The Road’s What Counts: Interview with Jack Tarlton and Simon Usher by Alex Ramon for British Theatre Guide
On a rainy night in California: Sam Shepard and Duarte
On a recent rainy night in California, Jack Tarlton was in Duarte, the town where Sam Shepard spent his formative years. And, following a little detective work, the actor found himself at Shepard’s old house.
“After some slight hesitation, the current owners welcomed me in,” Tarlton tells me, seemingly still surprised by the hospitality he received. “I mean, I was just a complete stranger who’d turned up on a bike at their house in the middle of a rainstorm on a Saturday evening.
"They confirmed that it was the Shepard family home, showed me around, and told me stories of him leaving home to go to New York. They were incredibly friendly. They didn't know that their house features in some of his short stories so I promised to send them a copy of one of his books.”
The visit was part of a personal research trip undertaken by Tarlton as preparation for CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow, the new project which the actor has developed with director Simon Usher for their Presence Theatre company, and which takes to the road for a tour of the UK from May.
This ambitious venture will introduce audiences to seldom-seen Shepard plays as well as premièring a new piece, The Animal (You), fashioned by Tarlton and Usher from a wide selection of Shepard’s short stories. The Roadshow will also encompass music (Ben Kritikos of the band Herons! has composed a score for the productions and will perform gigs post-show), rare screenings of Shirley Clarke’s films of Savage/Love and Tongues and a series of interactive workshops.
“In a way, the idea for CHORALE is really of a residency as much as a touring show,” Usher explained when I met with him and Tarlton to discuss the project. “We turn up at a theatre and present a range of shows and also do some activities with people during the day. Of course you want audiences to have an emotional reaction to the work, and there’s plenty in these plays to provide that. But at the same time you want people to engage in other ways too.”
“So wherever we play two dates or more we’ll do workshops,” Tarlton adds. “We’ll start by screening the film Tongues, and then participants will go on to create a short performance inspired by the film’s themes.”
Beginnings of CHORALE
A co-production between Presence Theatre and Actors Touring Company in association with Belgrade Theatre, CHORALE actually began life at the Arcola in London in 2011, with a one-off performance called Making the Sound of Loneliness. Tarlton was performing in Actors Touring Company’s production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon at the time, and ATC’s director Ramin Gray encouraged the cast to each present a piece before or after the evening’s show. Tarlton had harboured the hope of “doing something” with Shepard’s stories for years and this proved a perfect opportunity.
“We presented a very rough version [at the Arcola] but it seemed to work and we felt that we had something,” he says. The show was then commissioned and restaged for the 2012 Latitude Festival where it received an enthusiastic reception, leading to the most ambitious incarnation yet in CHORALE.
“The road’s what counts. Just look at the road,” remarks a character in Shepard’s 1972 play The Tooth of Crime. And the notion of a roadshow does seem particularly appropriate for Shepard, a writer for whom the seductions and dangers of the road have always been central preoccupations. With its evocations of deserts, highways and motel rooms, lost souls, hard drinkers and fractious, fractured families, Shepard’s work feels quintessentially American. Are there particular challenges for a British company in presenting it?
“Directing American plays is challenging,” Usher admits. “There’s a certain energy in Shepard’s work that’s not necessarily in the English rhythm of doing things. And it’s much more about the rhythm than just getting the accent right.”
“That’s one of the reasons I spent two weeks in California,” says Tarlton. “It was about living there and absorbing small-town America, going to Duarte and then into the desert on the edge of Joshua Tree and walking for four or five hours a day. And also just going and sitting in bars and talking to people.
“The other thing, though, is where do you go to research Shepard? In his work he traverses the whole continent. But going to Duarte seemed to make complete sense because it’s informed so much of his writing, this place that he ran away from. I think that what we all run away from informs our adult lives far more than we think.”
Asked how he first discovered Shepard’s writing, Usher recalls that he was “a big fan of the American poets of the 60s, of the Beats, the New York poets and also of American music. So Shepard was very much in the picture. I liked theatre but I didn’t like mainstream theatre. I was into the New York avant-garde and Shepard was part of that scene. I liked the disregard for theatrical convention in his work, and that he wrote plays that were like rock songs.”
Tarlton first came to Shepard’s writing primarily through his short stories. “I just loved the world that he created there and the wonderful detail. He can make going to a motel room for the night sound exciting and sexy, and make you feel that anything can happen. There’s something inherently cool about those stories.
