Don’t Blow Your Load: ACTING SAM SHEPARD

by Eric Wunsch

childpr3I’d just come off a run playing the lead in a popular contemporary play at a respectable regional house. I was on feeling on top of the world as an actor and that I could conquer anything. Then I started rehearsals for Buried Child. Any fleeting feeling of being god’s gift to acting quickly disappeared as I began to work on playing Vince, the character who introduces some of the plays most surprising twists.

Shepard’s plays are difficult for a lot of reasons. The circumstances, language, perplexing blend of styles, and explosive sequences are so foreign and extreme they could throw even the most experienced actors right into their heads. When taking your first shots at scenes, it is easy to throw too much or too little energy at moments as you try to navigate their intended specificity. The text demands some realizations come much slower or more quickly than one’s impulses are immediately ready for. It is easy to “blow your load” as it were. Shepard’s plays aren’t always what I like to call “actor friendly”. They don’t always supply you with certain clues or open up certain physical solutions that can help you find a way in to connection. A few moments in particular are plaguing me as I try to find a way into making his surreal text into moments that are personal and dramatically interesting. As many actors know, understanding a moment intellectually is often much easier than understanding a moment experientially or emotionally.

wpid-20140224_211905.jpgAs is often the case with any play, the solutions you do come to are often surprising. It is here I am especially thankful for the Iron Age directors, John and Randy, as well as the extremely well-suited cast. The Iron Age folks have a way of working that forces you to confront the work in a surprising way, to make discoveries organically, to fail with incredible commitment, and to think about the text in a way you couldn’t possibly all on your own. The cast collectively scratches our heads, revels in our moments of successful experimentation, commit fearlessly, and encourages one another. I’ve been thankful to work in a lot of unusual environments for a city actor, where this sort of openness is more welcomed than ever and audiences crave whatever challenges their local artists can give.

What I’m trying to say is: there are no other folks I would rather attack such a difficult play with. I still have a lot to learn about Shepard, this play, and this role. Some of the conclusions I’ve come to about it are really the same lessons you could learn working on any play, but some accrued a whole new awareness and meaning from working on Buried Child. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

childpr61) Make sure to have an ultra specific point-of-view on every character and your given circumstance. Remember that hardly any character in his plays are as innocent as they might seem.
2) If you’re feeling stuck on a particular moment, try seeing how much fun you can really have with it instead making it precious. Literally, make the opposite choice that you’re currently making. Shepard’s characters are deceivingly playful. Having fun can also be really terrifying to watch.
3) Get ready to come home with bruises. His plays are super physical.
4) Ask lots of questions. Discuss often. Collective points of view really help on decoding his plays. Actors don’t discuss what they are circumstantially bringing in on certain processes for fear of imposing on each other. I think this is one type of play where that just won’t do.
5) Some moments are often much more literal than you think. Some things that seem surreal should be played as absolute realism.
6) Shepard might be comparable to Shakespeare and Chekhov. While both of their language is grandiose, it is important that you stay grounded. Because both offer a large amount of text, you cannot get too thoughtful. You must act on the line. Both demand incredible specificity that is not being spoon fed by the text. It takes personal investment and inventiveness. Lastly, both require incredible attention to point-of-view on every moment, idea, and character. Shepard requires absolutely all of these in much the same fashion.
7) When all else fails, just say his words. There is some reason out there people have been so celebratory of Shepard’s work. His words are one of his most unique features. Just say them.

That’s all I got for now.2014-02-26 22.11.16

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