Opening night at the Magic Theather. Drama critics, representing publications from the Village Voice to Newsweek, are jammed into the third floor 99-seat theater on the San Francisco waterfront. Tonight they outnumber the paying customers for the world premiere of "True West," the latest play by Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The house lights dim, and in the green glow of the exit sign Shepard's harshest critic, a handsome rangy fellow in dark aviator glasses and tooled cowboy boots, slumps into the back row. He wears blue jeans, an orange T-shirt, a silver and turquoise belt buckle. He stares sternly at the stage set, the kitchen of a tract home 40 miles east of Los Angeles. In this suburban setting, "Trust West" uses a sibling rivalry to explore old myths and new realities of the American frontier. In one scene, Austin, who is writing a script for Hollywood -- a western romance -- is caught stuffing Wonder Bread into stolen chrome toasters while his brother Lee, a petty thief, axes Austin's typewriter with a 9 iron. The man with the cowboy boots in the back row begins to giggle. Now and then he cuts loose with a belly laugh. The other critics turn and glare.

To their surprise the gentleman making all the racket is the playwright. Normally his own toughest critic, tonight Shepard, twirling a single red rose, is thoroughly enjoying his newest creation.

"This is the first one of my plays I've been able to sit through night after night and not have my stomach ball up in knots of embarrassment," he later tells me in his easygoing western drawl. "I worked longer on this than any other play and rewrote it 13 times. 'True West' is the first play I've truly felt hooked up to."

That is quite a confession coming from the man who is arguably America's best practicing playwright. After Tennessee Williams, Shepard is said to be the most produced American playwright in this country. Since 1964, when he was 20 years old and his first one-act showed in an Off Off-Broadway theater more than 40 of his plays have been produced. Added to this mountainous achievement he has won seven Obie (Off-Broadway) awards, though ironically has never had one of his plays produced in a commercial Broadway theater. Among his counterculture credentials are collaborations with Bob Dylan, Michelangelo Antonioni, Mick Jagger, and New Wave poet-singer Patti Smith.

Shepard's plays are distinctly American in scope and subject: Old West cowboys, fading rock and roll stars, sci-fi monsters, Hollywood agents. Yet, like America's jazz men in the 1940s and '50s, he in many ways is better known on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe Martin Esslin, former head of the BBC's drama division, says, "Sam Shepard ism contemporary American theater."

"True West," which opened this month in New York at the Public Theater, is thought by many critics to be the best play Shepard has ever written. It is the third in a trilogy of plays on the disintegration of the family and was preceded by "The Curse of the Starving Class" in 1977 and in 1978 by "Buried Child," for which he won the Pulitzer. "True West" is a sharp departure from his more experimental and often elliptical earlier plays.

This is his first true comedy and has the trademarks of great dramatic work: realism, well-crafted character, and economy of language. Shepard has edited out any heavy-handed metaphysical symbolism which invaded some of his earlier writing, thus making "True West" an intriguing play open to broad interpretation. The bucking bronco of the American theater has settled down, and the audience is the beneficiary.

As if maturation as a playwright were not enough, he has taken up, with startling success, a second career -- acting. Two years ago he made his debut as the mealdncholy land owner in Terrence Malick's cinematic object d'art,m "Days of Heaven." After rave reviews, Shepard was cast as the son of a Kansas preacher , alongside Ellen Burstyn in the current film "Resurrection."

Just last month, Shepard returned from shooting in Texas yet a third film, "The Raggedy Man," co-starring Sissy Spacek. "If he [Shepard] wants it," Newsweek film critic David Ansen writes, "he stands on the brink of an extraordinary new career in the movies."

Becoming a movie star, however, appears to be the last thing Shepard has in mind. In the last year he has left Hollywood agents aghast by repeatedly turning his back on lucrative movie contracts. (He was offered the lead in "Urban Cowboy," a role later accepted by John Travolta. The playwright also walked away from a recent offer to star in one of Warren Beatty's productions.)

At the moment, Shepard seems to want most to be left alone in his modest Marin County hacienda where he lives with his wife, O-Lan (a writer and director), their 11-year-old son, Jesse Mojo, O-Lan's mother and stepfather, and four dogs. More than ever, the friendly but reclusive playwright guards his privacy with the zeal of a J. D. Salinger, understandably shunning reporters and rarely granting interviews. Friends say Shepard is most himself roping calves in a small-time rodeo or playing drums with a local jazz group.

