I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I have seen Scott Shepherd perform many times as a core member in two of my favorite New York theater companies—Elevator Repair Service and The Wooster Group. Since 1995, when we met for the first time, I’ve seen him as Hamlet, Nick Carraway in GATZ, William Forsythe in Poor Theater, a doctor in Cab Legs, a hippie expert in No Great Society, a hustler in Vieux Carré.
Scott likes difficult and tangible tasks such as memorizing the entire play of Hamlet, or The Great Gatsby, cover to cover. It can’t be work for Scott, because there is no other way to live inside of these tasks the way he does, indefatigably. Scott seems to thrive here, his appetite for knowledge never sated. More recently he took up the ukulele. As I watch him I wonder, What’s going on? I feel like laughing. Underneath his lucid exterior, his unflappable, calm, and yet cryptic something , I see traces of mischief. I see traces of consorting with me, the viewer. He wants to see if you see what he sees. For me, that would explain the pleasure.
Scott Shepherd’s face, translucent and polished like gypsum, his reedy voice reminiscent of another era, that of film noir perhaps, his orange hair, have emerged as an iconic presence on stages in New York and Europe. He was about to leave on a tour with The Wooster Group for their ensemble production of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré when we conducted this interview. When we see each other, we don’t really have that much to say to each other. I was happy to sit down with Scott and get to know him a little better.
Richard Maxwell Where’d you learn to read like that?
Scott Shepherd That is kind of how I learned to read. I memorized a book. One of my first acts of reading was memorizing the first couple of chapters of Winnie the Pooh.
RM So someone was reading it to you and you memorized it?
SS Yeah. I think this must happen a lot. You read a book to a kid over and over again and before long they know it. I knew where the page turns came—my mother would have me pretend to read, as a performance for other parents.
RM With the book in your hand?
RM Do you really know the whole Great Gatsby by heart?
SS Yeah. I mean … yes. There was one night in performing GATZ at the Public Theater when part of the book flew out—in chapter four when I leap over the couch.
RM The book failed?
SS The book failed. We had a serious book failure. Because we keep using that same copy ofGatsby, it just slowly, slowly disintegrates. Eventually we had to replace the original book because it stopped looking like a book. It looked like a folder full of loose papers. It was hard to let go of that first book because we really had a superstitious or sentimental attachment to it. It was the book we had used since day one. Since 1999 when we started working on GATZ. But now we had the second book and the pages were getting loose in there, and when I jumped over the couch a whole section of the book just flew out and hit the back wall. Half the book was lying on the floor. Luckily I’d already gone past that section, so for the rest of that show we were okay. But the next day, when I started into chapter one, those pages had been taped back into the book, but in the wrong place. So at some point I turned a page and the wrong text was there.
RM So you found that it helps if the book’s in order.
SS Yeah. I mean, if you’re into that chronological sort of thing.
RM It’s really interesting, this idea of reading versus saying something that’s memorized, but what’s always impressed me about the way that you perform is the listening that happens. It happens, in this case, while you’re reading but also in general while you’re onstage. Is that something that you think about? Is it part and parcel of the reading, or the speaking, or the acting, or do you separate it out?
SS I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in some kind of separation between performer and performance. How can an acting performance be more like a music performance, where you don’t confuse the performer with what they’re producing? You know, you’re in a club and the musicians are looking around while they play, they’re producing the music but there’s something separate from that that is their presence onstage. GATZ made it easier to be quite literal about that kind of separation because the physical book was where the words were coming from. So the person speaking could have an observer type of response to the things being said, I guess. Is that the listening you mean? Listening to the book as I read it?
RM Yeah. It felt more separate. More like this music scenario you’re describing.
SS It was something that my attention was always on because I was becoming so familiar with the book. I always felt that what I needed to be focusing on, in order to make the show work, was to maintain a sort of curiosity, or a sense of new encounter with something that I was increasingly so familiar with.
RM With GATZ, I tried to imagine myself doing what you did. I think it would be very hard for me to stay in the moment, to not travel back and forth. To stay with what just happened and what’s about to happen and to stay on task with what it is that you’re asked to do or what it is that you want to do.
