True Craft

Living in New York City, I come across famous people all the time and usually it’s no big deal. But every now and then I see someone that gives me a shiver of excitement. I once saw Julie Andrews in a dive bar, and Sam Shepard in a semi-elegant restaurant. It should have been the other way around, of course, but that’s what makes these two sightings memorable.

Sam Shepard passed away a few weeks ago, one of those writers who will not be replaced. Shepard is primarily known for his plays, but he also wrote screenplays, short stories, and poems, and you may know him from his acting roles in movies. He wrote about regular folk, often drifters or lower-middle class, often out west, always with a mystical current running through the yarn.

I won’t attempt a poetic eulogy because his old friend Patti Smith has already done that so well.

Sam would have been too restless to teach a class; he liked to keep on the road, often pulling over on a dark highway to dash off a passage. But I’ll help him share his craft, briefly, for you.

Here’s the very opening of his play True West:

We’re in a house. It’s night, sound of crickets nearby. Austin, a screenwriter, is writing at a table. His brother Lee stands nearby, drinking beers off a six pack.

LEE

So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?

AUSTIN

Yeah.

LEE

Sorta’ left you in charge.

AUSTIN

Well, she knew I was coming down here so she offered me the place.

LEE

You keepin’ the plants watered?

AUSTIN

Yeah.

LEE

Keepin’ the sink clean? She don’t like even a single tea leaf in the sink ya’ know.

AUSTIN

(trying to concentrate on writing)

Yeah, I know.

(pause)

LEE

She gonna’ be up there a long time?

AUSTIN

I don’t know.

LEE

Kinda’ nice for you, huh? Whole place to yourself.

AUSTIN

Yeah, it’s great.

LEE

Ya’ got crickets anyway. Tons a’ crickets out there.

(looks around kitchen)

Ya’ got groceries? Coffee?

AUSTIN

(looking up from writing)

What?

LEE

You got coffee?

AUSTIN

Yeah.

LEE

At’s good.

(short pause)

Real coffee? From the bean?

Such an intriguing opening. There’s mystery. Why is mom in Alaska? Why does Lee care about the plants and the sink? There’s a hint of menace, too. Lee seems to be grinding an axe, but slyly and slowly. Little touches in the dialogue reveal that Austin is somewhat buttoned-up and Lee is a little wild. And if you see it acted by decent actors, it’s also humorous.

So few words, so much craft. And so natural.

Ride on, Sam.


Alex Steele
President

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