CROWD MEMBER: Youíre an alum of the Cherry Lane, and you
were here in . . . ? Way back in 1968?
SHEPARD: Oh, way before then. I did a one-act here in
1964 or í65 that was called Up till Thursday, and
then, of course, later came True West.
CROWD MEMBER: As an actor, what do you expect from your
writers, and as a writer what do you expect from your
SHEPARD: I donít compartmentalize things like that. Iím
not interested in borders so much as I like putting
things together. I donít ever look at things so black
and white like that.
CROWD MEMBER: You had a play called Angel City,
and you gave instructions to the director of that play.
You said to anyone who directs this play - and one of
the characters turns into a lizard - that what youíd
rather have are characters that are fractured whole,
with bits and pieces of the characterizations flying off
the central theme of the play.
SHEPARD: I really think that we are not just one person.
We are a multiplicity of beings, if you want to call it
that. Not to get too philosophical about it, but itís
very easy for me to see character in the shifting,
myriad, ever-changing tableau rather than one part.
Weíre used to looking at character in a traditional
sense, of being something we can define by behavior or
background. You know what Iím saying? But it may not be
like that; it may be much more interesting. For me,
anyway. It may not be so interesting to lock down the
character with specifics. What Iím interested in is this
shifting of the character, you know, not the exactness
CROWD MEMBER: Have you been generally happy as a
director, or as a playwright watching a director?
CROWD MEMBER: Are there any Brechtian influences in your
SHEPARD: Brecht influences everything. Absolutely.
Thereís a play he wrote called In the Jungle of
Cities, in which he pits a librarian against a
gangster. An extraordinary play. A simple man, leading a
simple life, and this demonic character comes in and
says, ďI am going to kill you,Ē to this humble
librarian. ďMaybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but
someday, I will.Ē And thatís very upsetting, and that
play influenced the writing of Tooth of Crime.
This thing of total surprise. I think writing is like
that. Itís a total surprise. thereís no way you can
predict it. No way. As much as you think you know, and
as old as we get, it can continually surprise.
CROWD MEMBER: Iím curious about why you rewrote Tooth
of Crime so many years later.
SHEPARD: I felt the play was outdated, and I donít think
a piece of writing should be forged in iron, and
necessarily, the great thing about a play is that it
moves and shifts, from production to production, and we
see that shift. I mean, Iíve never written a play that I
CROWD MEMBER: In interviews from the í80s you said that
a play isnít really thought up; rather, itís something
that you catch that sort of exists. How does that work
SHEPARD: Interesting question. Songwriters that I admire
the most - Willie Nelson and Dylan - both feel that way
about songwriting. The song exists; itís there, and
being out there you need to get a hold of it somehow.
Willie wrote "On the Road AgainĒ on the back of a
napkin in about five minutes. Like the Beatles song
ďBlackbird,Ē itís so simple that it couldíve been there
the whole time. However, it doesnít mean that you donít
have to struggle or practice craft. You donít know when
itís going to land. Is that clear?
CROWD MEMBER: Is there too much craft in that process?
SHEPARD: I donít think you can have too much craft.
Maybe you canít have enough. Itís a funny balance
between what we like to call inspiration and what we
like to call work. And you canít do without either one.
If you hang around and wait for something to hit you in
the head, youíre not going to write anything. Youíve got
to work. You want to work for something. And these
experiences, or accidents, can happen anytime. rough the
For instance, Iíve been working on these stories,
fiction, for some time, journals and whatnot, and Iíll
be writing a while and take a look at something, and
BOOM! thereís a play thatís developing while Iím working
on short fiction, and I canít not write it in that
moment. Iíll think about all this time Iíve been
spending working on this goddamn book, and then, whatís
CROWD MEMBER: Does that change the way you tell stories?
Has our cultural evolution - the way technology
continues to curb our attention spans - does that affect
your cultural outlook?
SHEPARD: Well, culture itself is always gonna be
poverty-stricken. We donít live in ancient Egypt,
Mesopotamia or Greece. We live in a destroyed culture.
There is no culture here. Itís shreds of stuff . Weíre
amongst shrapnel. So if youíre looking for culture to
support your attention, then youíre out of luck. The
question to ask is ďWhat is attention? Do we even
understand the first thing about what attention is?Ē I
mean, theyíre these definitions that donít define
anything. We donít understand what attention is because
been hammered by non-attention. The thing to do is to try
and discover what attention is, what is the substance of
it. Itís a tool thatís also true of actors. We work with
material that is constantly moving.
