“Imagine making plays as if Beckett, Churchill, Shawn, Fornes, Gambaro, Anouilh, Kennedy, Sondheim…hadn’t happened. – Caridad Svich
As a theatre student in the late ’90s, drinking Pabst beer and staging True West on the six-foot stage of Groovacious Records in Cedar City, a pastime for me and my fellow free spirits was ranting about the Theatre of Complacency and the imminent blinding ascendency of Revolution. Twenty years on, I have more categories for art than “complacent” or “revolutionary,” but I’m still certain of this: there’s playing it safe and not playing it safe.
Utah Playwright Morag Shepherd never plays it safe.
Like Churchill or Fornes, she hews to the dreamlike, trying to capture in her elliptical lyric dialogue what cannot be said with any satisfaction. As she puts it: “I suppose it’s fair to say that I am more interested in sub-text than text. I’ll write it all out, and then pretty consistently cut [out the obvious].” Using wordplay and disturbing images, Shepherd evokes feelings about huge human problems—mental health, how we trap ourselves in relationships, the fear of death—without tying herself to realist plot progression. To the extent that there is a revolution in playwriting in the US, much of it centers on challenging the familiar story structure in which problems are presented and solved. Like the Shepard who wrote True West, Morag Shepherd rarely gives us narratives with solutions.
For whatever reason, the rejection of realism is more contentious in theatre than, say, visual art—or so it seems to me as a theatre guy. Most people are willing to walk through an art museum and linger awhile with the macabre portraits of Albright, even if they wouldn’t hang them on their walls, but look at the programming of large-house theatres in the United States and you’ll understand that departures from realism require the curation of companies like Salt Lake Acting Company, the erstwhile Sackerson, and Plan-B Theatre Company where Shepherd’s latest play, My Brother was a Vampire, will open on November 3rd.
How to describe this play? In the jargon of the Writing Excuses podcast, which focuses on fiction but offers advice to all writers, it’s a relationship story with a sub-element of horror. Many of Shepherd’s plays put relationships first. My Brother was a Vampire pries into a brother/sister relationship that’s loaded, dark, and wryly funny. The notes at the top have a crucial hint about the style. Shepherd tells the director and actors: “These characters know each and go for the jugular, and then are extremely tender and sweet.” One can see the influence of Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph in this piece, which Shepherd co-directed in 2021 at Wasatch Theatre. Gruesome is play about friends not siblings, about frustrated love not death and disease, but Shepherd was inspired, I think, by its wonderfully droll tone and short scenes. Here’s a taste of what I’m talking about:
Mom is dead
I know you think that’s funny
But it’s not
I’m not being funny
Do you have to say like that
How do you want me to say it
You’re making it a joke
She died vacuuming the carpet
Let this really land
Of course she died vacuuming the carpet
Doing what she loved the most
Of course, the title is My Brother was a Vampire and this kind of dialogue can swing quickly into horror. A stage direction from later in the play will demonstrate: “Callum tries to talk. He can’t. He struggles. Callum starts to panic, almost like he cannot breathe.” This is a story with sudden shifts and strange powers, which have no realist explanation. A realist vampire story tells us where the vampire curse came from, what the monster’s powers are, what the monster’s weaknesses are, and then good conquers evil. In this story, vampirism and magic exists in order to lead us—with humor—closer to our fears. As dramaturg Gordon Farrell puts it, in his explanation of the post-World War II absurdists, “Feeling this terror is simply the price we pay for being alive” (The Power of the Playwright’s Vision). Shepherd uses a sense of the magical to call us deep into our fears, our sense of being out of control, of being inexorably subject to Hamlet’s “whips and scorns of time.”
Like Caridad Svich, whose work has been seen at Salt Lake’s Pygmalion Productions (Spark and Red Bike), Morag Shepherd makes plays in the stylistic wake of twentieth-century writers who saw a trap in the realist vision. The world is full of unforgettably moving realist plays, of course—and Shepherd has written more or less straightforward romantic drama (Hindsight)—but if you sit with Shepherd’s work, then you can see what trap she’s trying to avoid: pressing emotions into the service of political message. Though she also wants to uphold the uniqueness of theatre. Shepherd wrote to me, “I think there needs to be a strong reason for why the stage as opposed to another medium.”
There are more mediums than ever before. Our entertainment options are vast: radio, film, network TV, streaming TV (with its quite different dramaturgy), podcasts, videogames, TTRPGs, and virtual reality.
What makes the theatre unique in the face of all this? Well, when there are literally hundreds of realist dramas to choose from, many of them Problem-Solution, it’s refreshing to watch something that pulls us into a slipstream of emotion and puts us face-to-face with what really matters: sisters, brothers, inner monsters, and the someday-inescapable fact of our blood running out of us.
Originally published on 15 Bytes / Artists of Utah