St. Mark’s in the Bowery: Sam Shepard’s First Theatrical Home
“…But who knows what is real anyway?
Reality is overrated. What remains are the words scrawled upon an unwinding panorama, vestiges of dusty stills peeled from memory, a threnody of gone voices drifting across the American plain. The One Inside is a coalescing atlas marked by the boot heels of one who instinctively tramps, with open eyes, the stretches of its unearthly roads.”
Patti Smith from her introduction to The One Inside by Sam Shepard.
Sam Shepard’s is a legacy like no other American playwight. An actor, musician, playwright, philosopher, Shepard’s career spaned the distance. He brought a singularly unique voice to the theatre that trancsended time, place, and category. And it all started at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.
His first play(s) were staged right here in the building adjacent to the very place your humble writer sits at the computer, on the second floor of the parish hall of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, which had been converted from a meeting room into a tiny black box theatre; a thirty-five-by-thirty-five-foot space with black walls and ceiling. It was called Theatre Genesis, appropriately. Like so many of the other tiny theatres in the Village–Caffe Cino, La Mama, Cherry Lane, Judson Poets’ Theatre, it nourished and helped birth of the works of so many playwrights, poets, and musicians who might not have found their voices were it not for cheap rents and customers eager for the truth. These theatres created an extremely fertile ground for an experimental and fruitful period in American theatre.
The first of Shepard’s plays that were staged at Theatre Genesis were a double bill of one-acts: Cowboys and The Rock Garden. Michael Smith, theater critic for the Village Voice at the time, was invited to attend by a friend of one of the actors. His review of the two plays may very well have changed the course of theatrical history, as Shepard was thinking of calling it quits and moving back to California after several other scathing reviews of the plays.
“Theatre Genesis…[has] actually found a new playwright [and] he has written a pair of provocative and genuinely original plays… [Sam] Shepard is feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramatic structure and moving into an area between ritual and naturalism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theater which evokes the existence behind behavior….his voice is distincly American and his own.”
Michael Smith’s review of Cowboys and The Rock Garden by Sam Shepard, 1964
Smith’s review brought crowds of hungry theatre goers to Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. And Sam Shepard’s career was on an ever ascending rocket to the moon.
Grateful for his work. Saddened by our loss. Buoyed by his art.