Blog About the Playwright — Sam Shepard
Apr 11, 2024

About the Playwright — Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard has been described by New York Magazine as “the greatest American playwright of his generation,” a description earned as a result of several successful works he created. Gruff, gritty, and bold, Shepard’s work stands out amongst the peers of his time. “He was Tarantino, before Tarantino,” said Kasser Family Artistic Director Matt August. It’s almost hard to believe that this was not always the path for him.

Born in 1943, Shepard was the first of three children in what would become a dysfunctional family unit. His father, a former bomber pilot in World War II and an army officer, was an aggressive alcoholic, while his mother was a mild teacher. The family, like many other military families, moved from place to place based on assignments. This shaky foundation laid the groundwork for Shepard’s dark and abstract plays.

As he grew into adolescence, he took to farming and worked on a ranch during his teenage years. He had also gained an interest in acting and writing, although they were more hobbies than pursuits. As college quickly approached, Shepard set his sights on studying animal husbandry – the general care and raising of livestock. Yet, the creative forces of jazz, expressionism, and Samuel Beckett enticed him to explore new horizons. So, when a touring company came through town, he up and left with them.

Eventually, Shepard made his way to New York and, like so many struggling artists, served as a busboy at a diner. He dug his heels in and got to work. The rest is history.

In 1966, he received a grant from the University of Minnesota and went on to make history as the first person to earn three OBIE Awards in one year. The following year, Shepard earned yet another OBIE Award for his play La Turista. And by 1968, he would hold six OBIE Awards under his belt.

His career progressed and his creative genius expanded beyond the theatre world and into the film and television industry, when he starred as the lead in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. From then on, Shepard cleverly navigated the grand expanse of the entertainment industry, both writing and starring in productions. Some notable appearances include Steel Magnolias (1989), The Pelican Brief (1993), The Notebook (2004), and August: Osage County (2013).

Shepard went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play in 1978 for Buried Child and was nominated for an Academy Award for his work as an actor in The Right Stuff in 1983.

Despite the demand for Shepard as an actor, he continued to deliver thrilling and edgy plays such as 1980’s True West, considered by some to be the final component of Shepard’s “Family Trilogy” of tragedies. However, unlike many of his other works, True West follows a more traditional narrative to emphasize the rivalry between brothers. True West received Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Revival of a Play. Additionally, it has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Play.

Sam Shepard passed away on July 27, 2017, but his legacy lives on through his timeless works, which continue to be performed and studied by theater artists and audiences alike. Throughout his career, Shepard continued to push the boundaries of theatre and explore new forms and styles. His impact on American theater is undeniable, and he will be remembered as one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century.