Sam Shepard

Michael Almereyda
Grant Delin

One of the few truisms about Sam Shepard is that he has always been more difficult to know as a person, in the public sense, than he has been as a dramatist, as a writer, or as a performer. There has always been something vaguely punk rock about Shepard’s work—a visceral directness coupled with the sense of never quite knowing what to expect or what he’ll do next—that has made it feel as instantly powerful and iconic as he himself has seemed eternally elusive. It’s a mix of qualities that has helped transform Shepard into a kind of mystical cult figure for teenagers who happen upon plays like Cowboy Mouth (which he co-wrote with Patti Smith in 1971) or Buried Child (1977) or Fool For Love (1983), only to later discover that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who emerged from the experimental theater milieu of New York City in the 1970s is also an actor—and a revelatory one at that, who has brought a striking physical presence and contemplative air to a swath of films as diverse as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), and Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001)—or vice versa.

Over the course of the last four-plus decades, Shepard has been astounding prolific, having written more than 40 plays, published six books of prose and poetry, acted in more than 40 films, and lent his hand to a range of screenplays, including the scripts for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984). This month, though, he steps into his first starring role in more than six years in Mateo Gil’s elegantly restrained new Western, Blackthorn, in which Shepard plays perhaps the most punk-rock cowboy of them all, Butch Cassidy, in an evocative re-imagining of what happened after the Wild West’s most notorious outlaw set off for Bolivia on the run from the American authorities in the early 1900s.

Filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who collaborated with Shepard on two projects—an adaptation of Hamlet (2000), in which Shepard played the Ghost, and the documentary This So-Called Disaster (2003), which provided a behind-the-scenes look at Shepard’s work process—caught up with him recently by phone from Los Feliz, California. Shepard, who next month will turn 68, was in Boise, Idaho, for a reading of Ages of the Moon that he was scheduled to do that evening with his Right Stuff co-star Scott Glenn, and had stationed himself at a local bed and breakfast.

MICHAEL ALMEREYDA: I once asked you when it first occurred to you to become an actor, and you mentioned seeing Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz [1954]. Was there ever an equivalent experience that sparked the idea of becoming writer?

SAM SHEPARD: Oddly enough, it was reading Eugene O’Neill. I’d read Long Day’s Journey Into Night [1956], and I remember seeing Sidney Lumet’s black-and-white film adaptation [released in 1962], which I still think is one of the best adaptations of anything—of a book, of a play—ever done.

ALMEREYDA: Lumet said it was his favorite movie he’d done.

SHEPARD: It’s a beautiful little thing. But I remember being struck by the idea that it was a play, so I read the play and I read about O’Neill, and in an odd way, there was something that I connected with there . . . There was something wrong with the family. There was a demonic thing going on that nobody could put their finger on, but everybody knew the ship was sinking. Everybody was going down, and nobody knew why or how, and they were all taking desperate measures to stay afloat. So I thought there was something about that that felt similar to my own background, and I felt I could maybe write some version of that.

ALMEREYDA: But it took a while before your plays reflected that kind of model. Had you been writing plays before you saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

SHEPARD: No. When I first started, I didn’t really know how to structure a play. I could write dialogue, but I just sort of failed beyond that, and kind of went wherever I wanted to go, which is how I ended up with these shorter pieces. I didn’t venture into two-acts or three-acts until, I think, La Turista [1967]. So these things I was writing were all experiments of just tiptoeing into the waters of what it’s like to write a play.

ALMEREYDA: It’s funny that you say “tiptoe” because to me, those early plays are like explosions.

SHEPARD: Well, they are, but there was also this other thing—and it kind of shocked me—which was that theater seemed so far behind the other art forms, like jazz or Abstract Expressionism in painting or what they called “happenings” and the other kinds of experimentations that were taking place at that time. Theater still seemed to have this stilted, old-fashioned quality about it. So I couldn’t quite understand why theater, as a form, was spinning its wheels and not really going anywhere. Writers like LeRoi Jones . . . What’s his name now? Amiri Baraka . . . But back then he was LeRoi Jones, and he wrote some brilliant plays like The Toilet [1964] and Slave Ship [1969]. I think he was the most brilliant playwright of his era. And yet he was being overlooked as well. I don’t know what it was . . . It’s hard to say that it was because of the racial stuff . . . I thought his plays were far and away above anything else that was going on, even though there were other people struggling to do that sort of experimental work.

ALMEREYDA: His famous one is Dutchman [1964].

