and directing for stage and film. Sam Shepard has extended the idea of that “definite wholeness” not just to the story on the page but to the story of his life.

 

Typed rehearsal script of Fool for Love, with autograph revisions and stage directions. March 1983.
 

 

Typed first version of script of “Lie of the Mind,” with autograph revisions, by Sam Shepard. 1984.
 

 

All items shown in this section from the Papers of Sam Shepard.

 

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