Saturday, August 12, 2017

Meeting Sam Shepard in a Dream; lofty ambitions and gutted fish

   I met Sam Shepard in a dream last night, my last one before waking, on an open cement flat construction site with poles sticking up. It had been turned into a movie set where I was working on as Assistant to Something. 
   A crew man drilled a hinge on a doorway and it fell over.
   ‘One door, two people,” I muttered as if it were a common safety saying. 
   Oddly, actors rehearsed while hammers were banged on set pieces. 
    The director, finished arguing with someone, huffed off the construction site. Someone called ‘Break,’ and people sat where they were, took food out of lunch boxes.
   One man at the edge of the site/set seemed sad, without a lunch, in a red flannel shirt, rumpled jeans and boots, his craggy face looking disappointed, sitting with his back against a scaffold. I recognized him.
   “Hey, Sam,” I said, “Can I have a hug?”
   “Not a good idea,” he scowled, looked away.
   I knew he was dead, but figured he’d be bothered by my reminding him.
   “You know, thirty years ago, I directed a few of your plays.”
   He didn’t seem to care which ones.
   "I liked the monologues in ‘Action,’ I said. “They worked real good. Once the actor muffed his lines, but got around to it, made the point.”
   “I hate when that happens,” he muttered, looking around, realizing it wasn’t his set, his movie or his play. He didn't seem hungry, but glanced at someone else eating.
   “Hey, can I ask you–“
   Another crew man got up, tripping over Sam’s legs.
   “What was that?” he looked back.
   “That’s Sam. He’s dead.”
   The crew man seemed like he was trying to laugh, couldn’t see what he tripped on.
   “Well, better get,” Sam said, and leaped off the edge of the cement flooring, which had become a few floors higher above ground. He just stepped off and disappeared into the wind.
   The other crew man stopped, about the walk away, wavered. “But what did he–”
   “You saw him?” I asked.
   “Saw what?” he seemed confused by himself.
   “Never mind.”

     * * *

I think Sam would have appreciated that dream, since it felt like a scene from one of his plays. People feeling out of place, confused, stunned by the loss of their purpose, or knowing a dark secret, were part of his artistic style. 

Shepard's death has been well documented, and one of his first collaborators, Patti Smith, had some touching remembrances of the Pultizer Prize-winning playwright and understated film actor. Author Don Shewey wrote about being Shepard's biographer years ago, and how the playwright was in a way his alter-ego.

Actually, those plays I mentioned in my dream to dead Sam were preceded by my small production of poems and prose pieces from his first collection, Hawk Moon.  As a sophomore at Kent State University's Theatre Department, I enlisted some actors and musicians to join me in performing most of the collection, with live musical interludes of Rolling Stones songs and other music.

I'd first become fascinated by Sam Shepard's plays while studying theatre, and found many of them on shelves in the student library, a cool air-conditioned multi-storey building on campus. I found in the card catalog references to letters Shepard had written to theatre director and playwright Jean Claude Van Itallie.  Actual letters? Wow. 

So, I took the elevator to the top floor of the library and entered the cloistered yet modern archives. There, I met then-director Alex Gildzen, a poet who would become a life-long friend and mentor.

There are no photos or videos of my little basement studio production at Kent State, just my hand-painted poster for the show (left), and a photocopied script with music notes.

But I did find photos, video and scripts and reviews for two later plays I produced and directed at a strange loft in the northern Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh in 1986.

Me with kitty Brat in the Pittsburgh loft, 1986
After getting my BFA in dance from Ohio State in 1985, I took my first professional arts job as a member of the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy. After staying in the director's beautiful Victorian home in Squirrel Hill for a few months, I moved into a drafty huge loft in a then-working class section of town. 

The loft had its problems: a leaky roof, no shower, just a bath tub, and an oddly arrayed one and a half bedrooms. 

But the loft open space was enormous, with a view of the northern half of the city from a dozen ten-foot-high windows. The loft was sort of handed over from a former company member. I lived with the other male company member, then he left, then...well, it was all odd.

When the Alloy's season finished (and they ran out of money to pay us, and I was sick of dancing the repertory), I took a night job at a pastry shop in downtown Pittsburgh. I made croissants and tarts with a chain-smoking French-Moroccan chef, eventually hand-crafting fruity tart cakes. By 8AM, my beautifully decorated pastries in the case, customers lining up for then-exotic cappuccinos and ham & cheese croissants, I took home some day-olds (brioche, usually), and fell asleep as the rest of the city woke up.