SHEPARD: I got to know LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, a little bit, and he was always sort of wary of me . . . But I thought he was a brilliant fucking writer—in prose and poetry as well. He’s overlooked in the scheme of things. He was angry . . . He was pissed. When I first met him, he was running around with an attaché case and a raincoat and was sort of neatly coifed and stuff. Then all of the sudden, he transformed into this revolutionary.

ALMEREYDA: Well, it was a revolutionary time. I did a little bit of homework, and I read a review that Edward Albee wrote in 1965 of one of your plays where he praised your “unencumbered spontaneity.” I guess that became an early trademark—this feeling that you just kind of dashed off these plays and they were produced almost as quickly as you wrote them. But then you started to shift gears and think about bigger structures.

SHEPARD: Yeah. I don’t know why that happened exactly except that the stuff just started to demand a bigger format. I guess the first real encounter I had with stretching it out was Curse of the Starving Class [1976]. In a way, it was the first sort of venture into writing about family, and it seemed to have more longevity. Then that morphed into Buried Child and some other stuff.

ALMEREYDA: When you first started up in New York, was there anyone who was a particular accomplice or guide or a friend who helped shape the work you would make?

SHEPARD: Well, Charles Mingus Jr. was a great friend of mine. I went to high school with him, and he was always close to me, but then our friendship got distorted and warped because of his . . . Hell, I hate to say paranoia, but I started to feel as if the influence I was getting from him was more and more negative. I didn’t quite know how to handle it, so I broke off the friendship. But he definitely had an influence on me, and so did his father and all of the jazz musicians around that scene, because I felt like jazz was really the art form of that decade. I don’t know what it was about that music, but when you saw it live, there was something deeply glowing about it. The way those musicians presented themselves on stage, like [John] Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk . . . They were the heroes of that era. I still find it hard to believe that the whole era of jazz is over. It seemed like such an active force in the 1960s, a real expression of the times—and, of course, it was essentially black and angry. [laughs] I mean, when you saw Nina Simone singing at the piano, she was like a warrior—and a tyrant. When she sang the “Pirate Jenny” song, the hair on your neck stood up.

ALMEREYDA: You had something of a front-row seat to all that because you were working at the Village Gate.

SHEPARD: Yeah. I was a busboy.

ALMEREYDA: Did you go to other clubs, too?

SHEPARD: I also worked uptown, at the Oak Room. One of the great piano players, Mary Lou Williams, played at the horseshoe bar. It was Duke Ellington’s favorite place for dinner. He’d come in every night with his entourage and his family and sit down in this huge booth. I remember bussing his table many nights. Sir Duke. [laughs] It was kind of awesome.

ALMEREYDA: What was your sense of identity as an artist at that point? Were you just biding your time?

SHEPARD: No, I mean, I was writing all the time, so I wasn’t waiting for anything. I think a part of the reason that those early plays were short was that I just kept having these ideas and I’d just go off and write them. I wasn’t trying to write one-act plays—it’s just how the ideas would be expressed. Every condition I was in seemed like it could be a play. Everything seemed like a possible play.

ALMEREYDA: It seemed like it was a time when the whole culture was kind of shaking itself awake.

SHEPARD: It was also a bit scary. I mean, people talk about the 1960s in a nostalgic way, but to me it was terrifying. People were getting assassinated. There was Vietnam. There were race riots. It felt like everything was going to get blown up sky-high. It didn’t feel like flower power. It felt like Armageddon.

As a writer, you’re literally not dependent on anybody. you don’t have to ask permission.—Sam Shepard

Current Issue
September 2014

ALMEREYDA: But at that point, your work was getting out in the open, too. Albee had singled you out. Your plays were winning Obies. You must have had a sense of vocation by then.

SHEPARD: Well, I never . . . It’s not like I have a career. I feel very lucky and privileged to be a writer. I feel lucky in the sense that I can branch out into prose and tell different kinds of stories and stuff. But being a writer is so great because you’re literally not dependent on anybody. Whereas, as an actor, you have to audition or wait for somebody else to make a decision about how to use you, with writing, you can do it anywhere, anytime you want. You don’t have to ask permission.

ALMEREYDA: Freedom is a big deal. I can’t help but mention Roberto Bolaño, because the last time I saw you, you had a book of his interviews in your bag. I saw your new film, Blackthorn, last week after I’d just finished Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, so I think I had a filter or frame for everything I was taking in, and it seemed like Bolaño’s themes of friendship and escape and adventure came galloping into the movie. You play Butch Cassidy, a survivor holed up in Bolivia, calling himself James Blackthorn. The movie seems in part about how to sustain a myth, but it also has a nice political undercurrent that ripples along. How did you get involved in the project?