I met Sam Shepard at a playwright workshop he was giving at the Marin Community Playhouse in Kentfield, Calif., half an hour north of San Francisco. He was sitting cross-legged in a circle of drama students doing dialogue exercises near a row of redwoods.

On that particular day he had invited a musician friend, J. A. Dean ("Dino" to Sam), to "jam" with the young playwrights. Dino, one of the West Coast's most creative percussionists, traveled with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue and worked at the Overtones Theater in San Francisco on several of Shepard's music-word productions.

At the playwright workshop Dino had surrounded himself with the tools of his trade: bells, tambourine, cymbals, and rattles. As dino improvised, Shepard instructed his students to use the sounds as "an environment for words" and write a scene. Roles were then flip-flopped and Dino translated the students' writing into music. When I arrived, he was crumbling an old milk carton to the line: "Romaine lettuce in the refrigerator crisper is two weeks old."

Shepard, an accomplished drummer and devotee of progressive jazz, often writes in a form that is more musical than dramatic. He uses Jack Kerouac's technique of "jazz sketching" or jamming with words. Like a musician jumping from key to key, improvising as he goes, Shepard treats dialogue like jazz riffs.

"I see actors as musicians, playing to each other, using their voices instead of instruments," he tells me during a workshop break. "I'm always surprised by the similarities between music and writing: the inner structure, tonality, rhythm, harmony. 'True West' felt like a total improvisation spinning off itself. The writing of the play started when I heard the voice of Lee speaking very clearly, and then I heard Austin's response. The more I listened, the more the voices came.

"Listening is essential in writing and it takes a lot of practice. It's not just listening with the ear, but it's that inner sort of listening. It's like listening to yourself think when you're driving long distances through the night , or listening to yourself play an instrument. It's possible to play an instrument without listening and still hit all the right notes. But that's not music."

As his students read the simple dialogue they have written, Shepard constantly asks them: "Is that really what you heard when you listened?"

In the frenzy to create the well-made play, inexperienced writers "overwrite, " he says. "Sometimes writing becomes so dense and impacted that there is no room to listen. Then you're not inviting the listener, you're pushing him away. Give the audience some breathing room. And leave some air around the actors. Let the lines nudge them into action. When dialogue is just words, it's like padding that cuts you off from the character instead of connecting you. Good dialogue comes from listening to your inner questioning and being vulnerable. Humility and questioning go hand in hand. Humility isn't something you make up. It's . . . coming up against the great unknown and admitting you just don't know." To his credit, "True West" embodies the humility and sparseness Shepard strives for.

Sam Shepard was born in 1943 at Ford Sheridan, Ill., an Army basic training camp 25 miles north of Chicago. His father was a career officer, and during Shepard's youth the family shuttled form base to base, from South Dakota to Utah , from Florida to Guam and the Philippines before they finally settled on an avocado ranch in Duarte, east of Los Angeles. Sam belonged to the local 4-H Club, raised chickens and sheep, and one year a ram of his won grand prize at the Los Angeles County Fair. He was a casual student, played drums in the high school band, and spent a few semesters at a junior college before moving to New York.

There he dabbled in acting, worked in Greenwich Village, roomed with Charles Mingus Jr. (son of the great black jazz musician), and read Beckett and the Beat poets. In 1964 his first tow one-act plays, "Cowboys" and "The Rock Garden," were mounted by Theater Genesis at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. The Village Voice liked them, and Shepard's writing career was launched.

In the mid-1960s he played drums for a group called The Holly Modal Rounders and began writing the first of his rock and roll plays. In 1971 he gathered his wife and toddler son and moved to England, ostensibly looking for a new rock band. There he wrote "Geography of a Horse Dreamer" and "The Tooth of Crime," which some critics still consider to be his best work. In 1975 Shepard toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue through the Northest and later wrote "The Rolling Thunder Logbook."

How does Shepard look back on his earlier work?

"Mostly I try to forget it. Your work is a manifestation of who you are when you were at that place in time. I can't help but be a different person now doing different material. After 'Buried Child' I wanted to simplify, to refine, and distill. That is the general direction I'm moving in.

"I used not to care about character. I would write these five-minute speeches, arias, and they were simply boring. Character has become much more important to me. I learned that from [British director] Peter Brook. A playwright has to understand what an actor goes through. I've seen Beckett made to look like Abbott and Costello. I don't see how and playwright can grow if he doesn't get involved in the production of his work."

One of the reasons Shepard doesn't see more of his own work produced is that he refuses to set foot on an airplane. He travels, when he has to, in his own pickup truck.

