Growing up within close proximity to Chicago, the Steppenwolf production of True West was an important play for me and probably my introduction to the world of Sam Shepard. I recorded the PBS airing (on a VCR) and wore out the tape, virtually memorizing Gary Sinise and John Malkovich’s definitive performances. None of my community theater experience had exposed me to anything so real, so raw, or so close to home. It was the kind of acting I wanted to see and wished that I could do. In college, I recall many hours sitting on the floor of the library, pouring over Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind and Buried Child. If I wanted to lose myself, that was how I did it. Sam wrote about things that shocked me…not because they were unfamiliar but because of how deeply and intimately I understood the secrets he brought into the light.
Sam also tapped into a restlessness that seemed to overtake me on a regular basis, especially when I was younger. There were many nights when I had to talk myself out of walking out of my shared house, getting in the beater car that probably wouldn’t have made it to the state line, and just driving west without stopping or telling anyone where I was going. I craved the wild deserts and gritty, open spaces that he constructed…knowing, somehow, that space had an intangible quality that could fill me up inside.
My first directing effort was a production of Waiting for Godot that, in my mind, was an homage to Sam’s world of weary cowboys and empty landscapes. I still feel that it’s a perfect marriage of playwrights. One of my only rewarding acting experiences in college was a production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand, directed by a close friend. It felt like a breakthrough in many respects: I was afforded a rare opportunity to perform, I finally got to experience some growth as an actor, and the material was something that resonated with me.
The summer I battled those incessant urges to flee west, I directed my own version of True West in a found church space. To this day, I don’t know how I did everything I was doing at time: working full-time as a live-in nanny for two pre-schoolers, working open-to-close on Saturdays and Sundays at a physically exhausting car wash, taking a semester of French and a semester of Algebra (with tutoring on the side) and directing that demanding play. I remember combing through antique shops for beautiful electric typewriters that got destroyed (along with my heart) with a golf club during every performance. And there’s a story that lives in infamy among my circle of friends: The guys in the show were goofing around with said golf club one night after I’d left rehearsal. It slipped out of someone’s hand, flew through the air, and smashed a hole in one of the upper-story stained glass windows. The guys spent frantic midnight hours running to the store, cutting up milk jugs (I believe), painting the plastic with watercolors and trying to patch up and hide their mistake. I didn’t learn about the mishap until years later, and the church never allowed another theater group to use their space after they must have discovered the secret. But it seems so darkly funny and appropriate that it happened in Sam’s creative territory.
Years later, I was in L.A., at the start of my attempt to return to acting. I was terrified to try–yet unable to stay away from–the thing I loved most in the world. I didn’t know if I could do it; I had never known if I could. I found a class with a teacher who was the first person in my professional life to tell me that it was possible. And one of my earliest breakthroughs as an actor came in a scene from Fool for Love. There was a moment when active listening took over, when I fell into the unknown, and when I allowed that powerful beast of a play to have it’s way with me. I had never before felt that kind of energy take me over, and it was a light-bulb moment that laid a foundation I was able to build upon in the years to come. I don’t know if anyone but Sam could have facilitated such a creative surrender during that time of my life.
And now, present day, I’m in development on my own feature film. The very first conversations I had with my screenwriter contained multiple references to Sam. I knew I could trust this writer’s taste because she loved him, too, and understood the tone of the story I wanted to tell, which remains profoundly under Sam’s influence.
If I’d known Sam Shepard personally, I’m sure I would have known an imperfect and complicated man. He wrote about the kind of world so many of us have struggled to grow up in…a world of secrets, shame, aimless wandering, confusion and desire. He defined the human condition on his own unique yet universal terms. I know that so many of us must feel less alone, less freakish, because of his singular and achingly beautiful art. I will miss knowing that he’s out there in that world with us.
This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.