SS That’s always the problem.
RM Does it create anxiety for you or do you feel like you can stay on top of it?
SS Does it create anxiety? Yeah, I suppose it does. I suppose the problem is always there. I don’t think it’s one that ever gets solved. I know I am forever prone to either relish or regret what just happened. To waste energy coping with what just happened or bracing for what’s coming up. Especially as GATZ was performed over so many years and in so many places, by the time we got to the Public Theater it seemed like every single moment in that eight-hour show had had a heyday. You could remember a time when it had been truly realized, in a laugh maybe, or some response, some synergy that was going on. For that reason, each moment in the show had a potential to disappoint you or to put you into a mania of how did I do that before, why didn’t it work as well this time? That is the madness of repeated performance. That’s one of the madnesses. How do you forget what happened before and …
RM And keep traveling?
SS Keep moving, yeah. For me a good way to keep moving is to take a good look into the eyes of my coactor Jim Fletcher. Or more generally to connect with another person. With that show my nose is in the book the whole time, and the book is always the same, so sometimes just remembering to look into someone’s eyes is enough to snap me out of my private reverie. Jim has a strange and particular power to draw you back into the present moment, but I think this is classic actor wisdom: use the other person. Be reactive to something instead of presenting what you’ve already constructed inside your own mind.
RM I’m curious about what happens when you move from reading in your mind to saying something out loud. How does the task change? Even reading to my daughter, I think, How should this sound? So how much … Let me see. How do I say this? What does planning do for you?
SS I don’t think I’m very good at planning, and I get caught feeling underprepared a lot of the time. Usually when I get to the first performance—and I work with groups that rehearse for a long time—I almost always have a feeling of, like, Why am I so unprepared? What did I do all that time? Why didn’t I build something during all those rehearsals? I’m lucky that the shows I’m in go on performing for so long, because most of the work I do—
RM Happens in front of an audience.
SS Yeah. Because I’m so bad at planning.
RM So what happens for you in rehearsals? I mean, if you’re able to look at it sort of objectively now. Is there anything you can point to?
SS What am I doing during that time? Is that the question?
RM Well, if you were asked to quantify the work, somehow, how would you describe it?
SS Taking care of the basics, like bookkeeping type of stuff: Where are you going to be on the stage? Which way are you going to be facing? Where are all the things going to be? All of that. And usually when we get to the first show I feel like I’ve cheated myself and maybe I should have spent a little time working on actual acting: moments and intention and timing and such. But I have a very hard time working on that without an audience in the room. I need the energy of people I can surprise, or something. There’s just a certain kind of thing that you need an audience to figure out.
RM What is the difference between working with Liz [LeCompte, of The Wooster Group] and working with John [Collins, of Elevator Repair Service]?
SS Well, John … What is the difference? Liz …
RM Here’s an answer: There is no difference. They’re exactly the same. Can you imagine?
SS John has more of a Dada sensibility, like a joke you don’t understand. Where something’s funny and you don’t know why. You know what I mean?
RM That’s what he’s going for?
SS That’s his ideal moment. I remember an article about something they were discovering in certain medical situations where they had the person’s brain exposed. They stimulated a certain part of the brain and the person would start laughing uncontrollably. Just because that part of their brain had been touched. But if you asked them “What’s so funny?” they would come up with an explanation, usually a flimsy one, like, You guys are so funny, just standing there.
RM In your lab coats.
SS Exactly. John is interested in that sort of thing, exposing the absurdity of the ordinary. Finding hilarity in nothing. Liz is more visual and architectural. She’s more about constructing a space and a picture, and completing the space with sound, and so on. With the TV screens satisfying a kind of rabid, channel-surfing, TV-trained type of attention.
RM Do you feel that your approach to the work changes because of that?
SS Shifting between the two of them?
RM Yeah. I’m guessing that it does, but, I mean, should it?
