It’s a sweltering night in a modest Southern Californian home. The sound of coyotes and crickets penetrate the small kitchen as two brothers awkwardly reunite in their mother’s house. One, an ivy league graduate, has come for some peace to work on a screenplay for a Hollywood studio; the other has come looking for homes to rob. One is the picture of the American dream, the other an outcast living on the fringe. Two different realities, both feeling like imposters.
Nearby, on the edge of the Mojave desert, two lovers and the ghost of an old man meet in a less promising setting, a stark, low-rent motel room for an evening of feisty confrontation.
These are just two worlds found in Sam Shepard plays.
The first, True West, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. The second, Fool For Love, premiered in 1984, was a finalist for the Pulitzer and made into a film in 1985.
Sam Shepard arrived in New York City in 1963 with no training, no fancy degree in playwriting, no producer at the helm. Just a case full of emotional baggage that a 19-year-old runaway is likely to have.
His baggage included an alcoholic and violent father who would appear in his plays in various forms. In New York, he was an outsider. He lacked his new home’s academic and intellectual guise, but soon emerged as a ‘genius’ of the Off-Broadway Circuit.
By the time of his death in 2017, Sam had written over 50 plays, several short stories and screenplays and was also an Oscar-nominated actor for his role as Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.
Shepard’s process of finding his voice by digging down into his dislocated soul is inspiring. And while classes and degrees in writing are great, they are not as necessary for a writer as lived life, and a driving curiosity to explore the world around you.
While this blog can’t help you with living, we do encourage reading. So, let’s explore a few features of these two plays by Sam Shepard as well as some takeaway exercises.
Single Setting Stories in Sam Shepard Plays
Many of the Sam Shepard plays were single-location stories. The two mentioned above but also The Buried Child, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
The benefits to single location stories include:
- If the story is for the stage or film each change of setting incurs cost, which can be crippling for fringe theatre.
- Multiple settings, especially on stage can be distracting for your audience. Every time you have a new set on the stage, you lose a piece of audience attention.
- What the audience can’t see can have a significant effect on mood and anticipation.
In True West, Shepard used the frenzied coyote cries outside to add tension to the drama unfolding inside the house.
In Fool For Love, the empty Mojave desert outside contrasts against the fiery love of the couple inside. To be apart is to have a life as barren as the cold night outside.
- Single location stories can increase the chances of having your script produced.
- They can ensure that you focus on creating a character-based story.
- You can use the inside and outside of your location effectively to build the mood of the story.
The characters in True West and Fool For Love tell stories within the plays. While the old mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ is suitable for keeping the action dynamic and cutting down on unnecessary exposition, storytelling within your stories can also add additional layers of dimension.
In True West, Austin’s vivid retelling of a trip with his father paints a telling picture. It garners sympathy for Austin and gives him more of a stake in the ‘true west’ competition that is playing out between the brothers.
Then I go out to see him, see. I go out there, and I take him out for a nice Chinese dinner. But he doesn’t eat. All he wants to do is drink Martinis out a’ plastic cups. And he takes his teeth out and lays ’em on the table ’cause he can’t stand the feel of ’em. And we ask the waitress for one a’ those doggie bags to take the chop suey home in. So he drops his teeth in the doggie bag along with the chop suey. And then we go out to hit all the bars up and down the highway. He says he wants to introduce me to all his buddies. And in one a’ those bars, in one a’ those bars up and down the highway, he left that doggie bag with his teeth laying in the chop suey.
In Fool For Love, May’s monologue about her mother not only builds the mood but gives us a significant piece of their story.
You want me to finish the story for you, Eddie? Huh? Do you want me to finish this story? See, my mother, the pretty red-haired woman in the little white house with the red awning, was desperately in love with the old man. Wasn’t she, Eddie? You could tell that right away. You could see it in her eyes. She was obsessed with him to the point where she couldn’t stand to be without him for even a second.
They break all the rules about sentence lengths and ‘show don’t tell’ but these monologues add to the audience engagement.
- Don’t be pressured to create a story that entirely shows rather than tells.
- Playwriting is about the interaction of characters which includes stories from the past.
- Focus on the rhythms of your characters voices to help the storytelling.
As mentioned in the introduction, Sam Shepard rode into town with nothing more than his experience and baggage from his life. Nevertheless, he wrote from a place where he viewed the world as an outsider. This emerges as a theme in Sam Shepard plays.
In True West, it’s difficult not to relate to the writer-subject divide. When Lee takes to the typewriter, following Austin’s script rejection favouring his ‘True West’, he picks up the sense of writer’s dislocation in his prose.
What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.
As for Fool For Love, it was inspired by the fiery Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange relationship.
- Themes emerge naturally when you give yourself to writing about what you believe in.
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your storytelling. I hope you found this blog about the Sam Shepard plays and writing inspiring. I leave you with a quote of his about writing that resonates with me as a storyteller.