A Love Letter to Sam Shepard

I have been waiting over 20 years to direct Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. My first experience with Sam Shepard’s work was while I was at college at Valparaiso University. The theatre students often produced works for the Underground Theatre. These were productions not on the university mainstage. The production was at Baldwin Hall, which is no longer standing. It was very much guerilla theatre—no formal sets, tech, etc. I was running sound, which consisted of hitting play and pause on a boom box with a cassette. My sister, Patty Bird, played the lead role of May. She was a theatre major at VU. She was actually the first person to introduce me to the world of Sam Shepard. Through her passion for his work and theatre, I fell instantly in love—in love with theatre, the arts, and Sam Shepard’s brilliant words. That production in college laid the groundwork for all of my future theatre endeavors. It’s where I learned that absolutely anything can happen in live theatre, and no matter what you do, the show must go on. During one performance, I recall the character of Eddie shoving May into a wall (or flat as we call them in theatre). Instantly, the flat started to sway and began to fall forward into the stage space directly over the actors. Eddie simply leaned against the wall and forced it into place. It was terrifying and exciting all at the same time!

The first Sam Shepard play produced at Chicago Street was True West in Season 32, 1986-1987. I was mesmerized. CST’s next Shepard production was Buried Child in Season 45, 1999-2000. I served as a crew member for the show and learned so much from directors, Jonni Pera and Traci Brant. I learned about the raw humanity and dirty, real souls of Sam’s characters. I learned that every aspect of the show—the set, lights, sound, costume, and props were equally as important at the characters on stage. In many ways these areas were characters as well. I learned to respect the integrity of the playwright’s words and vision.

I was then blessed with the opportunity to direct Sam’s The Curse of the Starving Class at CST. I had the honor to co-direct with my sister. This show had many challenges. We conquered them all! We had a working gas stove on stage where characters actually cooked bacon and eggs at every performance. The show calls for a live lamb as one of the characters. Our production took place in February, we learned that February was not “lambing season” but did manage to find a farm in Kouts that had a lamb we could use. We affectionately called the lamb Sammy. Those are just two challenges we faced and conquered.

I was honored again to direct Sam’s A Lie of the Mind at CST. I had the pleasure of co-directing this one with Stan Christianson. This was a much darker, tormented Sam production. The female lead was played by my sister, Patty Bird. She had to go to some horrific dark places for her character. As director, I helped lead her there and back. It was an emotional rollercoaster for the both of us, but I wouldn’t trade that whole experience for anything.

And now with this production of Fool For Love, my theatrical/directorial journey has come full circle with the play that started it all for me. I am so thrilled to tackle this show alongside a brilliant co-director and very dear friend, Auriel Lark Felsecker. Sam’s fully fleshed out and flawed characters are the centerpiece of this show. Family struggles and dysfunction, co-dependent relationships, alcoholism, abandonment, hope, loss of hope, and finding a new normal are only a few of the themes this show touches on. These themes run wild through all of Sam’s works and I couldn’t be more humble to be allowed into his world if only for a moment while directing this show. This is my love letter to Sam Shepard for sparking something in me at an early age that led me to theatre. Because of Sam’s work, I have met the dearest friends in my entire life as well as my husband! I will always count Sam as one of my earliest life and art influences and will forever be grateful.

-Director Mary A. Bird Matern