John I. Tissot
Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Connecticut
Yale Repertory Theater
Curse of the Starving Class is a play written in 1977 by one of the most celebrated of contemporary American playwrights, Sam Shepard.
I designed this production at Yale Repertory Theater in 1980. Lloyd Richards, who was both the Artistic Director of YRT and Dean of the Yale School of Drama, was dedicated to producing plays by contemporary playwrights, as was his predecessor, Robert Brustein.
Sam Shepard is a man whose career stands as mocking denial of the contemporary certainty that an artist must have at least a Master of Fine Arts degree to call himself legitimate. I don’t believe that Sam Shepard actually graduated from college, though I think that he did attend it. Nevertheless, he managed to become not only brilliant and renowned playwright (in 1979 he received Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child), but also to win an Academy Award for his acting role in The Right Stuff. He has also had a distinguished career as a director, and has published short stories, and essays.
His plays are usually described as dark, often satirical depictions of American life. For many, and I count myself amongst them, he is principally a poet of the American vernacular. His language is quintessentially American but without any of the media layer that usually covers it and makes it seem less than it is.
In Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard presents us with rural California family, barely hanging on to the small patch of a place that once was what their lives were about.
My memory of working on this play is full of the music of Leo Kottke, an acoustic guitarist whose compositions seem to have been written especially for the play. Also, the fact that we had a lamb back stage (with its own dressing-room) since a lamb is what the playwright required. The character of Emma is a young girl in 4 H uniform who gets thrown off a horse (off stage, mercifully) and is dragged by him through mud. This required us to duplicate these conditions in YRT parking lot. We did not hire a horse, or tied the actress to it; we tied a dummy wearing the costume to the bumper of a car (on a rainy day). We also had considerable trouble with getting hold of California Highway Patrol motorcycle uniform for Sergeant Malcolm. Finally, the property man and I had to figure out how to make it possible for Wesley (son of the Tate family that the play is about) to urinate on stage. This was the only time I ever came across this particular challenge.Costume designers are required to sit through dress rehearsals which in theater usually consist of at least two days of what is called ten-out-of-twelve, as well as quite a few “run-throughs”, and also previews. After three or four days of hearing and seeing the play over and over, it can get very monotonous. I always remember Curse of the Starving Class to be the one play that I somehow never had enough. Sam Shepard’s writing is very addictive.