American Life in Art: Sam Shepard

by Maggie Kissinger

“The reason I began writing plays was the hope of extending the sensation of play (as in ‘kid’) on into adult life. If ‘play’ becomes ‘labor,’ why play?” —Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard was one of America’s most prolific playwrights, penning some of the country’s most haunting and beloved plays. His body of work spanned nearly half a century, transforming the American theater landscape by questioning its very nature and confronting values that have been immortalized through myth. No playwright has managed to put more of American culture on-stage before or since.
Shepard got his start in the Off-Off Broadway movement that began in the 1960s. This revolutionary scene was perfect for Shepard, for he was not the kind of playwright who followed convention for the sake of it. He demanded that theater accept him on his own terms. He became a cult figure in the OOB movement, which was known for producing work that presented an often nightmarish America where myth collides with reality.
Despite his indifference to commercial theater, Shepard won 10 Obie Awards, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Buried Child, and the 1986 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for A Lie of the Mind. Shepard also appeared in over 30 films, some in acclaimed roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).

The acclaimed actor and playwright died on July 27, 2017 in his home in Kentucky due to complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.



Maggie Kissinger is a dramaturg and teaching artist living in New York City. She served as an Artistic Learning Intern with the Cal Shakes Conservatory this past summer.
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