SHEPARD: It actually came through the agency. They offered it to me, and right away I could recognize that it was a really great script.

ALMEREYDA: You’re really at the heart and center of the movie. It’s great to see you that way, and not just playing someone’s father. [Shepard laughs] I was surprised that your character is so affable. He seems more at peace than a lot of lone-rider Western characters, and has a sense of humor about his role in the world.

SHEPARD: Well, I did some research on Butch Cassidy. I didn’t want to do an imitation of Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], so I thought I would just start from scratch. I found out that he was actually raised Mormon in Utah, and he was pretty handy with horses and cattle at an early age. He went off with a man whose name was Butch, which is where he got his name, and as the guy told him more and more about horses, he became a better horseman. It turned out, though, that the guy was actually a rustler and was stealing horses and cattle, and Butch decided that was a good idea, so this was his first sojourn into the criminal life. It was an easier, more lucrative way to make a living than working in a saddle shop or making spurs or something like that. But, you know, I didn’t have anything hard and fast in my head about who this guy was. I just kind of let it unfold.

ALMEREYDA: Where did the singing come from? Was that in the script?

SHEPARD: It was the director Mateo’s idea. I had done a little singing with Mateo. You know the little gray instrument that I play on the horse? It’s a beautiful little instrument—it’s actually a traditional South American instrument. So we thought, Well, that would be good to do in the film. Then later we decided that maybe I could sing some songs in the studio for the soundtrack. So I did those songs, too. I actually did them in Dublin.

ALMEREYDA: There are some great shots of you riding horses. There’s a kind of thrilling galloping shot where you think, “Boy, they got a great stunt double.” But then the camera reveals that it’s actually you.

SHEPARD: [laughs] One of the appeals of the part was that I got to ride. This guy, Jordi, a Spanish guy—he was the head wrangler. They brought the horses in from Argentina because there are hardly any horses in Bolivia due to the altitude. The horses have a difficult time in high altitudes if they’re not acclimatized. Many times we were at 15,000 feet, which is really tough on both animals and people. So this guy brought those horses in early and got them used to breathing. A lot of them were ex-polo horses out of Buenos Aires, I think. Man, those horses could ride.

ALMEREYDA: Have you read The Savage Detectives?

SHEPARD: To tell you the truth, I’ve read part of it. Some of Bolaño’s stuff is a little dense for me. It’s hard to penetrate. Even 2666—I cut right away to the murders. [laughs] That said, there’s that extraordinary collection of his stories that they put out, Last Evenings On Earth . . . There’s also this other little story called “Beach” where this guy is trying to kick heroin. He buys a black Speedo and goes down to the beach and covers himself in oil and lays in the sun and observes beach life every day while he’s trying to kick. He’s taking methadone and stuff. It’s the most unbelievable story. It’s only about four or five pages long. Do you know that story?

ALMEREYDA: I’ve read about it. It’s probably something from his life. It seems like he was very good at flashing a mirror in front of him and getting it all down.

SHEPARD: You get that feeling and then, at the same time, you wonder if he’s making it all up. It’s so plausible and believable as real-life documentary, and then all of a sudden you get the feeling that he’s just conjured this thing. It’s very weird and odd. What I like most about Bolaño is his courage.

ALMEREYDA: Courage in what sense?

SHEPARD: In terms of what he’s writing about, how he’s doing it, and then, of course, the background of it all is that, at a certain point, he realized that he was terminally ill. He had this liver disease and, evidently, he was waiting for a transplant that came too late. [Bolaño died in 2003.] But he never indulged in self-pity. I think there’s only one piece I’ve ever read about his illness directly. But it’s always in the background and, posthumously, we now understand that he was writing all this stuff while he was dying without indulging in that as a subject.

ALMEREYDA: One thing that was really moving for me about The Savage Detectives was that he was celebrating the life of writing, but he was also celebrating living itself, so there’s this expansive feeling for all sorts of voices and people.

SHEPARD: I think Bolaño had a generosity about him that was unique. He seemed to include so many people in the circle of his adventures, whereas I felt like I was pretty selfish. When you get right down to it, I was only interested in these plays. And, of course, I did have some friends, but I don’t think I was as generous as Bolaño in his depiction of the people who influenced him and who he hung out with. I was never a part of any kind of literary club. I didn’t belong to any sort of brotherhood of writing, which Bolaño was always referring to.

