Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sam Shepard On Playwriting

I think for me, every play has its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and tempo. That’s the fascination of it. It’s like people who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins to speak to them . . . . I think a play is like that. What you’re trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting. You’re trying to have a meeting with this thing that’s already taking place. So, I can’t really say that I have a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a middle and an end . . . . A play’s like music — ephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time. You never reach a final point with it.

It (myth) means a lot to me. One thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing down a very specific knowledge . . . . . The thing that’s powerful about a myth is that it’s the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time . . . . Well, hopefully in writing a play, you can snare emotions that aren’t just personal emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological emotions that you’re getting off your chest, but emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody . . . . If you’re only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy or something?

Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it; I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.

I think it’s more like music. If you play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays and instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to play music, it’s really interesting to see where that music goes between two musicians. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before. You see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set them in motion. It’s very interesting to follow this thing that they’re on. It’s a great adventure — it’s like getting on a wild horse.

If there’s no relationship on stage, there’s not going to be any in the theatre. But that has to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit down on stage as two actors, and we don’t have a relationship, what’s the point? A relationship’s both invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see it between actors. You can also see the absence of it. If it’s there, the audience is related immediately.

Well, I’ve always had a problem with endings . . . . But you have to stop at some point just to let people out of the theatre . . . . So True West doesn’t really have an ending; it has a confrontation. A resolution isn’t an ending; it’s a strangulation.

There’s a way of just improvising a play, as an actor would improvise a scene, and I’ve discovered how to do that. I have tons of stuff that I just haven’t shown ‘cause now the values have changed. Along the road, that improvisation has to come to terms with something and make it cognizant. And that something is not explainable. For instance, if we start juggling glasses we could juggle glasses and carry on and we could juggle glasses all day long, but then what, then what’s going on underneath?

The picture is moving in the mind and being allowed to move more and more freely as you follow it. The following is the writing part. In other words, I’m taking notes in as much detail as possible on an event that’s happening somewhere inside me. The extent to which I can actually follow the picture and not intervene with my own two cents’ worth is where inspiration and craftsmanship hold their real meaning. If I find myself pushing the character in a certain direction, it’s almost always a sure sign that I’ve fallen back on technique and lost the real thread of the thing.

You can only face so much, and then you turn away. Writers are very adept at covering that up; they cover it up in all kinds of disguises. But when it comes right down to it, what you’re really listening to in a writer is that: his ability to face himself.

Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O’Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying, well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he’s really talking the way he would be talking in real life. What the hell is that? Why doesn’t he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls, and then come back and sit down and . . . You know what I mean? . . . . And I think a lot back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

I don’t think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals . . . . character is something that can’t be helped . . . like destiny. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared with character they’re not even in the same ballpark. . . . . Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

The ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self. Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed. Myth in its truest form has been demolished. It doesn’t exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don’t connect with anything. We’ve lost touch with the essence of myth.

I’m interested in exploring  the writing of plays through attitudes derived from other forms such as music, painting, sculpture, film, etc., all the time keeping in mind that I’m writing for the theater. I consider theater and writing to be a home where I bring the adventures of my life and sort them out, making sense or non-sense out of mysterious impressions. I like to start with as little information about where I’m going as possible. A nearly empty space which is the stage where a picture, a sound, a color sneaks in and tells a certain kind of story. I feel that language is a veil hiding demons and angles which the characters are always  out of touch with. Their quest in the play is the same as ours in life-to find those forces, to meet them face to face and end the mystery. I’m pulled towards images that shine in the middle of junk. Like cracked headlights shining on a deer’s eyes. I’ve been influenced by Jackson Pollock, Little Richard, Cajun fiddles, and the Southwest.

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.