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6 Things You Need to Know Before Seeing a Sam Shepard Play

30 October 2018 by John Staughton
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With an illustrious career spanning five decades, the late Sam Shepard is considered by many to be the greatest playwright of his generation. His plays shine a light on the darkest challenges of the human experience, making his work impactful, accessible and beloved around the world.

New productions of Shepard’s gritty Western drama, “True West,” will open on Broadway and in the West End this year. First up, “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn will star in the play at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, Nov. 23-Feb. 23. Next, Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke will star in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, Dec. 27-March 17.

Before experiencing the raw power of Shepard’s words, understanding more of the man behind the scenes will allow a greater appreciation his timeless, haunting work.

Get tickets to “True West” on Broadway.

Get tickets to “True West” in the West End.

Jack of All Trades, Master of Most
With more than 50 plays to his name, Sam Shepard was undeniably prolific, but being a playwright was only part of his artistic output. He was also a director, author, screenwriter, and Academy Award-nominated actor for “The Right Stuff.” Appearing in more than 50 movies, in addition to directing films and many of his own plays, there were few creative pursuits where Shepard failed to find success.

Childhood on the Move
Shepard was born on an Air Force base in northern Illinois and moved to numerous bases around the world as a child before finally landing in California. There, he worked on a ranch and nearly pursued a career as a veterinarian. Fortunately for the world of theatre, Shepard’s wanderlust feet took him to New York City in the early 1960s, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Champion of the Forgotten
Many of Shepard’s most memorable characters exist on the fringes of society, often from areas or demographics that have been overlooked or intentionally ignored by society at large. From Dodge, the alcoholic patriarch with a failing farm in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” to Lee, the wanderer with a lifetime of unfulfilled potential in “True West,” Shepard spent his career delving deep into the remote corners and troubled hearts of the American Dream.

Playwright of a Generation
After moving to New York in the early 1960s, Shepard became involved in the Off-Off-Broadway scene, primarily with Theatre Genesis in the East Village. From those humble beginnings, Shepard spent the next five decades redefining the direction of American theatre, expanding the boundaries of drama, and collaborating with cultural icons from numerous eras, including Patti Smith and Bob Dylan.

Fascinated by Family
Sam Shepard’s most powerful work relates directly to the challenging and often painful bonds of family. His most poignant plays deal with uncomfortable or taboo familial issues of addiction, abuse, incest, loss, failure, loyalty, and perseverance, making his a seminal voice on the modern stage. “Fool for Love,” “Lie of the Mind,” and Shepard’s “Family Trilogy” are timeless and profound musings on the complex and destructive relationships with those we love most.

Surreal, Yet Universal
Despite the subjects of his plays being grounded in reality, there is a thread of surrealism and hallucinatory brilliance in his work, particularly in his early one-act plays, such as “The Rocking Chair” and “The Unseen Hand.” Describing his early artistic process as producing “explosive outbursts,” similar to the automatic writing and unconscious creation of the Surrealist art movement, Shepard was never afraid to stray into the strange, while still keeping one foot firmly in the real world onstage.