ALMEREYDA: You were part of Theatre Genesis [the experimental Off-Off-Broadway theater company]. You were kind of planted in that group, weren’t you?

SHEPARD: That was when I was working at the Village Gate. The headwaiter there was Ralph Cook, who had started Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church [In-the-Bowery]. A lot of the waiters there—Kevin O’Connor, Robbie Lyons, and a bunch of guys that I worked with at that time—were actors, and all of those guys became involved in my plays after Ralph discovered that I was writing some dialogues. In fact, Genesis was the first place to ever put on one of my plays. Simultaneously, The Poetry Project with Anne Waldman was happening downstairs—William Burroughs was reading down there—and we were doing plays upstairs. St. Mark’s was a happening spot.

ALMEREYDA: How many plays a year were you doing at the time?

SHEPARD: Oh, many. I started out with Cowboys and [The] Rock Garden [both 1964] at St. Mark’s, and I did probably a half-dozen plays that first year. But then I started moving around. I did stuff at the Off-Off-Broadway places like La MaMa and Caffe Cino, which belonged to Joe Cino, who killed himself over on Carmine Street.

ALMEREYDA: What happened?

SHEPARD: I think he was a speed freak. He was a big Italian guy, great cook. Anyway, one night, Joe Cino hacked himself to death with a butcher knife in the kitchen and that was the end of him.

ALMEREYDA: You never hear of anyone doing that to themselves.

SHEPARD: Yeah, but it was drug-assisted, you know? There were a lot of very strange suicides at that time. There was a famous one where a guy danced out the window. This guy, this director, put some aria on and danced right out an open window and killed himself. Lots of kids died back then.

ALMEREYDA: How did you meet Patti Smith?

SHEPARD: I got together with Patti in 1969 or 1970, I guess. She was basically a writer at that point. She was a journalist doing interviews for different music magazines, and that’s how I met her. She did an interview with me because she’d seen me play drums at the Village Gate with The Holy Modal Rounders. So we did an interview, and then I ran off and started living with her at the Chelsea Hotel.

ALMEREYDA: That was pretty spontaneous.

SHEPARD: It was pretty typically ’60s.

ALMEREYDA: When your books came out at about the same time—your collection Day Out of Days and her Just Kids—you did a reading together, and she got a lot of mileage out of the passages featuring you. How did you feel about seeing yourself in that book?

SHEPARD: She’s such an old friend of mine . . . We have a kind of tacit understanding of that time. A lot of people found it very funny . . . When you read it, it is kind of humorous.

ALMEREYDA: Your book, of course, is made up of stories, tales, myths, and hers is a memoir, but I think there’s a kind of mythology to her book as well.

SHEPARD: Well, she’s a good writer—a really good writer. So I think because of her inherent—I hate to use the word talent, but her ability to put words together, it’s a little bit more than a memoir. It’s probably laced with some imagination. And why not? It’s essentially true.

ALMEREYDA: But the way she puts it in the book, when you guys first got together, she didn’t know that Slim Shadow, the musician, was actually Sam Shepard, the playwright.

SHEPARD: Well, I think she was exaggerating a little.

ALMEREYDA: Seeing you two on stage together was wildly entertaining. I thought that you could just take the show on the road and be busy for the rest of your lives.

SHEPARD: It’s always great to perform with her because she has absolutely no fear of the audience. I’ve never seen anybody so self-contained on stage. She’s courageous, and it kind of rubs off on you in a way.

ALMEREYDA: By a pure fluke, I ran into an engineer-slash-producer last night who works with Patti, and he mentioned that, a couple years ago, as a birthday present to you, she arranged a recording session where you sat down with an acoustic guitar and sang 12 songs. He said that it was an incredible session, and they made a CD of it that they handed off to you. What are you going to do with that stuff? Is there any chance it’ll ever see the light of day?

SHEPARD: We did a bunch of old tunes. There was one gospel tune and another one by Richard “Rabbit” Brown called “James Alley Blues.” It’s actually on the Harry Smith folk anthology [Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952]. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of all that string-band music from pre-bluegrass. Bluegrass music is sort of show-off music—you know, “Look how well I can play the banjo . . . ” Whereas the string band music is more ensemble stuff. My son, Walker, has a band called The Dust Busters. You know, he plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, so a lot of my interest in that kind of music comes from him constantly listening to this stuff. He’s taught me the history of it. It’s remarkable how these young kids are now turned on to more traditional old-time music.