CROWD MEMBER: Sometimes you direct your own work. What
motivates you to direct your own plays and work on your
SHEPARD: What motivates it is not being able to find a
director. Itís been a great thing in a way, because Iíve
learned much more about production. As a director, you
start to understand what it means to talk to actors,
what it means to talk to a lighting designer, to work
with space. You get to understand what theaterís about,
and it is about far more than what you as a writer
think. For me, itís been a blessing not to have found
the right director.
CROWD MEMBER: Youíve also been an actor. How does that
correlate with the approach you take in working with a
SHEPARD: Are you talking about film or theater?
CROWD MEMBER: Film.
SHEPARD: Film is a different matter. Oddly enough, there
are many film directors who donít understand what acting
is even about. Iím telling you the truth. Very few
understand, or even care. For the most part, acting in
film lm means trying to stay above water. They are far
more interested in other matters relating to the
production, so as an actor youíre expected to show up
carrying the goods. In theater, you get six to eight
weeks rehearsal time, whereas in film you show up ready
to go. So the rehearsal time in theater is devoted to
the actors, which it should be.
CROWD MEMBER: Do you think that will ever change?
SHEPARD: Itíll never change. Thereís too much money in
film. Thatís the attitude. Youíre talking about a
machine that operates distinctly over money. Thereís no
room to mess about with the actors. Filmís . . .
CROWD MEMBER: A lot of your writing and directing is
SHEPARD: I am a musician. Iím not a studied musician.
Iíve always found that music and writing are entangled.
CROWD MEMBER: How do you prepare for acting in film?
SHEPARD: It depends on the role, you know. But Iíd
rather talk about theater.
CROWD MEMBER: What do you consider your best play?
SHEPARD: I donít hang on to them like that. In the
second week of the production, Iíve had it. Iím ready to
move on to the next thing. Productions can be grueling.
But True West a couple years ago, with Philip
Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, was an incredible
production because they switched roles every third
performance. And the reproduction of Buried Child
that Steppenwolf did was a great thing to be part of.
For the most part, I donít follow them like that and try
to nurse them.
CROWD MEMBER: Could you tell us about the last days of
Joe Chaiken? You had quite a moving experience with this
longtime friend and collaborator.
SHEPARD: It was strange because I had experienced this
earlier with a mother-in-law. He came out of
unconsciousness, and you never think of language as
being . . . he virtually lost the meaning of words, and
it was so weird, because he was so eloquent. I would go
out of my way to listen to him. We had exercises to get
him out of this locked-down vocabulary, and as we were
doing that, he had this idea of an angel - you know, Joe
would have extraordinary ideas that came out of nowhere
- and I couldnít tell if it was this mythological idea
of a certain character, and we originally wrote it as a
radio play, and then it became a piece in which we
designed it so he could perform it himself. It was about
an angel who crashes to Earth and doesnít know how he
gets there, so everything is seen through that
perspective, which is a shattered reality, and all of
the language comes out of that experience. Sometimes the
light goes out completely, and sometimes it comes back,
and with Joe it went out completely. at piece was about
trying to get him back.
CROWD MEMBER: How much does the environment in which
youíre writing affect you?
SHEPARD: I think the best writing, for me, happens on
the move. When Iím riding in a train or a car. When you
donít have a home. Thereís that feeling that when Iím
traveling, Iím on fire, so I never figure out why this
need to move all the time creates writing. It just goes.
CROWD MEMBER: Have you ever noticed any specific schools
or traditions of acting that seem to get your work?
SHEPARD: The actors with the most chops are the ones who
gather from all kinds of styles, not just the Methods,
not just Chinese eater, not just mimes. They have a
taste of many different things and are open to many different things. Theyíre fascinated by everything around
them, and - (A crowd member near the back takes a
SHEPARD: Donít take any pictures, okay?
CROWD MEMBER: Itís for the theater.
SHEPARD: Okay. Um, itís an interesting thing. Many
actors who absorb in an internal way canít do the
physical thing. And I always wonder why these things
exclude each other. Peter Brook has experimented with
this in the past. Actors should have a wide scope. They
must have that, in order to bring something new to the
CROWD MEMBER: I did a reading last week where I was
praised for my dialogue, but got knocked down for my
monologues. When monologues are lyrical and poetic and
stand out . . . as someone so familiar with that
element, do you ever feel that monologues that inhabit
such poetic spins, like Tooth of Crime . . . is
there a certain point where you need to cut it off or
ďdumb it down,Ē so to speak?