On the day of the playwright workshop, his truck was being repaired and he rode his green ten-speed bike to the community playhouse. After his class, Shepard lifted his bike into the back of my camper and we drove to have lunch at one of his favorite diners, Joe's, near a cloverleaf on Highway 101.

As we drive, we chat about raising Sundown sheep, his mother's trip to Alaska , and the time he encountered at Stanford an affectionate gorilla named Koko who spoke in sign language. "I stepped into the cage and she put her arm around me and kept giving me the sign: 'Tickle me. Chase me.'" While Shepard appears more comfortable speaking of animal husbandry than about his plays, he is capable of discussing his work without false modesty.

He focuses not on how far he has come, but on how far he must go, in a manner devoid of pretense. He is casual, good-humored. Once he is convinced that a reporter is not trying to play peek-a-boo with a movie star, Shepard is easy to talk to. The time I spent with him felt more like chewing the fat with a slightly older brother than interviewing one of the country's preeminent playwrights.

As we pull up in front of Joe's, I wonder aloud how the last two years of acting had influenced his playwright.

"It's the difference between training a horse on the ground and getting on his back," he says. "Until you get up on stage and put yourself inside the character you'll never realize the dilemmas an actor faces. A lot of playwrights think actors are automatons and can pick up wherever the writer leaves off. That doesn't happen.

"And another thing, the playwright's vision is not fixed. It has movement and life. A play is alive and continuously evolving, never dead or locked in certainty. What's all this superstition and stigma about the playwright getting involved in the production? The general impression is that playwrights don't know anything about acting and sit in the background and whisper to the director."

Sometimes directors have exactly the opposite problem. Says Robert Woodruff, who has directed the premieres of six Shepard plays, including "True West": "Some playwrights want to get up and direct because they have so much invested in their work. But Sam has got his chops down. His whole being isn't at stake and he can be objective. He knows when it's the writing or the acting that is bad. 'True West' was a very different experience for him. Usually he paces around the lobby during a performance. For this one he's been sitting through the play and coming every night."

Joe's diner has green Naugahyde booths, all-weather carpet, and flagstone walls hung with gold-framed pictures of river canyons at sunset. It is the sort of restaurant where waitresses are surly enough to presume they know better than your stomach what you would like for lunch. Shepard's stomach told him tomato and bacon sandwich, but our waitress buillied him: "No, darlin'. You don't want that. What you need is a good meat sandwich, like our beef or lamb."

Before Shepard's lamb sandwich arrived, I asked the man, attacked in his early days by critics for being an "obscurantist," whether he has an audience in mind when he's writing.

"When you're writing you don't worry about an audience. At that point the only audience is yourself. On the other hand, playwright is about people. And if you exclude them, what have you got left? Playwright is not a closet act. It is not an act of elitism. All I'm saying is that you can't treat the audience as some sort of ghost.

"I've written plays to which the audience has not been connected. 'Horse Dreamer' was to much in the fable genre and created a distance between the audience. I want people to leave my plays with a sense of questioning, a sense of mystery, but not mystification. I don't want them puzzling over 'What does this mean?' I want my plays to open up whole new territories. We're at a transitional time in history. Old exteriors and values are crumbling away and giving birth to new ones. People are turning toward questioning their purpose, and the theater reflect that."

After lunch he saddled up his ten-speed to ride to the nearby car dealer where his truck was waiting. As we stood in the street in front of Joe's, Shepard took a final few minutes to explain what drives him as a writer:

"Playwright is self-discovery. You are working out yourself. You're asking questions and thinking about where your last play left off. And you don't always come up with the answers.

"Most writers are cooking up ideas that will make their next project, but the ideas aren't vital to them. The contemporary playwright I respect most is [ Peter] Handke, his prose and his plays.He's exploring the truth in himself and his plays open it up to everybody. There hasn't been a writer since Beckett that has been so adventurous. Joan Didion is that way, too. She is ruthless with herself and doesn't allow self-indulgence.

"Beckett surpasses everyone. He's like the Marlon Brando of writers. He persevered to keep the suffering of writing, but not in a masochistic way. For him it was the admission of not knowing but still keeping at it and refusing to settle for easy answers.

"I'm driven by a deep dissatisfaction. What you accomplish in your work always falls short of the possibilities you know are sneaking around. The work never gets easier. It gets harder and more provocative. And as it gets harder you are continually reminded there is more to accomplish. It's like digging for gold. And when you find the vein, you know there's a lot more where that came from."

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