ALMEREYDA: Well, I hope you follow through with Patti and that comes out at some point.

SHEPARD: Yeah, I like singing, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with it, so I think I’ll do more of it down the road. Patti was actually going back into the studio in August to do a record, and she invited me to come in and do some tunes, but I didn’t want to be in New York in August. [laughs]

ALMEREYDA: I read on Wikipedia that you did a recording of Spalding Gray’s last monologue.

SHEPARD: I did something for a documentary on Spalding that his wife was involved in, but I’m not sure what happened with it.

ALMEREYDA: I didn’t know that you had that close of a bond with him. You’re in one of his monologues, where he gamely recounts playing pool with you, and you wipe up the floor with him.

SHEPARD: Well, you know, Spalding was with Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, and was in one of Schechner’s early productions of The Tooth of Crime [1972], where they felt at liberty to take people’s work and just throw it up all over the wall and make a mess of it. Schechner did several productions that had absolutely nothing to do with the play—you know, it was just trapeze shit, and fucking around for the sake of it. He was one of those intellectuals who—

ALMEREYDA: Override the text. Not your favorite.

SHEPARD: He was very influenced by [Jerzy] Grotowski [the Polish theater director], but he didn’t have the guts of Grotowski. He didn’t have the brains of Grotowski either.

ALMEREYDA: Samuel Beckett is kind of a touchstone for you. What has he meant to you over the years?

SHEPARD: He’s meant everything to me. He’s the first playwright—or the first writer, really—who just shocked me. It was like I didn’t know that kind of writing was possible. Similar to the experience of reading [Arthur] Rimbaud, it was like, “Where the fuck did he come up with this?” Of course, with Beckett, you can say it was [James] Joyce, because he’d worked for Joyce, but it was more than that. His trilogy of novels Molloy [1951], Malone Dies [1951], and The Unnamable [1953] are essentially monologues, and to see how he moved from those to plays . . . It was an absolutely seamless evolution. To me, with Waiting for Godot [1953], Endgame [1957], Krapp’s Last Tape [1958], and Happy Days [1961], he just gets better and better until he has just honed this thing . . .

ALMEREYDA: It sounds like Beckett hit you harder than O’Neill.

SHEPARD: Well, I definitely read Long Day’s Journey before I read Waiting for Godot, but it was all the same era. I suppose it was the form more than anything else that I was obsessed with, because I felt like the form of theater at the time was so retrograde. That’s what Joe Chaikin [the theater director] was after—this theme of naturalism that was so present was so old-fashioned and backward and unexpressive of the times. Theater needed a brave new kind of expression, and Beckett had invented a brand new form. Joe was about that with the Open Theater, too—about finding new forms of acting. And Grotowski was moving away from naturalism into something that was more intrinsically dramatic.

ALMEREYDA: It’s slippery in your work, though, because, in some ways, you’ve gotten more naturalistic as you’ve gone on, but then you’ve veered off into other things that are more abstract or surreal. Did you ever meet Beckett?

SHEPARD: No, and that’s one of my great regrets. I could have, because I’d worked with Joe for years, and Joe was friends with Beckett. In fact, Beckett wrote a couple of things for Joe. But I was remiss in not meeting him. I wish that I had.

ALMEREYDA: Both your papers and Beckett’s papers are archived around Austin, Texas. What was it like looking through his papers?

SHEPARD: It was shocking. I was looking at Malone, which is one of his earliest novels, and every page was just peppered with these handwritten sketches. In the borders of every page there are these tiny abstract drawings. Some of them are demons or figures with big heads. Some of them are bicycles. Every once in a while, there is a totally abstract one that looks like a geometric figure. But all of them were drawn over and over again. It wasn’t just doodling—he was doing something with these drawings. Some of the writing was in green pen—I don’t know why—but it was all on this lined notebook paper. And then I looked at [Jorge Luis] Borges’s stuff, too, which was equally remarkable. He got quite blind after a while, so his writing just starts to bloom out across the page. It gets bigger and bigger as he expresses the sentence or the paragraph. It’s just amazing stuff. I mean, to see the handwriting of these people is very close to meeting them.

ALMEREYDA: You’re right, in a way. You don’t really know someone until you’ve either been over to their house or seen their handwriting.

SHEPARD: And in some odd way, because you’re sort of alone with their aloneness with the paper, it’s just haunting. They’ve got Walt Whitman there, too.

ALMEREYDA: What’s his handwriting like?