SHEPARD: Itís interesting. Iím writing a monologue now,
and I just decided, within the last few days, to let it
rip, let it go and not worry about whether itís lyrical
or whatnot, and let it spin. And, on the other hand,
Iíve done stuff where Iíve let it be very compound, very
precise. I guess it depends on where you want to go with
it. If youíre gonna do this and itís gonna be onstage,
why not let it go? Though you look at somebody like
Beckett, who is the master of conciseness. Look at
Krappís Last Tape. Itís like acid rain, every word
is. You couldnít replace a word in that piece. When he
rolls, he rolls in a way in which he couldnít be more
precise. But I donít think there are any rules. Itís an
interesting problem. And itís interesting for the actor,
too. Iíve been guilty of writing way too much and then
realizing, Hell, an actor canít do this. Heíll run out
of gas. It doesnít make sense.
CROWD MEMBER: Do you write every single day?
SHEPARD: I donít have a process. You have to take the
plunge. Itís easy to talk about the process, but itís a
confrontation. Youíre confronting a blank page. Itís
like drawing. You stare at a blank canvas and it goes
from itself. You can call it a process, but youíre
studying where this inspiration comes from. I donít even
have a specific time I write.
CROWD MEMBER: Does your writing have a destination?
SHEPARD: Sometimes, but often Iíve found when you know
where youíre going, it deadens something. If I have some
sort of a vague idea - or specific idea - youíre already
there, and youíre not allowing yourself to travel to the
end. Itís like youíre driving cross-country to Omaha,
you know; if youíre dreaming about Omaha the whole time,
youíre going to miss the trip. And itís not a bad idea
to know where youíre going, but you canít have that
thing determine conclusions for you. Whatís in front of
you is a big part of evolution. Iím not against having a
destination, but that point can sometimes blind you from
CROWD MEMBER: Do you have . . . ?
SHEPARD: I have a hard time finishing anything I write.
CROWD MEMBER: Could you expand on the comment you had in
a previous collection stating, ďI donít want to be a
playwright. I want to be a rock star.Ē
SHEPARD: I think I was nineteen when I said that.
(Laughs.) I discovered that I never really had a career.
Iím just doing what I do. Back in the í60s, everyone
wanted to be a rock star.
CROWD MEMBER: Do you ever think of audiences when you
SHEPARD: Yeah. Going back to Joe Chaiken, he developed
the Open eater, which was a very powerful, experimental
practice in which many actors were challenged in their
involvement. Heíd do a Brecht play, a very simple,
one-act Brecht play, like a clown piece; then heíd, say,
ďDo it as though the Queen of England was watching your
show,Ē so it changed. ďNow do it as though Muhammad Ali
is sitting there. Now do it as though the fascists are
about to take over.Ē And it was amazing to see that and
how it took over the actors. It led me in a lot of
different directions in terms of thinking about the
audience. Now, in monologue thatís interesting because
you have to consider the language and characters,
whether youíre addressing the audience or ignoring them.
CROWD MEMBER: Thereís a scene in True West
in which the character Lee is remembering a scene from a
film called Lonely Are the Brave, which is a Kirk
Douglas film, and he talks about his horse dying. And no
one else onstage has ever heard of that film. Can
you talk a little bit about how that informs the
SHEPARD: Heís the kind of character who would like that
movie. Itís as simple as that. Why did he like that
movie? Because he saw himself as that guy. Heís the kind
of character who would like that movie, regardless of
whether or not anyone else liked it. Itís part of his
persona, his bravado, his deal. I can say that film made
an impression on me. It was one of what they called
ďmodern Westerns,Ē and Walter Matthau played the sheriff
. It was a nittygritty black-and-white film, almost
symbolic, but at the same time the kind of film that
never could be made now. Itís a part of America thatís
gone now. Itís a part of reality thatís gone. Which is
sad. Weíve lost touch with a real character.
CROWD MEMBER: Chemistry onstage. How do you develop it?
SHEPARD: I donít think in terms of chemistry. I know
that termís used a lot, but I donít get it. What works
well is excellent actors, and when you get those kind of
actors together, great stuff happens. Actors who have
the chops are like jazz musicians. You donít bring in
people who canít play with the band. So if everybody
plays well, you can make some pretty great sound. Great
actors challenge each other, and before you know it,
something happens. I donít get in their way. I think
directors get in actorsí way too much and prevent
something worthwhile. There arenít enough directors who
trust actors and who nurture. Somehow, in one way or
another, I feel the English actors have a better way of
creating that spark. They know how to allow characters
CROWD MEMBER: How much do you prepare characters for
SHEPARD: I donít do a lot of character development. I
think they . . . come. Pinter is interesting for that.
