Stanford professor leads exploration of the work of actor, playwright Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard's play Curse of the Starving Class, along with a Shepard film series, community symposium and continuing studies course, comprise Stanford Summer Theater's Sam Shepard Festival.

It’s as if Sam Shepard could see the Occupy movement coming 36 years ago when he wroteCurse of the Starving Class. His characters, who might identify as the 99 percent today, imagine that the future belongs to them if they borrow or go in debt or buy land or speculate, only to find that the game is fixed by those who actually have the future in their hands: banks, corporations, Wall Street.

Curse of the Starving Class is the centerpiece of the Stanford Summer Theater’s Sam Shepard Festival.

Directed by Rush Rehm, professor of drama and of classics and artistic director of SST, the Obie Award-winning play stars Marty Pistone, Courtney Walsh, Max Sosna-Spear, Jessica Waldman, Ben Fisher, Keith Marshall, Don DeMico and Michael Vang.

The SST festival also presents a free film series examining Shepard’s cinematic work as an Oscar-nominated actor and prize-winning screenwriter, a community symposium titled Sam Shepard and the Eclectic American West, and the Continuing Studies course Shepard and American Realism.

Stanford Summer Theater is in its 14th year and this is the first year it has chosen to spotlight an American playwright. Rehm cites Shepard’s longevity and consistency as an artist as well as his extraordinary influence on the American theater as reasons to celebrate Shepard now with a festival.

Curse of the Starving Class was written in 1976 and first performed in 1977 at the Royal Court in London. Seen today, it is a remarkably prescient view of America in 2012.

“It’s extraordinary how on-the-money the play is about our current economic crisis and political malaise,” said Rehm.

The play is a darkly comic exploration of the American family psyche. As the four main characters shift into adolescence, adulthood and old age, they face the loss of their farm to debt and developers.

“If you read the critics, they emphasize how bleak and violent the play is, but when you work on it with actors, it’s devilishly funny and absurd, and yet it still has a depth that is moving, and even tragic,” said Rehm. “Tragic in an American sense, but also in the sense of touching on timeless archetypes, much like a Greek tragedy.”

Performances are July 19–Aug. 12, Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. A post-show discussion with the cast and director follows each Sunday matinee performance. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors.

In addition to directing the play and teaching a summer course on Shepard, Rehm curated the Shepard on Screen film series. He said it was one of the joys of putting the festival together.

Rehm started researching Shepard films last fall. When pressed to name a favorite, he chose Don’t Come Knocking.

“I really like the Wim Wenders film,” he said, “in part because Shepard stars and wrote the screenplay, in part because the film touches so perfectly on the theme of our symposium, Shepard and the American West.”

In the film, Shepard plays a film actor playing a Western cowboy hero in a movie. He rides off the set looking for his past, pursued by his agent and film producers.

The Shepard on Screen film series includes the following titles:

  • July 9 – Days of Heaven, directed by Terrence Malick (1978), 95 minutes. Starring Sam Shepard, Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. Discussant: Adrian Daub, assistant professor, German studies, Stanford.
  • July 16 – Thunderheart, directed by Michael Apted (1992), 119 minutes. Starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, Sheila Tousey and Ted Thin Elk. Discussant: Myrton Running Wolf, PhD student, drama, Stanford.
  • July 23 – The Voyager, directed by Volker Schlöndorff (1991), 117 minutes. Starring Sam Shepard, Julie Delpy and Barbara Sukowa. Discussant: Adrian Daub.
  • July 30 – Don’t Come Knocking, directed by Wim Wenders (2004), 122 minutes. Screenplay by Sam Shepard. Starring Sam Shepard, Tim Roth, Jessica Lange, Eva Marie Saint and Sarah Polley. Discussant: Adrian Daub or Rush Rehm.
  • Aug. 6 – Fool for Love, directed by Robert Altman (1985), 107 minutes. Screenplay by Sam Shepard from his play of the same title. Starring Sam Shepard, Kim Basinger, Randy Quaid and Harry Dean Stanton. Discussant: Frank Murray, chair of the Performing Arts Department, Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga.

Screenings are free and open to the public in Annenberg Auditorium on Monday evenings July 9–Aug. 6, beginning at 7 p.m. Latecomers will not be admitted after 7:15 p.m. There will be a brief introduction to each film and a post-screening discussion.

The community symposium focuses on Shepard’s interest in the American West with a full day of lectures, short performances, panel discussions and a Western-themed lunch.

Murray will deliver the keynote address.  Shepard’s stage design and music as well as his relationship to surrealism and the American West will be addressed throughout the day. Summer theater artists will discuss their work on the play and perform scenes from other Shepard plays and stories.

The symposium is on Saturday, July 28,
from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Registration is
 $90, and includes lunch. Advance registration is required.

Rehm’s Shepard and American Realism Continuing Studies course has approximately 70 students, many of them SST fans who come every summer for an in-depth look at great plays and great dramatic themes.

The course explores the plays and screenplays of Shepard in light of the conventions and practices of American theatrical realism, with its emphasis on family drama.

The SST’s Sam Shepard Festival has multiple sponsors, including the Stanford Continuing Studies Program, the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education, the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford Department of Theater and Performance Studies, the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford Department of English, the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and the Program in American Studies.