Action cast 1986
The loft practically demanded that something happen in its vast high-windowed space.

With four rows of rickety old theatre seats, despite being a one-exit fire trap, I hosted a band party (my young cat at the time, Brat, would retrieve beer tabs the next day, depositing them on my bed as gifts), dance rehearsals, scenes from a dance video, then a small performance of my own pretentious solo work.

But all that in less than a year wasn't enough. With a strange, exhausted crazy logic from working nights and sleeping days, I posted a notice for auditions with flyers, mostly at the two local college campuses, for two plays by Sam Shepard, Cowboy Mouth and Action.

Bill Mullins & Marykae Phipps in Cowboy Mouth
I forget why I chose those two plays, since they were never staged together, but both originally at American Place Theatre, with Shepard and Smith in Cowboy Mouth (originally), and other actors for Action, in the early 1970s. Action befuddled most critics, but won an Obie Award.

Although I knew my departure for New York City was imminent, I wanted to build a resumé of works independent of the Dance Alloy or my naive college works. Also, the two plays had small casts.

Out of nothing, smart students from the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park College showed up, and got the parts. They got my direction of the two works; Cowboy Mouth, a cluttered dialogue between a musician and his girlfriend whose aspirations for him exceed his talent. 

Oh, yes, there was also the need for live guitar music (Bill Mullins, who played Slim, composed a few songs, and is still a musician) and a human-sized lobster costume.
Cowboy Mouth's Lobster Man

Action, despite its existential seeming emptiness, had a host of prop challenges, from two smashable chairs a night (I fortunately found a warehouse full of them purchased for next to nothing at a nearby junk store), as well as a fully cooked turkey (eaten onstage!), and a live fish (skinned onstage!). 

The minimal stage lights drew the attention of locals down on the street during a previous show, who would hoot and shout, so I bought yards of black fabric as window curtains.

The play also had some great monologues, including the closing speech performed by Brett Kennedy as Jeep (Apparently the show wasn't worth including in his resume. Oh, well!)

It was also funny, as this short (and blurry) video clip proves. 

Some great subtle comic acting from Thomas Smuts in his first acting role had the audience bursting into laughter (Smuts made Hollywood headlines as a writer and Emmy nominee on Mad Men for riding his bike to the Emmys!) Each of the actors and crew members made it all a fun experience (I couldn't find info about anyone else.)

The last page of Action's script
But more important, both of the plays explored the concept of action, indecision, the craving for a purpose in life. As a director, I chose a more subdued performance style than others (judging by one of few videos online; this one's overplayed). And at the time, despite the positive reviews, and actual box office money made, I knew I needed to take my own action.

After the plays' reviews were published, the local Fire Marshall politely left his card in my mailbox, twice (by the downstairs door, which along with the very dry wood fixtures, was a total fire trap, since it only opened with a key from the inside). 

At my last event, a rent party with a live band and a lot of beer, a few local boys crashed the party. A fight broke out, and I closed myself in my bedroom with a few thousand dollars worth of rented video equipment while others shoved the guys out and down the steep stairs. The police were called, and later, the downstairs folk dancing group complained about the noise. I got the hint.

So, with new reviews of performance and directing experience on my resumé, minus evidence of how cheap and homemade all the productions had been, I left Pittsburgh only a few months later for the Big Apple, with my brother helping to stuff my few possessions in his car. Brat was brought to my parents' house in Ohio, where she enjoyed a comfortable 17 more years, with no beer tabs to fetch.

I continued working as a dancer for a few years in New York City. But having studied Shepard's work in just these few works, my budding writing desires, combined with so much other theatre and creative exploration, grew. Thirty years later, I would set that neighbohood and other parts of Pittsburgh in two of my novels, Every Time I Think of You and Message of Love. 

The loft is now probably a refurbished swanky condo. Google street view shows it's still there, and thankfully with an added fire escape. I heard the entire neighborhood of warehouses and produce wholesale shops is all cafes and boutiques. I'm glad I was there for that short burst of creativity, and that I got to pay homage, and royalties, to Sam Shepard.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It takes me back to my own brush with Shepard when I was in a production of BURIED CHILD in grad school.

    Love the pic with Brat too!