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.
One of the first films I viewed for this #52FilmsByWomen pledge was set in Death Valley and now I close out this year with another foray into that landscape. DESERTED is not an easy film because most of its characters are not particularly likable, including the protagonist. However, I found it a worthy watch because the characters are real, the dialogue and performances are so natural and the direction and photography of the film is stunning.
The story follows a group of people who I would never want to hang out with in life but I certainly know them and have crossed paths with these people many times. It begs the question, does a film need to have a relatable and likable cast of characters in order to succeed? Maybe. But maybe it’s worth taking a trip with people we wouldn’t normally respond to because the world is made up of all kinds and every individual experience is valid.
As a sucker for wilderness survival stories, I was engaged the entire time. Ashley Avis is an actor/model turned writer/director and I’ve known about her work for years. She has the eye of an artist and her experience as a commercial director for brands like Mercedes really comes to fruition in a place like Death Valley. Her shot composition and camera movement, married with some drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, is something special. She also captured an actual dust storm that takes this indie film to another level and she is able to deliver a striking film that looks far more expensive than it probably was. Avis clearly has a signature voice and a full slate of projects in development. I’m very eager to see what she could do with more emotionally accessible characters and look forward to what she does next.
DESERTED is available to stream on VOD.