Word for Word Reimagines Sam Shepard Stories

by Jean Schiffman

The esteemed literary-theatrical company presents “36 Stories,” drawn from several of Sam Shepard’s short stories.

When the San Francisco company Word for Word wanted to work its literary-theatrical magic on Sam Shepard’s fiction—staging his prose verbatim—Shepard said he considered short stories a unique literary genre and when he wants to write a play, he writes a play. “Why should I let you do this?” he asked. “He liked the narrative voice of his prose and didn’t want to lose it,” explains longtime Word for Word actor/director Amy Kossow. She promised Shepard, “You won’t.”

After watching Word’s production of Siobhan Fallon’s “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” Shepard gave the company the go-ahead. Kossow adapted and is directing “36 Stories by Sam Shepard,” opening this month with a stellar cast of Word regulars and local stars.

The 20-year-old troupe brings literary stories to the stage verbatim, assigning the narrative—he saids, she saids and descriptive text—to various characters, animals or even inanimate objects, all in the most revelatory and imaginative ways. As Kossow says, “Sometimes the trees will have an opinion, sometimes the wardrobe will tell you what you look like.” “36 Stories” veers slightly from the company’s usual approach, though; Kossow selected material from five Shepard books (“Hawk Moon,” “Motel Chronicles,” “Day Out of Days,” “Great Dream of Heaven” and “Cruising Paradise”), mixing and matching the various pieces of writing to form a cohesive whole that’s as tightly constructed as a play.

She was initially intimidated by the project, first suggested by Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco. “He’s a horseback-riding cowboy, a women-loving guy,” says Kussow, of Shepard. “He writes in an unadorned, masculine, powerful way.… I thought, you have to be a guy to get this. But you don’t. You have to be a human.” At the time, the company was performing stories by early-20th-century writer Zona Gale, “which couldn’t be more girly,” says Kossow, “spending a year on this domestic drama, in big skirts.” She began grappling with Shepard’s 36-plus stories to find the focus, the path to interweaving and connecting his distinctly offbeat yet simply told and often lyrical tales of life in the American West. Because Shepard’s stories so frequently mention Denny’s restaurants and motels, Kossow discovered that her way in was through those two main settings; to imagine a 24-hour period in which a nameless, Sam Shepardesque writer (played by Rod Gnapp) with a notebook and pen is constantly observing and scribbling to fire his imagination and co-opting snippets of overheard conversations in the diner, news reports on TV, popular music on the radio; repurposing landscapes and human interactions.

“So that’s the action of the play,” explains Kossow, “a writer trying to finish a story, and the way he does it is this sideways, Sam Shepard glance of stealing what’s nearby and putting it somewhere.” She started out by typing Shepard’s five books into her computer and then spreading the printed pages out all over her office, organizing them into categories: stories about horses, families, birds, sex, drugs, rock and roll and murder, plus straight-up poems. She discarded all the family and the road-trip ones (“I feel his plays cover one, and Jack Kerouac covered the other”). What remained was “the mystical stuff, the nature stuff, murder, the Southwest” as well as tiny, humorous bits, seeming non-sequiturs, which she slipped in here and there, putting them in the mouths of characters in the writer’s actual world or in his writerly mind.

Kussow compares the process of picking and choosing, ordering and re-ordering the elements of the stories and fragments of dialogue, to a game of pick-up sticks: picking up a tidbit for a minute, putting it back down, delicately picking up another one. “That’s two hard things to do at the same time,” she muses, “to construct a narrative and also let it be a little wild and wooly. I kept changing the order over and over again, letting [Shepard’s writing] guide me. He’s wildly free—what images he puts together are

both really concrete and really free.”

The plot of sorts came to her by way of one particular story. “Police find 11 headless bodies outside Phoenix,” wrote Shepard. Kossow put those words into the mouth of a TV anchorman that the writer is watching in his motel room. The writer switches channels, but later begins to write, muttering aloud: “A man stares into a ditch. There it is. He’s staring straight at it. A severed head in a wicker basket.” The scene materializes as the head (Carl Lumbly) speaks: “The head asks the man if he’ll kindly pick up the basket and carry it to a place it would prefer to be. A tranquil place not too far from here, away from the pounding sun and roar of traffic.”

Shepard split the conversation between the man and the head into five pieces over the course of “Day Out of Days,” and Kossow realized that those fits and starts were her key to assembling a cohesive play. “Why is the writer stuck?” she wondered. “What does he need to steal from his daily life to fuel finishing this story? That was the spine of the organization of his story. And that became my abiding question over the two years I worked on this—why did Shepard split that story up, and how can I make the audience care about finishing that story?”

She also made some rules for herself about how the action would play out onstage. “If the writer is a real person,” she says—and he is—“then everyone else needs to be a real person in that motel and in the Denny’s diner world.” So, the same way that in “The Wizard of Oz” the real people of Dorothy’s Kansas world morph into the characters in Oz, so do the very real scenes, objects and people of the writer’s world provide fodder for the stories he’s writing. Thus a waitress at Denny’s (JoAnne Winter) becomes the central figure in a story about a woman in a car with an urn full of her mother’s ashes on the seat next to her. In fact, the urn itself might be the ice bucket in the motel. “It’s all about [the writer] stealing something and casting it in its next incarnation,” says Kussow. A blown tire on the side of the highway might become the wing of the hawk (Lumbly again) that the woman in the car accidentally runs over on the way to the columbarium with her mother’s ashes. Even the dead mother is assigned a few lines of text.

Kussow did take liberties with the character of a hunter/mercenary—first seen by the writer as a passerby on a cell phone—by changing him into a woman (Delia MacDougall). “I couldn’t follow a Sam-like writer on a Sam-like journey without a sexy girl,” she says.

For her part, MacDougall, another longtime Word for Word member, says she did extensive research

on female hunters, although not on female mercenaries. “I believe a woman can do anything a man can do,” she says. “But killing things is a tricky one.”

She and company cofounder (with Susan Harloe) Winter agree that the “36 Stories” approach to creating a Word performance is a new and exciting one. “This is a first for us, stringing stories together to make a plot,” says MacDougall. She adds, “We like to go to the dark side now and then. Sam Shepard is this American isolationist, this man on his own.” Observes Winter, “His prose and his poetry are so different [than his plays]. You’ll recognize the writing as his but he gets a little deeper with the imagery, the language. The plays are more about character and relationship.” She loves the notion of telling a story through the musicality that Shepard’s words conjure.

In “36 Stories,” the writer has a long monologue close to the end. “Shepard has written poetry and diary sequences yelling at himself, telling himself to get on with it, do your work,” observes Kussow. “I stole all of that for the end and gave [the text] to a bunch of different people.” She put these words in the mouth of the cook at Denny’s:

“Now let me get this straight

You say

You’re tortured because you can’t write


You can’t write because you’re tortured

Now lemme say one thing

Your despair is more boring

Than the Merv Griffin Show

Get off your tail and cook

Do time


But don’t burn mine.”

“In a different way from his plays, this is really personal writing,” concludes Kussow, “so honest, not fussy. It’s so extraordinary to see him writing outside the genre we know him in.… Aren’t you astonished he has such power with so few words?”

May 21-June 22

Z Below

470 Florida St., 866/811-4111