“But you go back and read them again and see that there’s a lot of pain and fear that’s being masked. In his most recent collection, Day Out of Days, he lets that out, the mask slips.” Since The Animal (You) interweaves pieces from the range of Shepard’s short story collections, audiences will experience a unique take on the development of Shepard’s voice in CHORALE with, as Usher puts it, “the mature voice talking to a youthful, exuberant one.”
The Roadshow will supplement Tarlton’s dramatisation of the short stories in The Animal (You) with productions of two Shepard plays: 1968’s The Holy Ghostly (which hasn’t been produced in London since its 1973 King’s Head première) and 1985’s The War in Heaven.
Father and son and Joseph Chaikin
Shepard’s early plays, Tarlton remarks, are “extraordinary and some of them are quite insane. He doesn’t seem constrained by logic, and he’ll often pursue a visual metaphor. You also get these sudden transformations of character. The Holy Ghostly combines the best of his dialogue writing with that wonderful wild side. It’s his ghost story, about a father and son in the desert trying to destroy the ghost of this Navajo demon. It’s short and sharp and really funny. There’s such an energy to it, and you can feel Shepard’s joy in discovering his craft in this early work.
“So much of his writing is informed by the relationship between father and son. The stories are autobiographical in some sense. However, it’s very easy but also very dangerous to read them all as autobiography. Even the most autobiographical ones are filtered through fiction somehow.”
Another important ghostly and fatherly presence in the Roadshow is that of the actor/director Joseph Chaikin, Shepard’s mentor and collaborator on The War in Heaven. This poetic monologue was in development when Chaikin suffered a major stroke and, afterwards, “became the means by which he reconstructed his ability to speak and to use language” says Usher, who directed Chaikin in the UK première of the piece in 1987.
“There was something about Chaikin’s acting that was different from anything I’d seen before,” the director recalls with palpable emotion. “It was almost Gnostic: he seemed to be in touch with forces larger than the individual self. It felt like he touched the inside with every word.
“The beautiful thing is that Chaikin was at his strongest in Beckett and had this close, intense relationship with Beckett, professionally and personally. And The War in Heaven is Chaikin’s gift back to Beckett, in a way. It’s a monologue that contains many voices, in which you get the inside and the outside of the person simultaneously. It’s a beautiful work and something I really wanted to revisit.” Chaikin died in 2003, but CHORALE audiences can experience his performances through the screenings of Clarke’s films of Savage/Love and Tongues which will be included in the Roadshow and explored in the workshops.
“We want CHORALE to be as multi-disciplinary as possible,” Tarlton affirms. “And we don’t want it to be a passive experience for the audience. We hope that people will experience a whole range of things, and that we’ll be able to present a huge range of Shepard’s writing, and Joe Chaikin’s work, and see how it can transcend genre and even form. And because it’s a double-bill, where we do two nights or more, people can come and see one set of shows one night and then experience something completely different the next.
“We’re also doing work with Connect, the charity supporting people who are living with aphasia, because of the connection with Chaikin. We hope to do workshops focusing on aphasia and communication, as well as a fundraiser night for the charity at the Bussey Building.”
With the possibility of an extended autumn and winter tour being discussed, do Tarlton and Usher see the Roadshow as something that will continue to evolve and develop and transform as it progresses?
“We hope so,” Usher says. “With Presence, we want to think about working long-term and really developing stuff. A problem with theatre in this country is that everything’s so short-term. Things aren’t always developed to anything like the potential they could be. That’s because of the whole way the business works. But there’s so much more that you can do.
"So the concept of a Roadshow does suggest longevity. And also the possibility of absorbing all kinds of related particles as well, which might be Shepard-related or Chaikin-related or Herons!-related.”
“It could well be that it gradually evolves into something different,” Tarlton agrees. “We’ll discover out on the road.”
CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow will tour to the following venues: Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (10-17 May), Rhoda McGaw Theatre, Woking (23-24 May), Òran Mór, Glasgow (28 May), Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (30-31 May), The Poly, Falmouth (5 June), The Acorn, Penzance (6 June), Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (12-13 June), the CLF Art Café at the Bussey Building, London (16-28 June), and Dugdale Art Centre, Enfield (3-4 July).
Read the original interview at British Theatre Guide With thanks to David Chadderton.
Read more interviews and reviews from Alex Ramon at Boycotting Trends