Sam Shepard’s Tie to Christian Theater

Sam Shepard’s Tie to Christian Theater

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

Sam Shepard smallerALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – August 7, 2017) -- With the death of Sam Shepard, the world has lost one of the most engaging playwrights in recent generations.  Shepard will be greatly missed. Fortunately, the Pulitzer Prize winning author left us a prodigious amount of work to read, keeping our minds absorbed with insight into our common humanity, particularly as it relates to familial brokenness [1].  And for those interested in Shepard scholarship, a trip to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas would be worth the journey.  My son, Cailan, and I visited the library a couple years back, finding the center an amazing trove of writers hailing from the Southwest, including Shepard’s work and papers [2 and 3].

What many people don’t realize is that Shepard has connections to Christian theater.

gerald kennedyAfter I published my article about Sam Shepard’s death, one reader asked where the “Christian tie-in” was for the article [4].  And though I firmly believe part of what Christian journalism is about is to inform and educate our readers -- and not always provide devotion -- I did neglect to mention Shepard’s connection to Christian theater.  In hindsight, I’m grateful for the reader's comment.

Though born in Illinois (his father was in the military), Shepard spent most of his upbringing in California, attending schools in Pasadena and Duarte.  While attending Duarte High School Shepard began taking theater classes. Later at the community college, he attended, Mt. San Antonio, Shepard began to hone his skills as an actor and writer.  Due to relational difficulty with his alcoholic father, Sam left home.  One day he read an announcement in a local newspaper asking for actors for a traveling repertory company.  It was Shepard’s way out of town. But the repertory wasn’t an ordinary one.  It was the Bishop’s Company Repertory, an acting troupe that received its initial funding and blessing from Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy, author of the book I Believe.

Born in Michigan but raised in California, Gerald Hamilton Kennedy attended the College of the Pacific, the Pacific School of Religion, and Harford Theological Seminary.   After a series of pastoral posts across the country, Kennedy was assigned to the Los Angeles area, becoming Bishop in the 1950’s.   Kennedy went on to write over 20 books and the hymn God of Love and God of Power [5].  It was during his time as both pastor and Bishop (something unusual for the Methodist church), that he—and founder, Phyllis Beardsley Bokar, encouraged the young people of the church to engage the community through the arts.  Shortly after, the Bishop’s Company Repertory was born, with the encouragement to perform “Broadway-caliber productions…of spiritual or social significance” [6].  Kennedy died on February 17th, 1980 at the age of 72.

SamShepard secondfromleft withtheBishopsCompanyIn an early photo of Sam Shepard with the Bishop’s Company, the theater group is standing in front of a sign by a Methodist Church.  The sign reads, “The Great Divorce.” Sam Shepard was acting in a production of one of C.S Lewis’ books.  Written in 1945, The Great Divorce is a novel about C.S Lewis’ concepts of heaven and hell. What Sam thought of his time with the Bishop’s Company -- or the content of the plays performed, I don’t know.  What is known is that Shepard readily gave credit to the Bishop’s Company for his launch into professional theater, mentioning it in interviews and writings [7].

Sam’s second connection to theater backed by a parson and church was during his time in New York.  As the Bishop’s Company traveled through New York, Sam left the company, never to return.  New York offered new inspiration.  But, once again, Shepard connected with a church. After finding an old acquaintance that was living in New York -- Charlie Mingus, son of the famous Jazz bassist, Charles Mingus, the two became involved with a new theatre group meeting at St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery.

St. Mark’s had a long history with the arts, going back to the 19th century.  But with the hiring of rector Michael Allen in 1963, the church encouraged plays to be staged at St. Mark’s, “marrying religion with art” and kick starting the Off-Off Broadway movement [8].  Sam Shepard would go on to receive multiple Obie Awards for his plays written for St. Mark’s. The first company formed during this time at St. Mark’s was called Theater Genesis, founded by director Ralph Cook.  And though Theater Genesis was not overtly Christian in its output, the plays were conducted in accordance with a broadly defined social ethic. It was at St. Mark’s that Sam Shepard wrote his first two notable plays, Cowboys and Rock Garden.   When questioned about the abusive language—and adult content—in some of Shepard’s early works, Rev. Michael Allen stated, “in essence, that the language was beside the point, that the play ‘was really an attack on the pornography of American life.’” [ibid 6].  And then Michael Allen privately told Shepard, “One day you will be recognized as America’s greatest Christian playwright.”  Upon which Shepard replied, “He hoped he was right.”

