Theatrically Nasty Thoughts – Edition #2
The book pictured here changed my life. Literally. The contents of this book had a profound impact on me and my view/understanding about the possibilities of theatre. Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love and Other Plays altered my theatrical landscape. I remember the UNBSJ bookstore had copies of this and some friends had told me I should pick it up when I came back from Halifax — this was almost 20 years ago. Turns out the book was in stock for a course being taught by my yet-to-have-met Shadow co-founder, Robert Moore. I re-read the plays in this book about once a year, and I’ve had the opportunity of staging two of them: Action as a production project at UNBSJ where we as the cast self-directed; and directing Geography of a Horse Dreamer for Nasty Shadows.
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I love the quote below for the honesty and sheer boldness of its claim — the implications of the following statements are dire for anyone practicing theatre:
SAM SHEPARD – from a 1991 interview:
I don’t know one playwright. I don’t hang out with playwrights. I can’t say I dislike them, but for the most part theatre doesn’t interest me. I like writing plays because they have so much movement, there’s so much possibility of movement, and language moves. But I’m not a theatre buff. Most theatre bores the hell out of me. But I do like the possibilities. I think of all the forms that we’ve got now, probably theatre has more possibilities than anything else. Really. Of real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience … [theatre] can put all the elements in there. You’ve got music and actors and so many possibilities. And language: language can do so many things.
Granted, the above sounds a little smug and almost dismissive, but I think Shepard is merely being honest about his reactions to the theatre he’s experienced, and I would think we all have to admit to having felt the same at times — if not every time we’ve witnessed a theatrical creation. Now, on some level this “failure” for theatre to rise to its potential is simply a hazard of the job, of any job, in so far as the goal is rarely attainable, but that the damn journey is what becomes the actual pay-off. Shepard’s claim is directed more at challenging the intent behind the theatre being made more so than its actual outcome. Certain outcomes are inevitable, given their limitations: location, audience, overhead, etc. Placing one’s self in a position where you need to satisfy certain criteria means the “real experimentation” Shepard speaks of is already lost; doors have been shut that you can’t re-open. But if the theatre artist is willing to go through any door for the work’s sake and creation, then artistic freedom becomes the route for aiming to satisfy the theatrical potential of the endeavour. If the work has to answer to anything outside itself for justification or verification then the work is more than likely (but not always) going to fall in the type of theatre that Shepard would claim, “doesn’t interest me.” If the work is pushing an agenda or idea, then it can’t expect to fulfill what it could have possibly done since its goal was already established before the journey was known. If the work stands on its own as its own justification, then this is the work with the potential for “real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience”. Shepard wants the writer or the theatre artist to jump in with two feet and expect the unexpected. Wrestle through those unknowns to create a journey worthy of the audience’s attendance and their attempt to struggle with the journey as well. This is what we have to share.
I have to agree that I have been bored by theatre at every level I’ve experienced. I have rarely been wowed in the professional setting. I have been happily surprised by the honesty of children in performance. I believe many amateurs to possess the heart that is required for meeting Shepard’s challenge. But all of these performances rely on a text they are interpreting, and when that text is created in such a way as to limit the potential of the “theatrical” then the problem becomes insurmountable for those further down the chain towards performance — directors/actors/production staff can’t save a script. The production of a limited script is by definition limited — this means that potential is snuffed out.
Shepard’s thoughts always remind me of Michel Foucault’s approach to his historical/philosophical investigations. When asked if he knew before writing it what a given book would attempt to “prove” or “say”, Foucault said he did not and this is why he was writing the book; if he knew, he wouldn’t need to write the book.
Shepard’s plays in the collection above all follow this creative logic: I can’t believe he sat down starting to write any of those plays with a “goal” or “agenda” in mind and as a result he created some of the most engaging and inventive theatre I have had the opportunity of being exposed to.
Please do yourself a favour and give those plays a read … and we can talk about it …