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Sam Shepard: 'The good guy and bad guy stuff just doesn't interest me'
The playwright and actor on his take on Oedipus, why Derry is better than Hollywood and his regard for chaos
You wrote the cult film Paris Texas 29 years ago. Why did someone who cares so much about language start the story with Travis, a mute?
It was a very conscious decision. As conscious as you can get. I had two experiences with very close friends of mine who experienced aphasia, the loss of language. It shocked me. With aphasia, oftentimes the symbolism of language is skewed and the names for things can be swapped around. The person speaking absolutely understands what they mean inside, but they might call a "door" a "dog". It's very easy to lose language – it can be shut off in a second. So, what about a character who can't speak, but has all this stuff going on inside of him? He's feeling, but it's not being expressed. That's where we started.
The director Wim Wenders pretty much kept the script as you wrote it; he said later that the actors were so faithful to your words, they'd shoot scenes from the top if they made a tiny mistake. That's unusual in film, isn't it?
Yeah, it was an unusual situation. I was lucky to be in that position.
Have you been in that position in the industry since?
Not really. I guess as an actor you tend to be very privileged – at least you have the impression you're being spoiled. They would like to give you that impression. Often, it makes you cranky, rather than feeling privileged.
Does that have something to do with why you eschewed living in Hollywood?
It's a horrible place to live, you know. You can go there and do various things: to live there is not great. For instance, here in Derry, you have a feeling of home, there's a centre to it. In LA, you don't get that feeling at all – you feel like home is splintered off in a thousand directions.
So what makes you say yes to acting in a film these days?
I think it's based on the character. So many contemporary scripts are written by committee and they're pretty obviously written by committee. Within the first three to five pages, you can tell how many writers were on this sucker. If there's one writer, it's very distinct and usually they have a hold of something. The people I enjoy working with now are what they used to call "auteurs": people who write their own material, then shoot it, and they're very rare. I mean, there's a handful of them.
Is that why you write mostly for theatre?
Yeah, absolutely. It's all handmade, theatre – we're not so dependent on technological stuff. That's what I love about it. On stage, you're not limited at all because you're free in language: language is the source of the imagination. You can travel farther in language than you can in any film.
Where do you do your own solitary writing?
Oh, I'm anywhere. I used to think the kitchen was the place. I loved it, right in the kitchen; it just felt like the kitchen was home.
It feels like you can see the desert from your kitchen window: it features a lot in your plays…
I always thought the desert was the antithesis of peace, something that attacks you. So you don't go to the desert for peace. Well, I suppose you do if you're on acid, but I never went to the desert for peace. I grew up on it, so I always felt like it was attacking us.
What started you writing?
I couldn't do anything else but drive a tractor. I felt like this is the only thing I had. I could do other stuff – I can ride a horse – but writing sort of carries you into all these other worlds. And I can't find anything that would do that except writing. I don't do it to get a message across. I'm writing just because there are certain kinds of raw material. The material may be very strange, but it takes shape in the course of writing. Whether that has a message or not is not my concern.
People can make that up afterwards?
Yeah. Writing for theatre is certainly different to writing an essay or any other kind of fiction or prose: it's physical. You're also telling a story, but sometimes the story isn't exactly what you intend; maybe you uncover something you had no idea you were going to uncover. But I don't think you set off wanting to transmit a message.
Is it infuriating for you to have people interpret your work?
No, no, I just stay away from that. I stay away from heavy-handed stuff, the good guy and the bad guy. It just doesn't interest me; all it does is create more fences between people, I think.
You're in Northern Ireland working with Field Day Theatre Company and Stephen Rea, who commissioned your new play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations). It started out as lots and lots of scenes in no particular order…
I'm a great believer in chaos. I don't believe that you start with a formula and then you fulfil the formula. Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in chaos – we don't live in a rigorous form. This play has been miraculously pulled together by a really talented director, Nancy Meckler. Oddly, I worked with her 35 years ago and she's made some kind of sense of it. That seems to be the thing everybody wants – sense.
Is it fair to describe it as a riff on Oedipus?
I don't believe in adaptation. I tried and I thought, eugh, I don't want to do an adaptation, I want to do a variation on. I want to do something with the emotions that the play is calling up: I want to take off on the feelings that the thing produces. If it doesn't produce those feelings, it's worthless, as far as I'm concerned. So in the case of Sophocles, he definitely calls up feelings. That's what you're adapting: the feelings, not form – the instincts and all the incredible things that are called up.
Will you be writing new pages for it right up until opening?
Oh yeah! Maybe beyond.
You've been here for almost a month: noticed a difference between the Irish and Americans?
Of course there's a difference – you guys have thousands of years behind you. We, as European Americans, have – what – 400 years?That's all we've got. Four hundred years to mess around in history, whereas you've got thousands. If, being Irish, you're knowingly carrying around a thousand years of history, you potentially have in you knowledge that we don't have. The history shapes you. You go way back, so, yes, there's a difference.
Where do you go to find the poetry?
You don't go anywhere! You stay right here.