Part One - Where it All Began
Saturday 22nd February 2014 10.06am Heathrow, London
Since discovering a short play by Sam Shepard as part of an anthology in a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road a few days after moving from Edinburgh to start at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, I have longed to experience his world. I was nineteen then. I am now thirty-seven. I have that short play Slave of the Camera with me still, torn out of the book - clearly it was the only one that I thought worth keeping - and tucked into my copy of his book of stories Great Dream of Heaven. It is scrawled over by the drama student me from when my friend Christopher Naylor directed me in an excerpt from it in our second year at LAMDA, with phrases such as "build the energy," "stress l's & r's," "what are they doing to my country!" and "SUDDENLY!"
I was able to experience Shepard's world more fully in 2011 when Ramin Gray of Actors Touring Company encouraged me to finally try out a long half-formed idea of creating a piece of theatre out of Sam's short stories and poems, bought and absorbed over the intervening years. Ramin put me in touch with Simon Usher, himself a long-time admirer of Shepard who had also worked with Sam's collaborator and guide Joseph Chaikin. We tracked down Ben Kritikos of the band Herons! and with the actors David Beames and Annabel Capper we presented a rough, loud, hard assault on Shepard's works with Ben's music counterpointing them throughout, the four of us Making the Sound of Loneliness one night before a performance of ATC's The Golden Dragon. Uneven though it was we knew we had something and within a few months we were back in a rehearsal room with Paul Hamilton stepping into David's shoes, and with a week in which to shape the material ready for that year's Latitude Festival.
At the festival our final rehearsals took place under a tree while we sheltered from the constant rain. Our first performance took place in a cavernous circus tent where we hurled the stories into a black void unable to tell if anyone was actually there or not. The next day though we performed a show in the woods that confirmed all my belief in the project. Outside, with the sun shining we played to a group of festival-goers who stayed with us throughout despite all the music, comedy, film and festival high-jinks that was happening around them.
At some point in the relief that followed Simon and me said that one day we should do a full Sam Shepard play together, and now over a year and a half later we are. In fact a full Sam Shepard Roadshow, CHORALE - two films Savage/Love and Tongues, a workshop, a gig by Ben, the plays The Holy Ghostly and The War in Heaven which Shepard co-wrote with Joseph Chaikin, as well as The Animal (You), a brand new version of Making the Sound of Loneliness.
And now I am about to experience Sam Shepard's world for real. Some weeks ago I booked myself a return flight to Los Angeles, a place I have never been to, with only that fantastical version in my head that we all carry. As the plane now taxis towards take-off I can feel this odd mix of exitement and nervousness surge up. Every time I gave my destination as L.A. in W.H. Smiths or Dixons at the airport it just didn't sound real. The plan is four days in L.A., then Duarte where Sam spent his teenage years before heading out to the desert town of 29 Palms.
Two weeks to soak it all up in preparation for the Roadshow. Here we go.
The screen in front of me shows a small white outline of an areoplane and a dotted line pointing far away to Los Angeles, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in green and brown, and a small white square with one word in yellow - Inverness. I was speaking to the Eden Court theatre there only days before, really happy that they wanted to mount CHORALE as part of the tour. It already seems a long, long way away.
Notes made on the plane taken from Sam's book Motel Chronicles , in search of his family home - "The road looked clean and deadly." DUARTE? Home - Teenager. Tomato plants in back yard. "The momentum running down." Mum, Dad, younger sister. Arroyo Seco - Duarte? "hills" - aqueduct to LA. Imagines LA - "Palm Trees set against a background of snowy mountains with orange groves sprawling beneath them. The Train Station with a burro standing in front of it, harnessed to a cart." House - red awning, garage door, strip of lawn on driveway. School - dirt playground - South Pasadena come out Sierra Madre. Orocopia Mountains. San Bernadino - San Diego. Deodor Pines? DUARTE - "a town of solid white folk" Rialto Theatre? "People here..." "heart breaking hunger for the land outside the window."
One thing that I do share with Sam Shepard is a deep dislike of flying. I get sick thinking of it as the day approaches. This flight so far has been alright though. I read and then watch two films, which always alleviates the sick feeling. I've even slept and find myself thrilled and bewildered going through my guide book to Hollywood.
Travelled 8553 km. Altitude of 31,264 ft. Time to Destination 06 hrs 24 mins
Next: Part Two - Los Angeles