San Francisco Theater Preview: 36 STORIES BY SAM SHEPARD (Word for Word)

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by Tony Frankel on May 15, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Some may not know this, but Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor, ex-cowboy, and musician Sam Shepard is also an amazing short story writer. After reading Cruising Paradise (1997), a potpourri of tales, ruminations, and ostensibly first-Rod Gnapp and Patrick Alparone in Word for Word's production of 36 STORIES BY SAM SHEPARDperson recollections with similar themes and obsessions, I thought that these stories—desolate but riotous, poignant but hard-bitten—screamed to be theatricalized. As with this and other Shepard prose collections such as Motel Chronicles (1982), there is a fascinating balance between small, scrappy sketches and traditionally-constructed stories. Poring over them, I had a strong urge to read each one aloud. With Shepard’s ear for dialogue, keen observation, and wry sense of humor, his stimulating prose palpably evokes his characters, all of whom echo their spread-out, overwhelming, and desolate environment.

CRUISING PARADISE - Cover of Audio Book by Sam ShepardNow, San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company, which has been creating theater out of short stories for over 20 years, is producing a brand new piece of American theater using the short stories and poetry of this prolific, individualistic writer. The exciting premiere of 36 Stories by Sam Shepard begins May 22 at Z Space.

Having been invited by Magic Theatre to be a part of its “Sheparding America,” a celebration of his 70th birthday, Word for Word is the only company that’s creating an original Shepard work by adapting his prose for the stage. Company member Amy Kossow spent a year immersed in all five of Shepard’s collections of poetry and fiction, crafting a road story that begins in a roadside motel. The resulting play is the journey of a travelling author on the great American desert highways. Shepard himself has read the script and gave his blessings to the project, which Kossow will also direct.

Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter said, “It’s got everything: A talking severed head; a man-sized hawk; a dangerous female mercenary. It’s the story of a lone writer on the road in search of inspiration in dingy motels and seedy diners. It’s the story of what happens to you when you’re busy making plans. When you’re doing one thing and life comes crashing in to take you in a completely different direction.”

Delia MacDougall in Word for Word's production of 36 STORIES BY SAM SHEPARDWord for Word transforms classic and contemporary fiction into performance works for the stage by performing short stories in their entirety, preserving the author’s language and honoring his or her literary intent. The exemplary cast includes Delia MacDougall and JoAnne Winter, who both appeared in Word for Word’s 20th Anniversary show, In Friendship (see review here); this remarkable adaptation of Zona Gale stories just won two Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle awards in the under 100 seat category: One for Entire Production and another for Laura Hazlett’s Costume Design. Also starring are Patrick Alparone from A.C.T.’s The Normal Heart, Rod Gnapp from Magic Theatre’s Se Llama Cristina, and Carl Lumbly, seen in SF Playhouse’s production of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ The MotherF**ker with the Hat. More recently, Lumbly and Gnapp did terrific work in Storefront Church, also at SF Playhouse.

Carl Lumbly and Rod Gnapp in Word for Word's production of 36 STORIES BY SAM SHEPARDShepard, who has become synonymous with the recklessness, stoicism, and solitude of American manhood, writes stories that are of the earth and the west, raw and honest. He wrote in Cruising Paradise, “I love long-distance driving. The farther the better. I love covering immense stretches in one leap: Memphis to New York City; Gallup to L.A.; Saint Paul to Richmond; Lexington to Baton Rouge; Bismarck to Cody. Leaps like these. Without a partner. Completely alone. Relentless driving. Driving until the body disappears, the legs fall off, the eyes bleed, the hands go numb, the mind shuts down, and then, suddenly, something new begins to appear.” The new appearance of 36 Stories by Sam Shepard will only last through June 22. As with all of Word for Word’s shows, it will sell out, so take a leap and let yourself disappear into the lives of the lonely inhabitants of the American Southwest.

Carl Lumbly, JoAnne Winter, Delia MacDougall in Word for Word's production of 36 STORIES BY SAM SHEPARD

photos by Mark Leialoha

36 Stories by Sam Shepard
Word for Word
Z Below, Z Space’s new second venue, 470 Florida St.
May 22 – June 22, 2014
Wed-Thurs at 7 pm, Fri-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3 pm
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit

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