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Books Theater

“The War in Heaven”: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Monday, July 31, 2017
In Memory of Two Poets of the Theater: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

In addition to canonical favorites such as Ibsen, Pirandello, and Strindberg, I had been primarily reading contemporary playwrights such as Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter when I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 20. In the winter of 1969, a graduate student named Lynn (“Scotty”) Mason at UCLA posted an announcement that she was casting actors for a student production of a one-act play entitled Icarus’s Mother by Sam Shepard. I had not heard of Shepard or this play, but was fortunate enough to be cast in the role of Frank, the man who recounts an apocalyptic vision as a holiday picnic implodes. It was a prose poem of a high order, and I began to read as much of Shepard’s writing as I could get my hands on, as well as other playwrights he was aligned with. By chance, during the summer of 1969, I acted in a student production of Futz and took a course that concentrated on off-off-broadway playwrights, during which I became familiar with the work of Rochelle Owens, Megan Terry, Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Lanford Wilson, and Jean-Claude Italie. Along with other students dissatisfied with the kind of plays the theater department was presenting on its main stage, I formed a theater group called “The Fifth Corner” and we rehearsed off-campus for our adaptation of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Flee on Your Donkey.” After graduation I went on to act with two other theater groups in Los Angeles, one of which included OOB playwright Robert Patrick’s Cheep Theatrics, starring Julie Kavner (future voice of Marge Simpson).

I never again acted in a play by Shepard, although I certainly saw enough productions of his plays. As famous as he was among theater people, one must understand that public attention and interest in Shepard’s work in the mid-1970s was relatively muted. I remember a production of Curse of the Starving Class at a small theater in Hollywood in the late 1970s, for instance, in which only half the seats were filled, and the same was true of a production of Action at the Burbage Theater around that time. In many ways, it was the devotion of working people in the small theaters who made the case for Shepard’s writing, and not just theaters in New York. The importance of theaters in California is most particularly evident in Shepard’s development, for it was during his residence in Northern California that he began come to terms with his youth in Southern California.

The people I know who worked with him all bespoke of his influence in their lives as well as their work, and I would not be the writer I am today without having encountered writers such as Walter Hadler and Murray Mednick at the Padua Hills Theater Workshop in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shepard himself taught at the first gathering of that group of playwrights, and had a play he wrote called Red Woman produced there. Padua Hills remains for me the quintessential quest to understand what it is that makes theater theater and not just an entertaining game of “let’s pretend.” Its direct impact on my poetry and poetics is impossible to overemphasize.

The poet William Matthews once observed that there is more talent on exhibit at age 30 in any given generation than achievement at age 60. I suppose that’s one way of separating the highest levels of accomplishment from the merely competent, for not only had Shepard produced a memorable body of work by age 60, one of his very best plays had its premiere performance the month before he turned 61. I saw a production of The God of Hell at the Geffin Playhouse in the summer of 2006, and it only reinforced my belief in his capacity to see into the interstices of human contradictions in a manner befitting a major artist.

It should be mentioned that Sam Shepard was not the only person in his birth family who worked in theater. His sister, Roxanne Rogers, is also a playwright and director as well as an actress. I saw one of her plays, directed by Ivan Spiegel, at the Burbage Theater in West Los Angeles, after it moved from Pico Blvd. to Centinela. After the play was over, I went backstage to talk to Ivan, and we found ourselves in the alley behind the theater. Roxanne joined the group with an older woman whose blue eyes registered a singularly discerning glow. “This is Roxanne’s mother,” Ivan said. We talked briefly, and all the while I had to withstand the temptation to tell her how much her son’s plays meant to me; but it was Roxanne’s evening, and I focused on her play, which had had a scene in a loft built on the stage that made the voices and lines of the characters ricochet back and forth the stage, as if some pent up realization were emerging from a thicket. You can find an article about Roxanne Rogers’s direction of Murray Mednick’s play, “Mrs. Feurstein,” at:

Mrs. Feuerstein

Shepard, however, is not the only loss that the theater world has gotten news about: Steve Kent has also died, and not nearly enough has been said about his contribution to theater in Los Angeles and other areas of the country. Kent was one of the founders of the Company Theater and the Provision Theater, which staged plays in the late 1960s and 1970s that still glow in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been present. Anyone who took part in The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater or who saw The Emergence knew that what it meant for the audience to be part of the conscious journey of performed vision. Steve Kent was a brilliant director, and he is enshrined in my heart every bit as much as the author of Angel City and the The Tooth of Crime.

Indeed, both Shepard and Kent shared a common collaborator, Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater. Kent adapted Beckett’s writing into a brilliant stage piece (Texts) as well as worked with Chaikin’s on Shepard’s The War in Heaven, which Shepard specifically wrote for Chaikin. To speak of the sadness I feel in Shepard’s passing is inseparable from the jolting pang of Steve Kent’s death.

I sit in silent homage.

Director, Educator, Activist Steven Kent (1943-2017)



Books Music Poetry

The Thingz (Part Two) – Flem Snopes and Imperial Beach

MONDAY, June 24, 2013

Yesterday, Linda and I drove down to Imperial Beach to see my mother. Technically, she doesn’t live in Imperial Beach anymore. The far eastern portion of the “most southwesterly city in the United States” was annexed by San Diego a couple of decades ago, but the house I lived in when I graduated from high school was in Imperial Beach in the mid-1960s and it’s hard for me to think of it as otherwise.

On the way down, Linda and I listened to several CDs, a couple of old favorites (Bob Dylan’s LOVE AND THEFT; Dire Straits BROTHERS IN ARMS). We also played the first album by The Thingz. Much to my surprise, one of the songs contained a reference to Imperial Beach. It’s one thing for Patti Smith to entitle a song “Redondo Beach”; it’s near enough Los Angeles to have some of L.A.’s peripheral aura adhere to RB’s reclusive sense of self-possessiveness. Imperial Beach, on the other hand, has no access to anything other than military culture whatsoever, and no one who lives in San Diego has any interest in pretending otherwise.  To have the closest thing I ever had in my peripatetic childhood to a hometown mentioned in a pop song, therefore, caught me completely off-guard. The song, “Wine Country Safari,” begins in Long Beach:


Made a wrong turn on 10th street

And I lost my way

Turned down a blind alley

Heard someone say


wine country safari

wine country safari

you’re in whine country

where the winos go


drove down the 5 freeway

nothing else to do

ended up in Imperial Beach

guess I missed the zoo.


But it wasn’t the mention of Imperial Beach that made me want to photocopy the lyric sheet and pass it around to my colleagues in Literature at CSULB. Right next to “Wine Country Safari” is a song entitled “Flem Snopes.” I would have loved to have heard that song this past Saturday, and I hope The Thingz will consider it a personal request to play this song at their next concert.

For those who have yet to visit Imperial Beach, I would recommend digging into the New York Times archives for an article in 2002 on bow and arrow fishing from the public pier in Imperial Beach. In the third paragraph, the reporter cited “the town’s rough-and-tumble character.” When I read the article a little over ten years ago, I wondered what terms the reporter would have used to describe the city back in the 1960s, when “rough-and-tumble” would have been taken as an insult that demeaned the city’s well-earned nickname of “Whiskey Flats.” The reporter obviously had no idea of how far up the food chain the city had climbed in order to achieve the status of “rough-and-tumble.” As for imagining a story about a person who might run a bait shop on the pier, by the way, why not make use of a little loan from William Faulkner, in the song I mentioned above?

Here’s the link: