When Sam Shepard came to Glasgow last year to watch the last night of the
Citizens Theatre's production of his 1980 play, True West, the presence of
someone who was both Hollywood acting royalty and counter-cultural legend packed
out the house. With roots in rock and roll, Beat poetry and America's Wild West
mythology, here was an underground icon and self-styled literary outlaw who
could be nominated for an Oscar for his appearance in The Right Stuff even as he
scripted Paris, Texas for fellow traveller, Wim Wenders.
Yet despite such a pedigree which has embraced the hip while flirting with the
commercial, Shepard's stage works are rarely seen in these parts. Prior to True
West, the last time one of Shepard's plays was seen on a main stage in Scotland
was back in 2009, when the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh produced his 1978
piece, Curse of the Starving Class.
The arrival of Chorale – A Sam Shepard Roadshow in Edinburgh,
then, provides an all too rare opportunity to see some of Shepard's early works
s in the sort of studio spaces where his writing career began.
A two-night compendium of plays, films, workshops and a new stage adaptation
of Shepard's prose fragments, Chorale aims to be more of a road trip than an
orthodox tour, as the initiative's director, Simon Usher, explains.
“We try to give people an experience,” he says, “rather than just a
performance. We try to give audiences a flavour of what Sam Shepard is about and
where he came from. I became more interested in Shepard's counter-cultural plays
of the 1960s, and Jack Tarlton, who I developed the show with, and who appears
in it, was interested in Shepard's book of stories, Motel Chronicles. We also
looked at his more recent book, Day Out of Days, which is full of reflections
that seem to look back to the counter-culture from a real distance, in a really
mythic kind of way.
”Shepard is a mythic writer, and the great thing I love about his work is
their multitude of different voices, all struggling to have their say, so you
get all these different styles all messed up in the same play. The plays from
the period we're looking at are very personal, and quite rough. These days I
think people prefer things that are cooler and smarter, but which don't reveal
too much, whereas in Shepard's work, you're right in the emotional engine room.”
Produced by the Usher-led Presence Theatre and Actors Touring Company in
association with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Chorale will feature Shirley
Clarke's film of Savage/Love,Shepard's 1981 collaboration with seminal
director, performer and founder of experimental theatre company, The Open
Theatre, Joseph Chaikin. This will be seen in a double bill with The Animal
(You), a new piece adapted from Shepard's short stories.
On the Saturday at the Traverse, a workshop will focus on the collaborative
nature of Shepard's, and will centre around Clarke's 1982
film of Shepard and Chaikin's earlier collaboration, Tongues. The evening
programme goes right back to Shepard's 1970 play, The Holy Ghostly, which is
paired with The War in Heaven, a third collaboration with Chaikin, written after
Chaikin suffered a stroke that left him aphasic. Usher himself directed
Chaikin's performance in the play's
1987 UK premiere, as well as revisiting it for a large-cast version with the
Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007.
The War in Heaven was last seen in Edinburgh back in 1996, when 7:84
Scotland's outreach director, John Heraghty, directed a production at the Royal
Lyceum Workshops during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe This was duly given a
Herald Angel award. Heraghty directed a production of Tongues, also for 7:84
Scotland, the following year.
Chorale, then, is as much about Chaikin, who died in 2003 aged sixty-seven, as
it is about Shepard.
“Chaikin is right at the heart of Shepard's work,” Usher says. “The Open
Theatre was all about doing things that were anti-naturalism, and had an
aesthetic and a philosophy that allowed characters to change. Shepard learnt everything from Chaikin, and Chaikin was obsessed with Shepard.
It was something almost unrequited, so with Chorale it's great to put them both
back together in this way.”
Chorale will end in the bar, where the show's house band, Herons, will perform
a set totally in keeping with Shepard's early days playing with psych-folk
group, The Holy Modal Rounders. Music would feature later in Shepard's work when
he toured as a chronicler of Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. Shepard
also co-scripted Renaldo and Clara, the sprawling film that came out of the
tour, with Dylan.
“There's so much music in Shepard's work,” Usher points out, “that you have to
make Chorale a musical odyssey as well. Shepard comes from Jerry Lee Lewis,
Little Richard and Creedence Clearwater Revival just as much as he comes from
Dylan, Steinbeck, Bukowski and Beckett. You can see that in Shepard's early
work, especially. It's very rock and roll.”
Chorale – A Sam Shepard Roadshow, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 30-31.
The Herald, May 30th 2014