SHEPARD: Small and tidy.

ALMEREYDA: I can’t think of another writer in the Western hemisphere besides you who has been able to pull off this trick of writing and also acting in movies. Do you see any connection between the two activities?

SHEPARD: I think they’re very connected. It’s hard to explain why exactly, but I think that when I began writing plays, it was from an actor’s point of view more than anything. I had the feeling that if you put yourself in the position of the actor on stage and write from that perspective, it would give you a certain advantage in terms of being inside of the play. Don’t forget: Shakespeare played The Ghost.

ALMEREYDA: It’s not good to compare yourself to Shakespeare. You walked into that one.

SHEPARD: It’s true. You shouldn’t compare yourself to Shakespeare!

ALMEREYDA: That’s my advice for today. Anyhow, Shakespeare didn’t get into movies. [both laugh] But as an actor, you are interested in a kind of naturalism.

SHEPARD: I’m not sure that you’d characterize it as naturalism. For me, it has more to do with the relationship with the camera. When I first started doing movies, I was terrified of the camera, so I felt I had to protect myself. But now, I’m beginning to lose that fear, and a whole new thing is opening up for me.

ALMEREYDA: Was that a big transition for you?

SHEPARD: I think it just evolved out of being in front of a camera many times. It used to bother me that so much of filmmaking was centered around the camera. Very little attention was paid to the actor, which is now fine by me. I don’t care if the director is always looking through the lens. I’d rather have him paying attention to the camera, to tell you the truth.

ALMEREYDA: Because you can fend for yourself.

SHEPARD: Yeah. I don’t think most filmmakers understand the first thing about acting. They’re good at casting, and many of them know who to put in what role and have a kind of magic in that way. But as far as really talking to an actor in terms of what he or she is doing? They’re not so hot at it—or so interested in it.

ALMEREYDA: Over the years, your work has existed, in some ways, outside of politics, and reflects the times in a more internalized way. But occasionally you’ve written a couple of things that seemed to explicitly react to political circumstances, almost like political cartoons. States of Shock [1991] was written around the first Gulf War and The God of Hell [2004] was written in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the second Gulf War. Are you conscious of writing those kinds of plays as a different kind of enterprise?

SHEPARD: With The God of Hell, I was kind of surprised by the play because it developed into something that I wasn’t really expecting. It had a pretty good effect. I think States of Shock we never resolved, although I loved working with John Malkovich.

ALMEREYDA: He was amazing.

SHEPARD: He was totally crazy. He’s one of my favorite actors on stage because he is so outrageous. I mean, he just doesn’t give a shit, like Ed Harris.

ALMEREYDA: But would you say that those plays are fueled by anger?

SHEPARD: Yeah, in a sense, but they’re not plays I enjoy as much as the plays where you don’t really know where it’s going.

ALMEREYDA: So you’re working on a new play right now?

SHEPARD: Yeah. I’ve got an act finished, and I’m starting on the second one. I think I’m gonna do it next fall at the Signature Theatre with Jim Houghton. He’s got a really beautiful set of new theaters—like, four or five of them in a complex. I don’t know how he miraculously came up with money in the middle of an economic crunch, but he’s got it going. I like him very much as an artistic director. He leaves you alone.

ALMEREYDA: Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d still like to do?

SHEPARD: No. I’m pretty much doing everything that I want to do . . . I would like to do some more music, so hopefully something will come of this thing with Patti.

ALMEREYDA: You’re also kind of entering a new chapter in your life.

SHEPARD: Well, I’m working with the Santa Fe Institute. They’re on the mountain with Cormac McCarthy. It’s probably 95 percent scientists—you know, Nobel Prize-winners like Murray Gell-Mann, who invented quark theory, and Geoffrey West. I had a fellowship there last year for six months, and I sort of fulfilled that, and now I just have an ongoing relationship with them where I’ve got an office in the library where I can work on the play, and then we have lunch and sit around and talk.

ALMEREYDA: So you’re entering the scientific period of your life?

SHEPARD: If you will. [laughs] I’m much more productive in that kind of environment because it’s almost a kind of workaday thing. Get the typewriter, go in there, work until noon, and then work in the afternoon. I’ve produced a lot more stuff. Whether it’s any good remains to be seen. I’m trying to buy a house near there, but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen.

ALMEREYDA: I’m sure they’ve got some houses around there.

SHEPARD: They’ve got plenty of houses—and it’s a buyer’s market, they say.

Writer and director Michael Almereyda is currently working on a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline that is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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