True to his World. Shepard’s Theatrical Reality

IMG_0331I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. A fellow fan and friend of mine is always concerned that a SciFi show be true to its own cosmic laws and reality. The best sci fi TV does not really need to access our laws of physics or our social constructs but rather must live consistently within the laws the show promulgates. When a series cheats its own reality, the core ideas crumble. This happened to shows like Heroes and Lost while it did not to Looper and Battlestar Gallactica.

When a play or movie feels real, we just think that it is happening in our reality. When the world does not look like science fiction we figure it is grounded in our world.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child begins in what appears to be the real world. The characters seem fairly realistic. The conversation is resonate of a conversation between a married couple. They talk about real things like horse racing and affairs. They are simply people talking, lying, full of piss and vinegar. Then Tilden enters. Suddenly there is magic.wpid-20140318_203401.jpgThere is corn growing in the yard which only one character can see, or at least has noticed. The events of the play begin to come off of the rails. But the reality has not changed, we are just gaining insight into the happenings of the world.

The laws of this universe are consistent. The laws of this universe are consistent.. The appearance of crops from “nowhere” is in tune with the events at the end of the play

As we work on the play, the actors have been saying…why am I doing this? And the answer is often…”we’ll not for a logical reason from our world.” You need to be living in Shepard’s world. I know they want to have some legitimate motivation or action but those motivations must be legitimate for the universe Shepard has created, not our cosmos.

wpid-20140309_163345.jpgHis world has specific theatrical laws that trump simple causative human relationships. The characters are symbols but more importantly, they fulfill symbolic positions in the play. They are unaware of that role as a character in the play but they are bound up in the symbolic position they inhabit. You can’t really play,” you’re a symbol” unless we are in a more blatantly absurdist piece. The actors need to play real emotions. This conflict is one of the challenges for an actor in one of Shepard’s imagined worlds.

These laws of the universe of Buried Child also require that the actors live in the physics of their character’s role. The archetype each character represents is either defining or limiting the actor’s range of choices as well as the emotional interactions.

For the actor, that limits the verbs they can access, it limits the objectives they can have and it alters the emotional reactions they can play. They must let more of themselves go than in a more realistic piece. They cannot assuredly rely on their personal perspective as source material choices.

In the hands of a lesser playwright, these laws of character physics would be impossible to play. The world, the foundations of the character, must integrate honestly with the physics of character and theatrical universe. The line through of the universal and character laws must be absolute even in the flexibility of Shepard’s three act construction in Buried Child.

The Tooth of Crime is another example of this concept. The play, a rock musical, takes place in an imagined future where rock and roll and car battles determine power and position. Shepard’s tale of fame and American personality culture is prophetic. The play is not in our world, there are rules that are natural to the magical world of Tooth. The battles are poetic, rap battles predating poetry slams. Words have the power to destroy. The actor cannot use our reality to motivate the physical pain from the poetry. The characters (and actors) can make legitimate personal choices but at the same time, they are driven by the needs of the play cosmos.

As one reads the Buried Child, each of the three acts seems like different entities and yet as we have moved forward in rehearsal, the underlying consistency has become clearer. The reality of all three acts is  grounded in cosmic laws of Shepard’s world.

wpid-20140317_210148.jpgFor an audience, suspension of disbelief is critical with Shepard. They must enter the theater with the openness to accept what the play is doing and not limiting the truth of the play by virtue of our reality. It is a big ask from the playwright and company producing but is fruitful if adhered to. For our production of The Tooth of Crime almost 25 years ago, we populated the lobby with music videos of the characters and video news and interviews which helped to create the reality of that world on stage. For Buried Child, our preshow is rain….and lots of it. As you enter the theatre you enter Shepard’s universe and must be subject to its laws.

Shepard’s work can clearly be placed in the genre, or at least in the context of, with Magical Realism, works like those of Marquez, Allende, Murakami, Yoshimoto and Kinsella. Those works have the same sense of the unreal and yet have magical laws that legitimize the action of the stories to support our suspension of disbelief. We need to trust the cosmos of Like Water for Chocolate to accept a world where eating blood enriched food makes one infected with the passion of the baker.

Shepard is making the rules in his universe and it is not our universe. The laws of relational and spiritual physics are unique to his theatrical universe and yet they are completely consistent within the countries of each play. Exploring those universal laws is one of the pleasures of working on Shepard but it is also where we must suspend our disbelief to embrace the higher pleasure of this wonderful writer.

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