Fresno State’s theater department selected Sam Shepard’s most recent play, “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” to open its fall season many months ago, long before the playwright died on July 27. What was intended as a chance to celebrate one of America’s great living playwrights has become a valedictory of sorts.
“We were saddened to hear that he had passed, and I knew immediately that I wanted to honor him because it was his last play,” says director and theater professor J. Daniel Herring.
The play might be the last he wrote, but it’s still vintage Shepard: sharply drawn and eccentric characters, disturbing subject matter, twists that shock and surprise. The playwright added a compelling narrative twist: He reimagines the classical Greek story of Oedipus (who famously was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother) as a modern murder thriller.
I considered doing a standard interview with Herring about the production, but I also wanted to talk with Steven Weatherbee, who plays Oedipus and the character’s alter-ego, named Otto.
And then I thought: Why not ask them to interview each other? (Shepard is known for his twists, so this will be mine.) I sat down with them on Monday of tech week in Herring’s office and listened. Here are excerpts from a wide-ranging discussion:
Herring: Steven, the first thing is, I’ve heard this, but I’ll ask it again: How long have you wanted to be an actor?
Weatherbee: It dates back to when I was young. I used to do super goofy things that I should have been embarrassed about. I liked Deborah Cox.
Herring: We both like Deborah Cox. We shared that in common and thought that was funny
Weatherbee: My favorite song by her is “Who Do U Love.” My mom would joke with me, ‘You’re going to wear that tape recorder out if you keep playing that song.’ One day my neighbors were having a barbecue. Bunch of dudes were there, older guys, and all the daughters and nieces, and they were doing karaoke. I was like, wow, I can go get the tape, bring it over here, and sing Deborah Cox in front of everybody. I sprinted back and got it. I sang, and all these dudes with beards and hot dogs were laughing at me. I was having the time of my life. There’s a song where she goes really high and belts it, and I did that, too.
My point is, I have memories of doing really funny things in front of people and having such a ball performing, but I never really put it together until later. I was a bad student early on, and I took a break from school, did a lot of traveling. Then I saw a play here at State. I saw “Arabian Nights” here. It awakened all these feelings in me. I wanted to be on stage. So I changed my major, and took a beginning acting class, and I just had all the motivation in the world to keep doing it.
The conversation veers to the relationship between a director and designers. Weatherbee asks Herring about the collaborative process. A discussion about gouged eyes (Oedipus is blinded) and the all-white set, designed by Jeff Hunter to bridge the ancient Greek and modern worlds, ensues.
Herring: The idea of the white was to focus on the blood. You know how many times you say “blood” in this show, and how many times you have to see blood, and how you’re going to do it in a theatrical way. The Greeks wanted there to be a little bit of grossness involved, but they didn’t always show it to you. We do both in this production, and I think we’ve kind of achieved it. I won’t give anything away about that. And then I started talking to Regina Harris (the lighting designer) about lights. I said, “I don’t even know if this exists, but do you think there are blood splatter slides out there that exist that forensic scientists use?”
Weatherbee: Is that what she’s actually using? I didn’t know that!
Herring: All I knew was that I’d watched “Dexter.”
Weatherbee: That’s so cool. I just thought those were computer generated projections, not actually a slide.
The talk shifts to Weatherbee’s role in the show.
Herring: One of the reasons I cast you is that you’re willing to take risks and explore. The thing I knew you would do is find the difference between Otto and Oedipus but also find the connections.
Weatherbee: Luckily I had some practice with physicalization and voice work in different shows, namely in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” playing four or five different characters.
Herring: What made you want to start to audition for “Particle” in the first place?
Weatherbee: I hate to sound cheesy, but I knew you were directing it. Any time you do a show anywhere, I always strongly consider auditioning. You’re always very open-minded to what people bring to a production. Sometimes it’s nice to have a rigid sense of direction, if the director has a really strong sense of where to go. But with you, it’s always collaborative. In this show, I’m excited that you’ve accepted some of the choices that I’ve made. It’s that balance of learning from you and enjoying what you’re bringing, and the fact that you respect what we bring, too.
Herring: Were you familiar with Sam Shepard’s work prior to reading the play? What are your thoughts about his style?
