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10 Things You Need To Know About Sam Shepard

By Grace Moore & Sam Wightman

Buried Child is officially coming to the Trafalgar Studios. With a stellar cast led by Hollywood veterans Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, it also sees the return of The Spoils director Scott Elliot to our most intimate London venue. Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of a fragmented family in rural America is a landmark piece in the career of one of the country's most celebrated playwrights. We are here to guide you through a whistle-stop tour of the life and times of the man behind the drama...

1. The American Nomad

We'll start at the very beginning. Sam Shepard's childhood was spent hopping between the military bases that his father served at, and at the age of 19, he took the bold and adult step to leave California and his life as a stable hand behind, in exchange for the Big Apple. It was here that young Sam's literary career took off, as part of the thriving Off-Off-Broadway scene, nuturing his voice as a playwright with avant-garde group Theatre Genesis. 

Naturally, his writing is inspired by these diverse and temporary surroundings, with Christopher Bigsby calling Shepard "a poet of the Southwest, lamenting the loss of a rural world." The myth of the American Dream and the social landscape of the country are all very much at the heart of his plays, and with such a wealth of personal experience under his belt, it's easy to see why this should facinate him so much.

2. Cryptic Creations

Similar to his work, Sam Shepard is a notoriously private enigma. He reveals little of his private life and tries to avoid the celebrity status that has accompanied his success. His mysterious nature is certainly reflected in his works, particularly Buried Child. Audiences seeking a neatly wrapped narrative with a clean-cut ending need look elsewhere. Many try to unravel the secrets woven into his plays, and we are at liberty to do so, but he refuses to prescribe definitive meaning to them. Instead, he hands the power over to his audience, allowing us to decipher our own meaning from his writing, saying "the organisation of living, breathing words as they hit the air between the actor and the audience actually possesses the power to change the chemistry." No pressure, then…

“I think hope and hopelessness are intimately connected, and I don’t believe in one or the other. In a way I prefer hopelessness to hope. I think there’s more hope in hopelessness.”

― Sam Shepard

3. Star of the Big Screen

Not only is Sam Shepard an accomplished playwright, author and director but incredibly managed to find the time to carve himself out as an Oscar-nominated actor aswell. Hardly surprising given he’s been rubbing shoulders with the cream of the Hollywood crop for as long as he’s been on our screens. His co-stars have ranged from Oscar winners Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Sean Penn to Matthew McConoghay. He even squeezed in an on-screen smooch with the one-and-only Julia Roberts…and so has Ed Harris, come to mention it.

4. A little bit country... and a little bit rock 'n' roll

Long-time friend, rock star Patti Smith once said of Shepard “he was born for rock ’n’ roll… He was a drummer in a band…and he just had something in him that made him a great, great performer.” They later collaborated on the play Cowboy Mouth in 1971, in the roles of two aspiring rock stars. As well as Patti Smith, he counts Bob Dylan as a friend and was once a supporting act for Lou Reed and frequently played percussion in jazz performance ensembles. 

Despite his rock star credentials, he is arguably more comfortable on his ranch in Kentucky and even confessed to writing Buried Child at an old ranch house in California. He has remained true to his roots and his passions, in doing so has effortlessly infused these two facets of his personality into his body of work.

“....and in that wink I understood there might be grown men in this world who actually get a spark out of life.” 

― Sam Shepard, Great Dream of Heaven

5. Rocky Horror

The writers of The Rocky Horror Show, Jim Sherman and Richard O’Brien had previously worked together. However, it was during rehearsals for one of Sam Shepard’s ‘most riotous early offerings’ The Unseen Hand, that the pieces of the puzzle truly clicked into place: under the roof of the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. During breaks in rehearsals they started performing sing-alongs with musical arranger Richard Hartley and set designer Brian Thompson and thus began their unique collaboration.

Little did they know a few months later the show would play at the very same theatre and go on to be the worldwide cult sensation we know and love today... 

6. Critical Acclaim

Sam Shepard burst onto the literary scene as a force to be reckoned with when he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for Buried Child. Previous winners of this coveted award include Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, with the most recent recipient being Lin-Manuel Miranda for the musical phenomenon that rocked Broadway this year, Hamilton. Buried Child also won Shepard the Tony Award for Best Play that same year and since then he has went on to receive a myriad of accolades including nominations by BAFTA and the Olivier Awards, two more Pulitzer Prize nominations and 10 Off Broadway Theatre Award. We suspect his mantlepiece is pretty crowded at this point.

“This isn't champagne anymore. We went through the champagne a long time ago. This is serious stuff. The days of champagne are long gone.”

― Sam Shepard, True West

7. Buried Child

Diehard theatre buffs will know that this isn’t the first time Buried Child has visited London. The ‘gothic masterwork’ first debuted in 1980 when it was performed at the Hampstead Theatre. It subsequently ran at the National Theatre in 2004 under current Old Vic boss and Matilda director Matthew Warchus. His affinity with Shepard’s work continued with a film adaptation of Simpatico in 1999 and a staging of his play True West starring blockbuster titans Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. Ed Harris will therefore be continuing the legacy of Hollywood leads in Buried Child overseas.

8. The Ed Harris Connection

Speaking of Mr. Harris, Buried Child at the Trafalgar Studios is not the first time Ed and Sam have been brought together either. Prior to the same production in New York with The New Group earlier this year, Ed Harris was treading the boards in the premiere of Shepard's play Fool For Love in San Francisco, which was also directed by the writer. The two also teamed up on screen for The Right Stuff, playing dedicated test pilots in the American drama that earned Shepard his Oscar nomination.

“I don't understand my feelings. I really don't. I don't understand how I could hate you so much after so much time. How, no matter how much I'd like to not hate you, I hate you even more. It grows.” 

― Sam Shepard, Fool For Love

9. International waves

Though inherently American in its setting, the themes and politics of Sam Shepard's theatrical works have resonated with audiences all over the world. In 2011, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin produced Curse of the Starving Class, and its reception sums up the appeal of his theatre. The play, written in 1978, depicts four characters fighting over the same farm, and was praised unanimously in Ireland for its relevance to the ongoing property crash in the country. British audiences should expect a similar sort of feeling with Buried Child, as Shepard's writing transends cultural and contextual barriers.


“You can't believe people when they look you in the eyes. You gotta' look behind them. See what they're standing in front of. What they're hiding. Everyone's hiding, Wes. Everybody. Nobody look like what they are.” 

― Sam Shepard, Curse of the Starving Class

10. Dinner Date

Lastly, in a famous Q&A with The Guardian, the prolific writer revealed that his dream dinner guest would be the international supermodel Kate Moss. What about when asked about the single thing would improve his quality of life, you ask?

You guessed it... Kate Moss. Bet you didn't see that one coming...

See one of Sam Shepard's greatest creations in Trafalgar Studios at the end of this year. Buried Child runs from Monday 14th November 2016 to Saturday 18th February 2017.

Click here to buy your tickets.

For more information, visit the official production website.