Sample Brings the Rough and Rowdy West to The Group Rep Theater
Updated: May 5, 2022
“Now that we are getting back to live theater, it was a real treat to see some professionals do what they do - act the hell out of a darn good piece. There’s so much to that wonderful Shepard script and the actors brought it alive. It was a damn good show!” - Joe J. Garcia (Class of 1984, Academy Faculty Member)
True West is one of the most iconic plays of all time. Known for its rich, deep, full characterizations of two brothers, who couldn’t be more different (but the same), in California struggling to deal with their demons; and its unique Sam Sheperd pattern, its the type of play that is an actor’s dream to get their hands on. The writing alone often will produce an actor's best work on stage. So, when I heard that the Group Rep Theater in Burbank was producing Shepard’s classic I was ecstatic and became even more so when I learned that an Academy alumna directed it - I had to reach out.
Brooklyn Sample (Class of 2005) is an actress, writer, and director. Along with her training at The Academy, she also studied at The Beverly Hills Playhouse under Donna Pescow and Gary Grossman. Her stage credits include Sally in Night of the Iguana, Sybil in Private Lives, and Sally in The Glass Menagerie; just to name a few. She has directed Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, co-directed Godspell, and assistant directed Mamma Mia! She is a delightful human who I had the pleasure of questioning about her ongoing visceral production of True West.
D: What about "True West" spoke to you?
B: I am a huge Shepard fan going back to my grad play at the Academy. We presented his work, “A Lie of the Mind”, where I played Sally. It was directed by the one and only Joe J. Garcia who revealed Shepard’s ability to weave bits of absurdism so delicately into a family drama. After that, I was hooked. I read all of his works. I am even inspired in my own playwriting by his style. “True West” was one of his plays I read, but felt I had no real place in as an actor. I mean, the writing is everything an actor wants to chew on, however, there were no real parts for women except the Mom. I always saw it as this male-driven piece. It wasn’t until last year, when I was asked to direct it, that I thought, “THIS is my way of sharing his story!”
D: What was the process like working on this show?
B: It was the longest rehearsal time I’ve ever had and we took full advantage. When the idea came about from a fellow GRT member, William Wilson, to try to get the theatre to produce it, we went to work. Not everyone thought this kind of play was a good idea, that it was too violent, and messy. So we knew we just had to show them how good it would be. We picked two scenes to workshop and present to the company along with the artistic council. After a few months of rehearsal, we presented in November and they gave us April! I had three months to work with my actors. This allowed for so much discovery. The actors were so prepared the week before the opening, that we did a table read, in Cindy’s diner in Eagle Rock. That was so fun! They did it as they ate and people around us were looking and thinking, WTH is going on over there!
The character building in this was extremely rewarding for me as a director, but more importantly, for these brilliant actors. We had so many table talks getting super-specific about the back story. With Shepard, what is not being said in his intentional pauses is just as important as the dialogue. Creating these scenarios provides a real tension that buzzes throughout these scenes which are necessary for its tone. Once these were established, it made these characters more three-dimensional. Heck, we had “pause” rehearsals to make sure they were memorized like the words. Not all characters were easy. I always had a good idea of the male characters but for the Mom, I was unsure. When we brought Clara Rodriguez in, who is a brilliant actor, all was revealed! She is only in the final scene but when she comes in, we finally see what has contributed to the deranged psyche of these men. Throughout the play, the father is a main character who never appears and we as an audience think it’s his drunken abuse that caused it. But the Mom’s inability to cope with years of abuse played her part. Honestly, these actors are so good and provide so much to play with. A real dream team.
D: What do you think your production brings to the lexicon of "True West?"
B: I make it a point when I direct well-known shows, to find ways to present them in ways not done before. However, I will never sway from the author’s intent. His language and tempo are right there and we worked meticulously to keep the true pacing.