SS I think it does, deeply. It’s easier for me to hook into John’s thinking, to think like him. I usually understand where he’s going. So when I’m working on a show with John, in a general sense, I kind of know what to do, but when I’m working with Liz, I’m usually lost. She often will set up something, a system or a scene, and then she wants to rip it apart, so you’re constantly dealing with the rug being pulled out from under you. It’s different. With John it’s a steady process. I know where I am the whole time. With Liz the process is much more upsetting, but I usually end up getting to a place I don’t think I could have gotten to myself.
RM So do you feel pushed around? Do you feel like, Oh, I’ve got to be nimble here to find my way?
RM So what is that way, if that’s the case? How would you describe the way for you?
SS I don’t know. Just trying to be comfortable and not feel false.
RM So there’s a deliberate aspect to your approach?
SS Deliberate? What do you mean?
RM I mean, the way you’re describing what you’re doing, it sounds almost evasive, which I understand. But is there a deliberateness within that, or is it mainly like a defensive strategy?
SS It is kind of defensive. The early stages of the work are difficult. Liz wants us to generate something that she can then rearrange or react to or edit, and I want her to make her thing so that I can figure out how to live in her weird environment, you know?
RM The quest for comfort.
SS Because I want to react too. I want to react to something that’s already there.
RM My original question was about writers. You’re dealing with quite a few writers. The source of the work. So how much of it changes because of the language? The person behind the writing itself?
SS That changes everything.
RM I want to provoke you a little bit, because I cling to this idea that it shouldn’t. I know that it can, but should it? I don’t know if I can put my finger on why that seems important, but I feel like there’s something fundamental behind it all that shouldn’t change. But I’d rather hear you talk about why—
SS —It goes back to what you were saying before about reading this book to your daughter. What should it sound like?
RM It does go back to that. I agree.
SS What do you think? Should all books sound the same?
RM I don’t think it will sound the same. That’s why it’s hard for me to let go of this idea. I think it will sound unique or distinct …
SS But you want that difference to be generated by the book or text and not by whatever prejudices—
RM —Or manipulation that could happen. And that isn’t as interesting, I think. I kind of know why I feel that way.
SS Well, you’re a writer and you want the writing to do the work. You want the writing to get a fair hearing.
RM I think it’s more like, What do you call the work? When you talk about theater and separate that out as a thing, what does it mean?
SS Well, the writer … isn’t it true that traditionally the writer has pride of place? The traditional idea is that you go awry, that you ruin the play if you don’t respect the playwright’s intention. I mean, this is something that The Wooster Group runs into, or other artists that are dealing with these plays but have a strong voice of their own, objections from a certain corner that says everything should serve the thing that’s written. That of all the people working to create a theater piece, there’s one who’s the most important—the playwright. I’m interested in the writer, but I don’t think he’s the only artist in the room. Especially when he’s not in the room. But that’s sort of a different question. It’s a slightly different question from what you were asking before about how the text should sound.
RM You’re right. It’s a broader question. I really like your answer that the work happens when there’s an audience—the work of describing how this interpretation should begin. How should the event unfold in real time? You’re preparing for it in a technical way with the bookkeeping you described and then there’s this threshold moment where people come and watch it, and that’s where things start to click. This whole idea of coming in with something predetermined about how it should sound or how the play should look … I know that choices get made in rehearsal, but I guess the problem I have is that it’s inseparable—what’s the word—it’sinalienable. It will be different. It shall be different. And the choices get determined, they get informed, without us really needing to interpret.
SS Yeah. There’s a kind of magic that happens the first time you read through something with any ensemble, when nobody is familiar with anything and everybody is a little bit surprised by what’s coming out of their mouths. To me that has some sort of kinship with speech even though it’s not the same thing, but it has an energy, it’s alive in a similar way to an actual act of speech, where there is an uncertainty about what’s going to come out of your mouth. And whatever came out is what you have to deal with, and it informs the next thing that comes out. That lack of planning gives a certain energy to a first reading and it can take a long time to get back to anything like that. That’s why I feel like my relationship to planning is complicated, because to me the ideal would be to either actually have, or somehow fake, a certain kind of innocence, a kind of naïveté about what’s coming next.
RM And are you okay with faking the naïveté?
