Last Thursday, we lost an artist as mythic in stature as the great tall tale heroes of the Old West. Sam Shepard — playwright, actor, Pulitzer Prize–winner, musician, and rancher, to name just a few of his identities — created a vision of America both gritty and dreamlike, rough-hewn and riddled with suffering and self-delusion, yet somehow divine. And he brought to life some of his most iconic plays — True West and Buried Child among them — with director Robert Woodruff. The collaborators met in San Francisco in 1974, where Woodruff had recently co-founded the Eureka Theatre. (The Eureka, which championed new plays and was the birthplace of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, closed its doors on July 5 of this year.) Shepard was 30 and Woodruff was 27, and they were about to embark on a decade-long artistic partnership that would take them from the Eureka and the Magic Theatre in San Francisco to the Public in New York, redefining both their own careers and the face of the American theater. After news broke of Shepard’s death, Woodruff shared memories with Vulture of working with his old friend.
There’s only one place to start with all great partnerships: Tell me how you met.
We were doing a playwrights’ festival in San Francisco, and it was the first time I asked him if he had any plays that hadn’t been produced. He had this little thing sitting in his drawer, which he had written for this bicentennial project [and] which they didn’t use. It was called The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife. And it’s a musical, about 30 minutes long. The piece is just a little shorter than the title. I remember it had a great stage direction: “She’s dead, but sings anyway.” Which I liked.
So we did that. And he never saw it — he was actually shooting Days of Heaven with Terry Malick, someplace in the north. But he heard good things about it. And then they were looking for a director for Curse of the Starving Class [at the Public Theater] in New York, and he told Joe Papp, “Well, why don’t you get this guy?” He said, “I like this guy.” So Joe called me up. And I was working in a church basement — doing theater in a church basement in San Francisco — and, well, Joe Papp calls you up. So you go to New York.
You said he was coming from London. Do you know what brought him to San Francisco?
You know, I’m not sure. I think he went to Nova Scotia in between. I know he wrote Action there, because it’s really about those four characters being in Nova Scotia, but I’m not sure how he got to San Francisco. I know once he got there, he was living on a ranch with a whole bunch of horses that they were taking care of called the Flying Y. It was kind of a great environment.
So, you went to New York and did Curse of the Starving Class.
Yeah, we did Starving Class, and also, he didn’t see that, because he didn’t fly [and he was still on the ranch in San Francisco]. I think he started flying later, but he didn’t fly then. So any place he couldn’t get to in the truck, he didn’t get to. So he didn’t come out. But again, he heard good things. So then we did Buried Child [at the Magic Theatre] in San Francisco, and that was the first time we were in a room together.
What was it like encountering that script for the first time?
It was a great gift. I remember picking it up from the agent and just reading it, really slowly, as I was coming home. And I was walking up the stairs and still reading it, and reading and reading, and going up the stairs, and, page 108, Tilden takes the body of the dead child up the stairs at the end of the play. And I just thought it was breathtaking. And I had this great gift, thinking, “Well, I get to make this” — and it was kind of … those gifts don’t arrive that often.
Then sometime in there we did Suicide in B Flat — that was in San Francisco, too.
This is the one where he’d improvise on the drums during the show?
He wouldn’t play every show, but he would just decide to sit in every once in a while. He was a drummer before he was a writer. Well, maybe that isn’t true; maybe he was always a drummer and a writer. But so he would sit in and play percussion, and the whole piece was improvisation — a kind of musical, textual improvisation — so Sam would just sit in. And it really kind of juiced the whole production, it was really exciting.
Then we did True West [at the Magic Theatre] in San Francisco in 1980, another show we did together when he was in the room. And it was great to have his voice there. He and I would be in the audience and the actors would talk, he would talk, I would talk — it was a really great open dialogue. He loved actors; he always loved actors. He just knew the gift that actors were to his text. He knew that their investigations, their textures, would really make it alive. He knew the genius that an actor has to inform those words, and he just let them go. I think it was a great acknowledgment on his part: that he knew what they would bring to his material, and he wanted to give them room to explore. And he wasn’t in a hurry about that. He was always very generous with time.
And your productions of True West and Buried Child were the world premieres for both of those now-canonical plays?
Yeah, those were premieres. And Starving Class — it had been in London, but ours [at the Public in 1978] was the first time it had been done in the states. I think he sold Suicide in B Flat as a premiere twice [laughs]. Sold it to Yale and sold it Princeton — both as world premieres! So by the time we got it we didn’t care; we were just, “Well, we did it.”
Then we did True West in New York, and it was a fiasco. It was a really difficult experience for a lot of people, myself included. And for Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle, it was very difficult for them too. So that was kind of a rough moment.
I worked with him on Tongues and Savage/Love — I’m not sure where those fit in the timeline. It gets a little hazy in there. But Sam and Joe Chaikin were doing Tongues in San Francisco, and they wanted somebody to give them feedback, because they were both on the stage performing. So I just had a dialogue with them as they worked it out, and that was really inspirational for me. And then we made those two pieces at the Public Theater too, Tongues and Savage/Love, and eventually toured Europe with them. And getting to work with Joe — that was another great gift. He was kind of a shaman, and they had an amazing dialogue. They went back 20 years to the ‘60s, working at La MaMa together and Caffe Cino. So they were just reimagining their relationship and then performing together.
And that was mesmerizing.
Can you talk about the last time you and Sam worked together?
He directed A Lie of the Mind in New York [at the Promenade Theatre in 1985], and he asked me if I’d come and look at some previews and help him figure out how to cut it, give him some notes on what was happening. So I did that. And then I did the production in Los Angeles of the play, and actually I inserted some of the scenes back in that I had cut. And I found out years later that he — well, that, this was a problem for him. But I didn’t know it until years later. Because he was never precious, you know? I just thought I had carte blanche with the production because he was always, “Yeah, just make it work.” So we had a kind of parting of the ways on that, but I didn’t know we were having a parting of the ways. I just thought we had run our race — and that we’d had a great run. For me, it was kind of wonderful: I was going to see him out in L.A. [during my production of A Lie of the Mind], but he was playing polo in Palm Springs. So I got on my motorcycle to go see him to talk about the production, and the motorcycle broke down about halfway to Palm Springs, so I never made it. And then I didn’t see him again for 20 years. Which kind of seemed like a perfect ending. It felt right.
It feels like a Sam Shepard play.
Yeah, exactly. Perfect.