Surrealism is another important factor that I chose to show in the lighting and set design. We created a “floating set” to reflect the only thing real was just that, the set pieces. The characters grapple with and challenge what they think is real. But it’s the coffee, the toasters, the kitchen items that give us a false sense of security, of life’s comforts. This is the exact opposite of what the stereotypical dessert West offers. We also split the stage down the center. One side is the kitchen with its “metallic” and “mechanical” gadgets assisting in making our lives easier. The atrium side represents a more primitive, natural life; live plants, candles, wood, fire. I think that goes hand in hand with what Shepard was fighting in his own head. The desire to live off of the land or give in to society's need for him to be this Hollywood screenwriter superstar. It was important to show this on the stage as well as in the character.
The lighting design, done by AADA’s own Luke Moyer, was the cherry on top. We added a cyc and lit it with bright, sharp colors to not just give us a sense of time, but that surrealism it needed to help fuel the ride the audience goes on. He NAILED it! I feel we made it our own while honoring the story.
D: Have you seen "True West" before? If so, what does your cast bring that is different?
B: I had only seen scenes work done in classes and had watched the classic PBS production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. As I said, I like to make it my own. By doing this, as a director, you have to allow the actors you have entrusted to play these characters to bring their own to it.
Lee is often portrayed as this intense, dangerous, and dirty guy. James Lemire, who plays Lee in this production, provided a likable quality not often seen and he balances it all brilliantly. This mixed with his dangerous unpredictability and devastating inability to function in society is heartbreaking. Austin is typically played as weak and scared of Lee. William Wilson’s interpretation is that of restraint, not weakness. This is such a stronger and more interesting choice. His spiral in darkness justifies this choice and it is delicious!
Saul always enters as the stereotypical Hollywood Producer dressed to the nine and making deals. But when Jason Madera auditioned wearing maroon polyester pants, cowboy boots, a large collared button-up, and a feathered hat a lightbulb went off. Besides the clothes, his Saul was dangerous and had a Lucifer vibe with his rough voice and long use of S’s. Then all the language describing Saul made sense. It also made sense that Saul would be someone Lee could look to and think, He’s not much different than me, more refined but if he can be in that world, so can I. He represents the falsehoods of Hollywood so Jason’s interpretation made sense. Clara’s Mom, again, reveals so much about these boys and their competitive, jealous nature. She had a natural interpretation of fragility that only she could bring and she played it straight without trying too hard to add those layers of dementia often focused on. She let the language speak for itself and in the simplicity, we see the sad truths.
D: What is the center, the driving force, behind the play?
B: The story of these brothers represents the internal struggles that not only Sam fought with, but one that we all have with ourselves. That duality. The idea of who we think we want to be and the qualities about ourselves that we wish we did not have, are those that seem easier to fall into because they are the conditioning of our early years. But, the idea of who we wish we could be most often is based on the lies we are told about how much life will be better if we attain those things. In the case of this play, it is the lies that Hollywood tells us about the freedoms of the West or about the security of the house, the job, and the nuclear family. Both of these guys bought into these ideas of happiness only to continue being lonely, searching for something else to fill that void.
D: What do you want the audience to leave with?
B: A reflection of their own lies that they tell themselves in an effort to attain happiness and success. I think you also have to consider the cyclical nature of your life. The things you know you should change for your own growth but can’t because you don’t know how. While it may not be Hollywood that influences us as a society as much, it definitely is a problem through social media. How are you being lied to? Everyone’s life seems perfect and happy but that is all an image and honestly not real life. We only see the best of their life or even made-up life and therefore feel we are failing. So I think what was true when this was produced in the early 80’s is still ringing true today.
D: I recently heard David Mamet say that writing a play is not necessarily about changing minds but rather about the author working out their frustrations, about the world, their life, etc. What do you think Shepard may have been working out with "True West?"
B: As I mentioned before, this is definitely a representation of his inner professional fighting with his inner rebel. His father had a drinking problem, as did Sam. He just wanted to create his art and live his own way. He loved the idea of the west and that lifestyle, however, he was enticed by Hollywood to become a screenwriter. He ultimately had his scripts produced and even acted on the big screen, but he must have struggled with the falsehoods of Hollywood. His series of family plays that “True West” belongs to also leaves those stories without a real conclusion. I think this represents his ongoing struggles with his inner demons and how that never really ceases but goes on and on.
True West is currently running at The Group Rep Theater and will be closing May 8th. You don’t want to miss it! Get tickets here.