Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor, screenwriter and musician Sam Shepard, who died Thursday, July 27, at 73, after suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, was associated with the Twin Cities long before he moved to the area with Academy Award-winning partner Jessica Lange to raise a family.
His work has been produced at theaters such as the Guthrie, Penumbra, the Jungle and Dark and Stormy Productions, whose staging of Shepard’s “Fool for Love” opens Aug. 24.
News of his death elicited shock, sadness and appreciation from Twin Cities-connected theater artists.
Actor Carolyn Goelzer, who now teaches theater at Cornell University, played May in “Fool for Love” at the Jungle. “I met him because he gave a talk [at the University of Minnesota] and we all went. And one of the things that he said was that skeptical about different approaches to casting, like changing the gender of various roles and the racial make-up of the casts. He was strong and clear about wanting the roles to be as he imagined them, which was noteworthy for me because I was at that age when we were very interested in experimental takes on texts. I think he had a very intimate relationship with his characters, with the texture of their worlds, and wanted that to be honored.
"The chemistry that was fueled by his language created a visceral kind of connection with the work. You could very quickly get the words into your body, and the language crackled. It had force and energy and carried the action for the actor.”
Actor Jennifer Blagen played May in the Jungle Theater’s revival of “Fool for Love”:
“The musicality of the language is part of his signature, and it has an interesting interplay with the grit in his stories,” said Blagen. “The language it propulsive and literally enlightening in that it lifts both performers and audience members. There were people who saw our show [‘Fool for Love’] and were frightened by it. He pulls at your primal fears, at the challenges you have to face to yourself in order to live meaningfully as a human being.”
Director Gary Gisselman staged Shepard’s “Simpatico” at the Guthrie Lab in the 1996-’97 season:
“I met him once on the set of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Guthrie when he and his [partner] Jessica Lange came in. They were there to do a benefit for some peace organization. He lived in Stillwater all those years, and a lot of us wanted to meet him but felt that he was not all that approachable because he had this mystique. That may have been because of us. But I had studied it work, and so I felt like I knew something about him. What’s so enduring about his work? Well, he was like a cowboy playwright who was raised on some avocado ranch or something like that. Yet his language was so extraordinary. He could spin a story and, boy, could he take you places.”
Allen Hamilton acted in two productions of Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and in “Simpatico” at the Guthrie Lab:
“Sam Shepard was powerful and original. He brings up all kinds of familial connections. They say that all art is autobiographical, to some degree. A great deal of his work has to do with his relationship with his father, with his siblings, with horses. He’s trying to engage masculinity and make us see it in a new way.”
Actor Terry Hempleman played strong, earthy men in both “Fool for Love” (Eddie) and “Buried Child” (Dodge): “People have a sense of him writing for men, and when I was younger, I was interested in his plays because I thought he was writing about real men, plus tequila and women and guns. But there’s no stern or more incisive or lovingly brilliant critic of patriarchy than Sam Shepard. He’s asking, what is this male identity in America? What is this cowboy thing, this landowner thing? He’s showing that this idea of masculinity, of what it means to be a man, cannot stand.”