SS Well, to some extent you have to, but how can that be faked with some sort of integrity? For example, with the Wooster Group, we tend to use devices that allow us to retain some sense of surprise. Video and audio recordings are too rich in information to completely memorize, so if those are playing while you’re performing then there’s always something to react against, or something that, if you look at it closely enough, you haven’t noticed before. And this can help keep you in touch with that sense of not knowing everything that’s coming.
RM Couldn’t you say the same thing about live performance, without video information?
SS Because of the audience?
RM Because of the audience, because of other actors onstage, because it is new regardless of how much we plan or try to lock down.
SS Right. There is always something new. I mean the video thing actually emphasizes this because the video really is the same every time, but there’s always new information to glean from it. So yes, in a real-world situation between two people standing on stage with a new set of people out in the house each night, of course. It is always new, and yet it’s always in danger of becoming rote. So the trick is, essentially, to be in the right state of mind where you’re alive to the new, and not stuck in the rote. But how do you deal with this issue?
RM It’s complicated. It’s not like, Oh here’s the answer. Just do this and then everything’s going to be fine. I always get caught when I’m talking to actors and we run something and it needs to be “fixed” to make it “better” and I kind of hate even saying, “Oh that’s better.”
SS I know what you mean … what’s a better word than better? In rehearsal we’re always saying, that works or that doesn’t work, that reads, that doesn’t read. It’s a vague terminology and sometimes I feel like after this much time I should have a more scientific wisdom about it. But you kind of want that uncertainty, you don’t want to eliminate it with technique. The uncertainty is connected to the life in it and the whole idea of going to the theater is about being in the presence of one another … and what state are you in today? I don’t want to make sure I’m in the same state every time. I want to be curious about what’s going to happen.
RM So it’s a question of how much do you cultivate uncertainty and how much are you becoming aware of the uncertainty that’s already there.
SS Do you mean you can plan the hell out of the thing and still feel confident that the uncertainty will be in it?
RM I think that that’s possible. You can plan it out and be as thorough as you can, but somehow you still absolutely have to be open to the fact that this audience has never seen this before, or even if they have seen it before, it’s still new. It’s not a movie.
SS There’s something Peter Brook says about preparing. That you should prepare the way athletes prepare for an athletic event. If you’re going to prepare for a marathon you don’t run a marathon the day before. You train for it somehow. I’m a little superstitious about it, I don’t trust myself. I tend to believe that things are going to work out better if I don’t have it figured out completely. If I figure it out I’m going to plan out something that’s too ordinary.
RM Has that happened? Can you think of a situation where you felt too planned out? ‘Cause you used the word superstitious.
SS Can I think of a specific situation? GATZ was a real challenge in this sense because there are long narrative passages and once you’ve figured out a way to say them that doesn’t trip you up, it’s hard to get out of those patterns of inflection—
RM Of convenience—
SS —Yeah. It’s like, I know this works, so if I’m tired, if I want to save my energy for later then I can just kick into this way of getting through this paragraph. So I often had to come up with some sort of trick to throw myself out of it.
RM Where this is not like sport. That would be a really smart thing to do if you were running a marathon, to strategize, like, Okay, at the 10-mile mark I’m gonna ease up a little bit because I know I’m gonna need that sprint, that second wind, come later. No?
SS Right, in the larger sense of pacing out your own energy and timing. But there’s another level of reading through the book that doesn’t quite have a parallel in the marathon analogy. It has to do with your manner, your style, like whether you hop on one foot for a while—
RM —or get creative with your running.
SS I think you have a particular relationship with performers or you have an idea about performers and performance, a distrust of embellishment or something. What would you say?
RM Well, I think we should say— I don’t know if this will make it into the interview or not—but I was thinking this morning about one example of what I think you’re describing, which is working with an accent. That’s where I feel like you get into a sticky wicket.
SS Yeah, accent is tricky. I remember when we were dealing with the dialect in those O’Neill plays and you said, How can we do what’s written, without bringing that interpretation? But that’s a tricky thing, because when O’Neill writes it that way, it’s not just because he wants us not to pronounce the H in that word, he wants to indicate some extra information.