Pinter, from what I understand, starts with almost
nothing, and he writes these incredible characters. From
a word, from something so tiny, and Iíve always admired
that. Itís like painting, again. You set up something
and BAM! It becomes something else. Not to say that
there arenít writers who consider tapestry. Youíd be
hard-pressed to say Shakespeare didnít think about his
characters. But thatís never been my fascination as much
as the plunge of it all.
CROWD MEMBER: How did True West come about?
SHEPARD: My mother had gone to Alaska, and I was
housesitting for her in California, and I was completely
alone, with crickets, and I started to dream this thing
up. It just started to come. I wrote it in its entirety
in that house.
CROWD MEMBER: When you were beginning as a playwright,
did you have another playwright you looked at for
SHEPARD: Beckett. Heís the only guy. He could be the
only playwright on earth. atís all we need is Beckett. I
idolize Beckett from every aspect. He represented the
epitome of the modern playwright. Nobody was doing that
stuff . You gotta understandóI mean, you probably do
understandóthat nobody was doing what he started. He
totally reinvented it. He absolutely stood it on its
head. ere had been nobody like him.
CROWD MEMBER: What do you think about the current state
of American theater, and where do you think itís going
in the future?
SHEPARD: I donít care. Iím only concerned with writing
plays. I start worrying about the state of American
theater, and Iím not going to get anything done. Iím
sorry, but Iím not interested.
CROWD MEMBER: Did you love theater and decide you wanted
to get into writing, or did you fi rst love writing and
see theater as a perfect conduit?
SHEPARD: Actually, I was interested in music and acting,
but I didnít want to do the audition thing. I hated the
audition thing. I wanted to be autonomous, and writing
offered me a part of myself, to take a notebook and go
to a coffee shop and write. I didnít have to depend on
anyone, and I didnít need the money that a filmmaker
needs. I love that immediacy, and also that thing about
dialogue: itís a kind of way about doing music. atís a
comparative form of literature for me. Written
literature just stays in a book, and with theater you
can go and do things in space and time. So playwriting,
where you can build from nothing, you can incorporate
just about anything into. Theater will swallow whatever
you feed it, you know. You can put painting or sculpture
into the acting; you can film or have fi lm onstage;
itís the whole thing. It has so much potential. And yet
we think of it as this primitive form, but maybe thatís
why people keep coming back to it, for its rawness. And
I also love that itís language spoken. Itís language
that hits a room.
CROWD MEMBER: Do you go to the theater?
SHEPARD: Sometimes. Iím not a big fan of stuff . Every
once in a while, you get surprised. I know thereís some
good stuff out there.
CROWD MEMBER: Did you see Pillowman?
CROWD MEMBER: What did you think?
SHEPARD: Well, heís a wonderful writer, Martin
McDonaugh. He is one of the guys. But thatís not my
favorite play of his. I love e Beauty Queen of Lenane.
CROWD MEMBER: I donít want to put a negative spin on it,
but thereís a lot of physical violence in your plays.
Why do you include that?
SHEPARD: Because life is violent. Violence rules the
world. So why not embrace it? We live in extremely
violent times, in this world. Iím not all for heads
rolling, but this is a violent country, is it not?
CROWD MEMBER: Are you drawn to country music or
singer-songwriters in general, or something similar?
SHEPARD: Iím not particularly interested in forms.
Thereís wonderful stuff coming out of country music.
ereís a whole thing going on right now with old-time
music, and this thing, with traditional instruments
being played in new ways, that pushes the envelope. When
youíre seeing someone playing the banjo like a
saxophone, itís a push. I love the idea of breaking new
barriers. Itís gotta be like that. I donít think itís
good to sit with one method and say thatís the end-all.
CROWD MEMBER: Youíve mentioned painting repeatedly
tonight. Is that another hobby?
SHEPARD: No. I draw a little bit, but painting is not
something I do. I wish I could, but thereís two things I
canít do: painting and novels. Scratch those off the
CROWD MEMBER: Would you share with us what a beginning
is for you?
SHEPARD: I think beginnings are by far the most
exciting. atís where the fire starts. I have no problem
with beginnings. But then then you have to go on your
nerve, and you have to follow your nerve, and thatís why
beginnings are also very important. Itís just like
music: you have to start with just the right note, or
else the song can go bad fast. Itís a question of paying
attention to the potential. Not to say that you want to
get tight and constricted with what that start is, but
itís paying attention to where that start should be.
Take Krappís Last Tape, with the banana in the
drawer. Itís total surprise. Comes from nowhere. This
guyís listening to tapes; then he pulls a banana out of
the drawer and puts it in his mouth. All of a sudden,
itís a comedy. He eats the banana, puts it on the fl
oor, and slips on it later. Itís absolutely
brilliant.Itís like a physical psych gag.
