A Young Playwright on Sam Shepard

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Source: bbc.com

It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.

I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith  and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:

To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.

And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.

So, Sam Shepard, one last thing: thank you.

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Juliet: a poem

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Source: author’s photo

I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it. 

Juliet
“beautiful flower”
A contradiction
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways

Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
senseless hatred
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages

Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told

She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice

Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion

Juliet
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
her innocence
her love
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on