• Out and About alerts

Someone once said, "to write a mystery, you can't be mysterious. You must be precise."

Sam Shepard's experiments with form and surreal atmospheres have always been ahead of their time. But in one sense he's an old school playwright. His stage directions are among the most detailed of any contemporary writer. The ones for Buried Child - currently at New Village Arts - are as lengthy as any by Eugene O'Neill.

One of Shepard's most famous: for The Tooth of Crime, his rock and roll, three-ring, science fiction circus, he wants a bare stage, save for an "evil-looking black chair with silver studs and a very high back, something like an Egyptian Pharaoh's throne, but simple."

When Charles Marowitz directed the London premiere of Tooth in 1972, he took so many liberties that Shepard publicly renounced the production.

Like Marowitz, Richard Schechner was among the experimental, auteurist directors of the early 70s who subordinated the playwright's vision to their own.

For the American premiere of Tooth in 1973, Schnechner turned the bare stage into an "environment." A two-story, sculpted unit required the audience literally to walk around it to follow the play. The evil-looking chair and bare stage be damned.

Shepard declared war. He wrote Schechner: "The reason a play is written is that a writer receives a vision which can't be translated into any other way except a play...It's a question you really should look into rather than sweep it aside as old-fashioned or even unimportant."

Schechner replied: "We accept your script as part of an artwork yet to be completed."

Shepard stuck to his guns. He wants things in certain places and seen in certain ways not just for his vision but because that's how they'll work best theatrically.

Schnecher shot back: "We accept your words as writtten, and the parts that they are orgainzed into. But the rest of the scenic activity is our responsibility; we must work long and hard to find our own places within the world of your script."

Shepard told an interviewer that his play "had nothing to do with what Schechner set up in the theater.

"When you write a play it sets up assumptions about [how it should be] performed." Experiment is fine, he added, but within the limits prescribed by the playwright. "It can be okay - the playwright isn't a holy man, you know. Except that I'd rather the experimentation took place with something that left itself open to that."

And thus began in the early 70s, a shift from the primacy of the playwright to the primacy of the director. The debate continues to this day.

  • Out and About alerts

More like this:


Twister April 8, 2012 @ 10:09 p.m.

Sam Woodhouse directed "Working" back in the '70's or '80's (?) at the San Diego Rep, but I don't know who was responsible for the staging.

We saw that production at least four times.

Later, there was a lavish production for PBS-TV, complete with "name" actors. It was flat.

Maybe you can give us a history and let us in on the behind-the-scenes action?

Also, how would this example stack up with respect to the playwright/director role issue?

More about your take on the issue, please.


Jeff Smith April 9, 2012 @ 10:57 a.m.

Twister the issue's many-sided, and all make key points.

The play has always been there. The change, in the last 30 or so years (and even before) has been the role of the director - and how much input the director should have.

There are directors I run to see regardless of what they're doing: Robert Woodruff, Anne Bogart, Scott Feldsher. They put their stamp on a story and tell it at the same time.

What Sam did with Working was brilliant. He took a musical that had failed, rethought it, cast it with an all-star team of local actors, and made it shine. I can still hear Biff Wiff singing "Brother Trucker" and Julie Anne Simeone's waitress asking her customers "aren't you good enough to be waited on by me?"

Sam turned a salvage job into art. Yet at no point were you aware of Sam's directorial presence, of his stamp. Everything he did - and the cast, choreography, etc. - served the story.

That was in 1982, I think. That same year my brother, Michael, wrote a play called Over Night. It was about people who work in other people's dreams. And about a yet to be born child hoping to choose his parents.

Michael showed it to one of the theaters in Minneapolis, where he lived. They loved it. Did a staged reading that blew people away.

At that reading Michael saw what actors can do with a script. He was astonished at how they fleshed out his words and created moments and business he'd only half thought out. He felt the thrill of collaboration. And when the theater said it would mount a full production, he was ecstatic.

The director said the play needed just a few changes. By the time the show opened, Michael didn't recognize his work at all. The director took over - and took so much credit that the theater still owns the rights to the play.

The production failed. The critic for the Minneapolis Star (the late Mike Steele, one of the best who ever did the job) said the play had great ideas was swamped by a director strutting his stuff.


Twister April 14, 2012 @ 4:42 p.m.

Ah, yes, EGOCENTRISM "rules," and THAT is the seat of the disintegration of culture. We all have experienced your brother's plight--at some scale.

Of course, culture may have to disintegrate in order to reintegrate, eh?

PS: Some stories do benefit from the retelling, but directors who festoon good works with cliches provide "validation" to those who yearn for the certain. Those who go beyond the the story but stick with it's spirit can add steam to the "content" without destroying it. In film, an outstanding case of this was "Walkabout." The book was rather flat, but the film brought it out of obscurity. Maybe some missed the point, but those who were on the margins who were sucked into the story by the film may have been transformed. Or at least nudged toward consciousness. "Working" shined as a play, but flopped as a "film," an example of egocentrism going wild, believing that celebrity and "production values" are "what people expect." Right they are, of course, but I don't want what I expect--I want to be swept into a transformational peak experience!


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!