RM But I would say, a) we don’t know that for sure; b) who cares? And I feel that way about my writing—it’s like what Liz would do with Vieux Carré—the bottom line is you’re using the text. And I wouldn’t say abusing the text, I’d say using the text. I hear Edward Albee travels around to make sure this play is done just so. But that’s his prerogative. He’s alive, it’s his material, he owns it. But it’s a really good question, because history has so much bearing on whether or not something will be deemed loyal, or truthful, or faithful, or whatever. That being said, I find those stage directions really irritating, like, you know, the adverbsarcastically in brackets before the actual line.
SS There’s a lot of that in O’Neill—
RM —It’s half the play. I did have one last question—Why do you act? Why act?
SS I don’t know, man. I wanted to be like, you know, when I was a kid—not a kid, but when I was older, a teenager—it’s just from watching actors, the ones that seem heroic to you, like they’re giving something. There’s something very pure, there’s something distilled, I guess, about going in front of a room full of people and finding a way to present yourself. I always had sort of a difficulty—if you’re somehow dissatisfied socially, then there is a real appeal to an organized way of doing it. Like people are all going to come at a certain time and I’m going to have spent some time figuring out where I’m gonna stand and how I’m gonna say this—
RM —You can redeem yourself socially—
SS –I’m going to present myself to you in a way that I have some control over. But it also has to do with text. That’s what I like about GATZ. When I read something that I think is beautiful, then there’s an immediate urge to have some sense of sharing it—
RM Join it—
SS It’s a desire to share something written that goes beyond “You should really read this book.” It’s a desire for some sort of shared experience, in which I get to present myself the way I want you to see me, coupled with a desire to share something. You don’t really do this at a party—
RM No, you can’t. It’s like capturing social behavior, capturing the pleasure of social behavior—it feels more and more rare. I feel like I’m not socialized enough.
SS Yeah, but there’s an appeal to organizing a different kind of moment.
RM It’s also an opportunity for candor that you won’t find at a dinner party. I can talk with actors about things that are deeply personal and somehow that’s okay because it’s part of what we’re doing. I can’t imagine a world without actors, actually, because I feel like they’re enlightened beings; they’ve seen things that other people haven’t, so it becomes a really special conversation. But maybe that’s part of a social weakness that I have when it comes to other people.
SS Well, in social situations you have to be careful—it’s true that in a performance situation there’s more possibility for some kind of candor, truth. But there’s also a lot of opportunity for something fake to happen. When I said something about faking, you were like, Are you okay with faking it? I think that you can’t avoid faking, or there’s some degree of pretending that has to happen, that’s part of the setup. I’m always looking for some way around that—what is it? It’s like something about containing that, or putting a box around the part that’s pretending. When I was a kid the actors that I loved were the ones that were the most convincing. And then at a certain point I became exposed to actors who do something else, like Kate Valk—
RM Or Ron Vawter— I was going to say Kate or Ron, yeah—
SS Actors who are showing you: this is what this kind of scene looks like, this is something I’m presenting, and—like I was saying about the musicians—I’m outside of that a little bit. It has that aspect of what you’re talking about, where paradoxically it’s more fake and more honest at the same time.
RM In an ideal situation, that allows the person who happens to be saying lines and the person who happens to be sitting in a seat to connect with each other. It’s people connecting.
SS Yeah, and those people are the people in the room, even if they do it with an accent.
RM All hell’s broken loose. That’s probably Nicholas calling. 11:25 AM. I think my actors are showing up.
SS Did we cover everything we needed to cover?
RM I think we covered a lot, but it’s your interview.
SS I feel like we talked about a lot of things and we talked about one thing.
RM I was gonna say we talked about a lot of things and nothing.
SS I’m too optimistic.
Richard Maxwell is a playwright and director living in New York City. He is the artistic director of New York City Players. A volume of his plays from 1996–2000 has been published by Theatre Communications Group. His most recent play, Neutral Hero, premiered in May at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels and is currently touring Europe. Photo by Bea Borgers.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee