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Remembering Sam Shepard and His Roots in San Francisco Theater

Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco pays tribute to the fiery playwright.

Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Sam Shepard speaking at “An Evening with Sam Shepard” at Magic Theatre in 2013. Shepard died July 27 at age 73.


Sam Shepard was mythic. Through his mind-bending and heartbreaking plays and prose, he bared his soul and swagger while traversing our primordial pasts. It’s hard to imagine a world without him. 

The wilds of California from Homestead to Napa Valley indisputably evoked Sam’s imagination. It was here, at the edge of the West, at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, that Sam wrote and premiered seven of his seminal works, including Buried Child (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), True West, and, in 1983 (the same year he would be nominated for an Oscar) Fool for Love.

We forged a friendship over what would be, unthinkably, the last five years of his life. Slumped in the Magic, legs dangling over the theater seats in front of us, he argued vehemently with me over the ending of a play (not his). He explained the craft of hunting geese versus deer and encouraged me to read one of his favorite novels (I tried unsuccessfully—the book, not the hunting). Years later, over tea in the East Village, he joyously recited Beckett and with misty eyes shared the humility he felt about working with his dear friend Joe Chaikin on what would become Tongues.

Sam refused to play the wise sage. He remained beautifully broken, from his first plays in 1964 to his last book of fiction in 2017—still combing the open road for visages of his lost father, the bygone West of his youth, and America’s forgotten promises. 

I last saw Sam in Healdsburg at the end of March, just before he headed home to Kentucky. Over cups of coffee, Sam shared photos of his cherished farm. We discussed Diebenkorn’s work and pondered the origin of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Before the afternoon was over, he dictated a dedication for Magic’s 50th anniversary for Ed Harris to present. Sam asked to hear it out loud. His sister, Roxanne, read it back patiently several times. Sam listened intently, making small, careful revisions. 

In spite of his declining health, he was profoundly himself. Curious. Searching, like the rest of us. Making sure that as the words hit the air, they were right. 


Originally published in the September issue of
San Francisco

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