But the writing canít be vague. It has to be specific.
Peter Brook wrote a fabulous book called The Empty
Space, and what heís saying is, at the end, theater
is this blank canvas, which is probably the most
exciting thing in the world, and yet frightening. at, to
me, is the essence of how you follow. What do you see
happen? Say youíre sitting in the audience, and youíre
the only one there. What do you see happen? What would
you like to see happen? What completely surprises you?
Itís as wide-open as that, and not getting too concerned
with the process and big ideas and politics. What
physically happens between the audience and the play?
Have you seen Slavinís Snowshow? Clowns are boarding
trains in which they become the train. Itís an
extraordinary piece in which they stare at the audience.
Just by that, the audience goes nuts. Itís technique,
and yet, at the same time, itís doing its own thing.
CROWD MEMBER: How do you make yourself fi nish things,
if itís such trouble?
SHEPARD: Iím actually working on something that I
started many years ago, and seeing its core value. Lot
of times, you start something brand new and let it fl
utter away before you know it. You have to agree to work
on the piece.
CROWD MEMBER: Could you give us an example of writing
something like Buried Child?
SHEPARD: I dipped into this family thing for a little
while, and I didnít really want to write family plays.
It is that American tradition, those family plays, so I
thought of writing something that hadnít been exposed or
touched on. en I started working on it, and it turned
out to be pretty dark, and I wanted it to be a comedy,
so that was the first time I started drawing up
characters from my past and messing around in that
CROWD MEMBER: Can we go back to Beckett for a second?
(Shepard nods.) Did you get into his work as a distant
admirer or did you actually know him?
SHEPARD: No. Itís one of my biggest regrets. I wish I
had met him.
CROWD MEMBER: Did you ever act in any of his works?
(Shepard shakes head no.)
CROWD MEMBER: Would you like to?
CROWD MEMBER: Do you find there are enough places to put
on your plays?
SHEPARD: Thereís never been a political involvement. I
was lucky enough to come from the í60s, where Off-Off
Broadway was the only alternative. Broadway was locked
up, Off-Broadway was as locked up as Broadway, all
commercial theater. The doors were closed to
experimental theater. And we invented it. And we said,
ďOkay, letís go do it in that space, that cafť or that
church.Ē The fire department was trying to close us down
all the time because we didnít have exit signs over the
doors, and we just did it. We madeit happen. Iím not
sure if that vitality still exists now, but I can tell
you, Off - Off Broadway existed because we said, ďTo
hell with Broadway, and to hell with commercial theater.
Weíre going to do it our way in the spaces available
because we believe in it enough.Ē
I find it hard to believe that the city has changed that
much, that people who want to get stuff done canít get
those things done. Somewhere. Take Ellen Stewart (from
La MaMa). is was a bulldog of a woman. She put plays on
regardless. Get it done. I donít know if there are
people like that around anymore. I find it hard to
believe itís a political element or economic element. I
mean, goddang, if people want to get stuff done, theyíll
find a way to get it done. Donít you think? What do you
think? I donít know.
CROWD MEMBER: How do you know when a playís done?
SHEPARD: You write things in different states of mind.
After a long day of writing, once you sleep on a story,
that next morning isnít the same as when you were
engaged the previous night. You look at it later and
realize it isnít at all how you imagined it to be. So
when you write a play ten years ago, and then come back
to it, youíre a different person. So I think, Why not
rewrite it in that new light?
CROWD MEMBER: How do you know when to do that?
SHEPARD: The play has a rhythm. You gotta listen to it.
Youíll know. I hate endings. I can tell you that.
Always. Trying to force something. Not fun. Beginnings
are extremely fun, middles are . . . (grumbles) and
CROWD MEMBER: Do you do a lot of rewrites based on
rehearsals with actors?
SHEPARD: Around actors, yeah. Often times, good actors
are great at finding bad writing. If youíre watching
your actors and listening to actors, theyíll find a
problem. A lot of times Iíve rewritten almost entirely
around an actor. They find that communication with
character. Ed Harris is like that. Heíll just say, ĒWhat
is that?Ē and he just knows what is and isnít working.
CROWD MEMBER: Do you write a lot of stage directions?
SHEPARD: I donít like stage directions that much. I like
them abbreviated and concise. The problem with stage
directions is that youíre trying to locate the space,
and the point of view is always shifting. So you have to
work in the blueprint. So the best way to create
direction is probably the traditional method, which is
from the proscenium. You have to sort of designate where
itís happening. Look at Beckettís stage direction. Itís
very specific and
CROWD MEMBER: Is there any advice you can give us?
SHEPARD: Plunge in.