Theatre: American playwright in London

Dreams of being a rock god lured Sam Shepard across the Atlantic in 1971, but it was his writing that prospered. A new festival celebrates his work. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
Sam Shepard has given his benediction to a festival in his name at the Battersea Arts Centre. He hasn't agreed to come over or anything, but he has chosen the music that will be played in the cafe. The playlist is frighteningly eclectic: Charles Mingus, Clyde McPhatter, Nina Simone, Sidney Bechet, Ernest Tubb, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Gone Again, the new album from his ex-girlfriend Patti Smith. This might seen a piffling imprimatur but it has an arcane logic. It was partly to nurse his ambitions to be a rock musician that he came to live in London in 1971. And when he went home three years later, he was soon to be found on the drumstool of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour.

When he arrived here he was promptly waylaid by the burgeoning fringe scene, and the Rock God project took a back seat. His reputation from the New York underground for courting danger and living on the edge went before him, and the savage immediacy of his plays found a natural home in the small-space houses of the capital. So it's only proper that, a quarter of a century on, London should be celebrating Shepard in a similarly modest venue, as opposed to one of the grandstand proscenia which later realised his commercial potential.

Outside the inner circle of the fringe, there wasn't much fuss. "I think that London theatre should have got more," says the Irish actor Stephen Rea. "The plays came and went with only an acknowledgement by a small group of people. Maybe they weren't aware of quite how important he was. Because he became a movie star, he became a major playwright. But he was a major playwright before that. I think that he did some of his best writing here."

Shepard was already a significant figure when he came to London - the darling of Greenwich village and an annual collector of off-Broadway Obie awards. Then at the turn of the decade he broadened the canvas and wrote a play "that demanded the kind of production only a big theatre could give him", says John Lahr, then dramaturge of the Lincoln Center. "So we gave it to him." Operation Sidewinder was Shepard's first foray into what Lahr calls the "enemy camp" of uptown. He brought his experimental band, the Holy Modal Rounders, with him but his new audience wasn't ready. "We lost about 10,000 subscribers," recalls Lahr.

Like so many other American playwrights, what first brought him to an environment less scornful of flops was a critical handbagging back home. No wonder Rea speaks of those years as a period of reassembly. "My sense was that he was in recovery from something. We began to mooch around together." Nicholas Wright, then artistic director of the Theatre Upstairs, recalls "a laconic, dry, very laid-back, very masculine Gary Cooperish kind of style; certainly very direct, capable of being quite rude". "My impression," says the actress Dinah Stabb, "was that he was always keenly interested in events going on outside the room. Although he was part of the world of the Royal Court, he never seemed to be of it."

The Royal Court's nascent Theatre Upstairs was among the first theatres to get its fix of Shepard. Its third ever production was La Turista in 1969. The King's Head took up the baton with Chicago, Red Cross and The Holy Ghostly, all lunchtime one-acters in which Shepard had no direct involvement. Charles Marowitz premiered Tooth of Crime at the Open Space, a qualified success starring Richard O'Brien as a young pretender ousting a reigning rock monarch.

But from this distance it looks as if London was missing its opportunity, and it is possible that Shepard sensed it himself when he asked Wright if he could direct a play commissioned from him by the Court. Geography of a Horse Dreamer was an exercise in submerged autobiography about a man called Cody kidnapped by betting racketeers because his dreams predict horse-race winners. His powers shrink as he dreams dog winners, then mutates into a dog himself. (In London, Shepard couldn't indulge his obsession with horses, but he co-owned a greyhound, wishfully named Crazy Horse, and raced it at White City and Harringay.)

The cast of Rea, Bob Hoskins and Kenneth Cranham, who went down the dogs with their director, was augmented by a non-actor who was cast solely on account of his vast bulk. "It made enormous demands on Sam," recalls Wright, "that he had to coach this elderly guy through a speech that he showed no signs of ever getting to know, and Sam was terribly patient. At that point I thought, you really are taking this very seriously."

In rehearsals, contrary to convention, they ran straight through the play from very early on. "There was no messing about," says Rea. "There was no directorial ego going on. All the actors shelved their ego because they knew it wouldn't wash." The shame is that this landmark production ran to studio audiences for only three weeks. At least the play has enjoyed an after-life.

Little Ocean, a short play about pregnancy, ran briefly late at night a month later at the Hampstead Theatre (the author's local - he lived just off the Heath), and has never been seen since. "He wrote it about three women,"says Dinah Stabb. "His wife, Olan, who'd had a baby; me, who was about to have a baby, and Caroline [Hutchinson, Rea's then girlfriend], who hadn't had a baby. Because I was seven-months pregnant, I couldn't really do anything, and Olan couldn't really work in this country. One day he said, 'I'll write something for you'. So we all held our breath, crossed our fingers, and waited. It was extraordinary: it was written by a man, but it didn't feel like that." At Shepard's suggestion, Rea directed because "it seemed part of the nature of him writing the play for these women that it should be done by someone who was around".

Shepard wasn't around for much longer. Nancy Meckler, a director Shepard instinctively trusted, staged Action at the Theatre Upstairs that September, and Rea was in that, too. And then, aged 30, he left. "He's an American," says Rea. "He had to be close to his source. At the end of Geography of a Horse Dreamer, they put on the Cajun music, and he has to be back with that. The cowboys burst in and say, 'We've come for our brother'. Cody feels creatively constricted by his environment: that's why he has to burst out and go home."

n The Sam Shepard Festival is at BAC from 2-20 July. Bookings: 0171-223- 2223

SAM SHEPARD ON WHY HE CAME TO LONDON

"I'd exhausted whatever it was I was doing in New York. I'd really exhausted it and I'd been living on the streets too much. A lot of stuff was just frayed. I needed to get into another environment. It was kind of an escape. When I got there, I wrote Tooth of Crime, in Shepherd's Bush actually, trying to find shillings to put into the heater. I did Tooth of Crime, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Little Ocean at the Hampstead. Everybody was incredibly generous toward me, which surprised me. Maybe it was the notion of American avant-garde, or whatever you want to call it. I don't know. There was a strange kind of envy about America. Not from the point of view of its power, or of the superficial things. From the point of view of the adventure of it, kind of. I really sensed this kind of English envy in a way that touched me really, you know. This thing of 'oh, in America you can invent yourself'. Isn't that marvellous?"

Extract taken from an interview with BAC director, Tom Morris, to be broadcast on Radio 3's 'Nightwaves' on 3 July

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