rectory michael allenOriginally a journalist for Look Magazine, The Rev. J.C. Michael Allen (1927-2013) was an activist Episcopal priest who considered himself non-religious before coming to faith under the leadership of progressive clergyman James Albert Pike [9].  After his baptism, Allen attended seminary and was ordained into the Episcopal Church. Allen worked steadily on both social (homeless, AIDS activism, etc.) and artistic outreaches. And more than providing space for budding artists, Allen got involved himself, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and visiting Hanoi during the Vietnam War with singer Joan Baez.   Allen officiated Shepard’s first wedding to O-Lan Jones in 1969.

Now let me say that Shepard’s involvement with Christian theater does not mean he was a believing Christian.  I don’t know if he was. Much in his life does not match a Biblical worldview.  Ultimately, his salvation is not for me to judge; only the Lord knows.  What I do know is that Sam Shepard did touch upon themes of Biblical significance in his work, alluding to familial fallout and the reality of sin throughout the corpus of his plays, novels, and poetry.  To a certain extent, Shepard did get one thing right in providing a Christian worldview: sin is a reality.  But what is not touched on much in Shepard’s work is the answer to sin: redemption.

TrueWestMost scholars see allusions to the Bible in Shepard’s play True West, affording a Cain and Able type sibling rivalry [10], but there’s also hints in his other works—from his Pulitzer-winning play Buried Child to Curse of the Starving Class, showing a people spiritually famished and in need of redemption.

Concerning Buried Child, Dr. Seyed Vahdati, sees Shepard using religion in a post-modern way, mythic and revealing. According to Vahdati, “Myth of religion is an important myth in Buried Child which Shepard tries to subvert by depicting the characters of Halie and Father Dewis. Halie seems to be a religious person. She treats and speaks like a true Christian in the first act. Gradually, we notice that her faith is just a fake and she does not act what she speaks. Religion is a game for both Halie and Father Dewis. Halie seeks refuge to religion in order to escape all her miseries and thoughts. She does not fulfill her duties as a mother. She is like a guest in her home [11].”

Maybe Shepard was just a “guest’ in the Christian community, finding inspiration from the church and the Bible as an observer.  Or maybe Sam Shepard was a struggling believer, trying to come to terms with the reality of sin in himself and the world, not wanting to portray a “fake” faith.  Who knows?  Only God!  What we do know is that Shepard shared with us his vision of a world saturated in sin, a world seeking something beyond itself, trying to find meaning in the madness.

My hope is that in the midst of the shattered lives Shepard portrayed on the printed page, that Sam Shepard found the Good Shepherd on the page of his soul, discovering the rest and respite his wandering heart craved.

1) http://www.crossmap.com/blogs/on-meeting-sam-shepard-at-the-santa-fe-institute-5923

2) http://www.crossmap.com/news/the-southwest-cormac-mccarthy-tour-17477

3) http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=00546

4) http://www.assistnews.net/index.php/component/k2/item/3132-pulitzer-winning-author-sam-shepard-dies-1943-2017

5) https://methodistthinker.com/2010/04/19/podcast-bishop-gerald-kennedy-on-the-marks-of-a-methodist/

6) Sam Shepard: A Life by John J. Winters.

7) http://www.sam-shepard.com/aboutsam.html

8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_Genesis

9) Interestedly, one of my professors in seminary, John Warwick Montgomery, rose to prominence arguing against Pike’s theology in the 1960’s.

10) https://www.thoughtco.com/true-west-by-sam-shepard-overview-2713462

11) http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_21_November_2012/29.pdf

Brian NixonPhoto captions: 1) Sam Shepard. 2) Bishop Gerald Kennedy. 3) Sam Shepard (standing second from left) with the Bishop's Company. 4) Rev. Michael Allen. 5) True West by Sam Shepard. 6) Brian Nixon.

About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He's a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon

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