Weatherbee: It’s accessible. It’s not that it’s easy to act, but if you think hard enough, the language almost feels like it’s yours now. It’s down to earth, it’s gritty, it’s real. He writes very conversationally, and he writes characters that are really, really rich.
Herring: I think the other thing he does is he puts those real characters in circumstances that we don’t want to see as reality. I think he’s always pushing the boundaries on what we should accept as human behavior. It makes me think that Sam Shepard was influenced more by the Greeks than we even know. I’ve never read anything about how much he said the Greeks influenced him. But when I think about his stuff, and I think, That’s what the Greeks wanted — for us to see these circumstances that we would do our best to never let happen to us. That was why you went and saw these tragedies, so you wouldn’t allow that kind of tragic situation to happen in your own life.
Weatherbee: He really puts ugly things in your face.
Herring: That’s a good way to say it. That’s what the Greeks did. Their hope was you would learn from that catharsis and not repeat those in your own life.
Weatherbee: For this play, for example, it really is such a masterful way of taking something so old — a tragedy — and putting it into this modern-day discussion. We look at “Oedipus” from a top-down view, far removed from it as a society. He’s turned that thinking on its head. It’s like, no. We’re still there. Some things that humans do to each other today, It’s just as ugly, if not uglier, than the story of Oedipus. I like when playwrights can delve down into the darkness and show something scary.
Herring: Why do you think actors are still interested in portraying these ancient characters?
Weatherbee: How do I put this without sounding too snooty? I think there’s something prestigious about playing classical characters, whether that’s Greek, or Shakespeare, or Moliere. The fact that we can attempt to go back and play characters that are hundreds of thousands of years older than us — we know it’s challenging, and we know that audiences might not fully connect, but we strive to bring them a piece of history anyway. I think that’s part of the allure of it. It’s challenging, and it’s not something you’re going to get in your everyday life.
The discussion shifts into Herring’s philosophy of directing and his approach to working with actors.
Herring: I believe that if you can figure out a process in the rehearsal hall in which you as a director observe actor’s natural abilities and instincts, and you take those and use them with your ideas, you’re going to get a stronger performance than if you dictate. I have never to my knowledge giving a line reading. I have never to my knowledge said, “Raise your hand on this.” Now there have been times when I’ve said, “Yes, you need to sit here, or you need to move over here.” Sure, I’ve done that. But I’ve always really tried to create a process where I first start exploration of the concept, and for me, it’s the discovery of how you’re embracing the concept. I don’t think I’m going to change. It’s going to be that way until I direct my last play.
Weatherbee: I love it, and I’m sure other people love it, too. I hope to direct someday. I’ve tried to be really attentive and absorb something from every director I’ve worked with. One of the things I hope to incorporate and succeed in doing is what you just shared.
Finally, the conversation shifts to Shepard’s legacy.
Herring: There are writers on Netflix and Hulu that are doing things like “Fargo” and “Ozark” — the writing and characters in those, if Sam Shepard didn’t influence them, I don’t know who did. They are nonlinear, and these characters that are somewhat heightened. Shepard was doing this before it got into the television world. I know Sam didn’t know Joe Arpaio, but that is almost who the character of Harrington (the police officer in the play) is. I know that Shepard didn’t write this before that guy appeared. But here’s the thing: Here’s someone we’re seeing on the news.
Weatherbee: I have a question for you. Is there something new that you learned from directing this play?
Herring: I think it’s about trusting the playwright. You have to know and trust that Sam Shepard had a purpose and a reason for putting these characters in this piece. The fact that I finally get to do a Sam Shepard piece says to me: This is why this man will continue to be performed 100 years from now, like Thornton Wilder. What I learned is: Don’t pick this play if you’re going to try to change what the playwright wanted to do, but how do you embrace what the playwright is trying to do. What do you think, Steven, will Shepard still be performed 100 years from now?
Weatherbee: My hope is that yes, he will be still performed. His style of writing will be something studied, I would hope. Maybe if I teach classes in the future I can make a unit or section about Sam Shepard.
“A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” opens Friday, Sept. 29, Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre, Fresno State. Runs through Oct. 7. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
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