Rumors and Borders: Red Shuttleworth's American West

08/23/2017 04:20 pm ET
Author Photo: Kate Shuttleworth / Book Cover Photo: Rex Rodenbaugh

Red Shuttleworth eats tumbleweeds for breakfast. He would rope a few calves before noon if it weren’t for a bum shoulder. The West settles down in him like a dog in the grass: the sound of his dialogue, the cadences of his characters, the smartness of their responses to one another. But it’s deeper than that. In Rumors and Borders, there’s a savage wind off the desert, the hiss of snakes in the rocks, and the faraway whine of a coyote at night. Shuttleworth’s plays are surprising and unpredictable, poetic and tough. Most of all, his plays are informed by the land that shapes him, the land that shapes the characters who speak through him.
-- Julie Jensen, playwright

Red Shuttleworth has long been considered one of the premiere American poets/playwrights taking on a subject he knows much about: the realities, nuances, and challenges of the modern American West.

His plays have been presented widely, including at State University of New York at Fredonia, Saddleback College, Sundance Playwrights Lab, and the Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespearean Festival.

In each case his work has presented a singular and necessary voice, which caused the late Jerry L. Crawford, a Dean of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., to call Shuttleworth “one of the finest imaginative living playwrights for a challenged American Theatre.”

Shuttleworth, having just been named one of the Tanne Foundation’s 2017 award recipients, also welcomes a new book being published internationally by Humanitas Media Publishing, Rumors and Borders: Eight Western Plays, released on August 25th, 2017.

Interviewed amidst the threat of brushfires in the scablands of Washington state, Shuttleworth talks about the Tanne Foundation Award, his new book and his continued dedication toward some of the more important themes which without voices such as his, might become lost in the often politicized world of American literature.

You were just named as a 2017 Tanne Foundation award recipient. What does this honor mean to you and your body of work?

Receiving a 2017 Tanne Foundation Award came as a surprise. You can’t apply for it. For two decades the Tanne Foundation has given generous awards to a wide range of artists and writers… usually ones in mid-career. I began writing in 1967, so my writing life is beyond the halfway notch. At age 72, I might be the oldest recipient. I am grateful… moved by the kindness and generosity of the trustees of the Tanne Foundation, by their faith in the value of my poetry and plays.

What inspired you to put together this collection of plays?

The one-act plays in Rumors and Borders received early productions in the nineties at SUNY-Fredonia and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and they continue to draw interest from actors and small theatres. These eight plays offer a few good questions: who owns the West, do Old West myths serve or sicken us, what is becoming of us and our land west of the Missouri as it flows north-south?

What would you say is the overarching theme of the collection in terms of the meaning you hope readers will find as they go from one play to the next?

In the American West we remain guided by history, myths, our archetypal (and cliché) stories. The West resonates with each new generation of American writers. As readers journey from the first play, Days of Daring, to the final play, The Genuine Love of the Kid’s Life, back and forth in time, they might ask, What values and activities are worth carrying forward, what portion of our Western legacy and legend is helpful in new contexts? These plays are like a family photo album. We look for ourselves in the faces and actions of our ancestors. What would grandpa or grandma do if they had to live in our diverse, socio-politically contested, income-disparity, hyper-tech times.

In the current political landscape in the United States, what do you think people in other areas of the country are missing in terms of issues that need to be addressed in the American West? How does your writing, including with this book, tap into those themes?

Half the land mass in the United States is owned by the federal government… and most of it is in the American West. The current administration would like to serve the interests of Big Energy and despoil protected lands for the sake of selfish development. As William Kittredge has often taught about the West and boom/bust cycles, the money and the power always come from the East and, when they leave, they leave wreckage and holes in the ground. But… there are strong pockets, too, of good, earnest people who love the West and live on its land in new and replicated ways to run cattle, grow crops, and keep in harmony with neighbors and the earth.

What would you say is the quintessential "Western" character in the American West these days, and how does it differ from what people once thought?

The American West (except in counties with fewer than two or so people per square mile) is rapidly growing (sometimes despite adequate resources, like water) with diverse populations. Progress and growth, as Edward Abbey warned, are the slogans of cancer. The West (convulsion and seizure) suffers drought, water resource depletion, wildfires, salinization of long-irrigated ground, soil erosion, cancer clusters from Big-Ag’s addiction to pesticide and herbicide use, urban growth where growth makes no sense because of resource scarcity, less-than-enriching urban centers with punishing income inequality and crime. Today’s Westerner is tech-sophisticated, likely brain-attached to a smart phone, yet is constrained by credit card and student loan debt and trudges barren, hard ground in search of fewer paths toward upward mobility. Today’s Westerner, like yesterday’s, receives the region’s mythos through film and TV… in a high-tech living room with a wall screen… via cable or subscription streaming-content. And each generation revisits and revises history to suit its emerging values and sense of self. Tom Mix, straight shootin’ silent film star, carries little resonance today… but he might if an Amazon mini-series, with a big-stars cast, is made about his life. But whatever Tom Mix we create for wall screens will be an ersatz character confected to suit current tastes and quirks. Revisionism (for the sake of political correctness) brings us less Western actuality than did John Ford and John Wayne, less truth than Sam Peckinpah.

Who is most inspiring you these days among the authors/poets/playwrights you're reading?

I recently read Sam Shepard’s final work, The One Inside. Currently I am reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Samuel Beckett’s The Complete Short Prose, and Albert Camus’ Notebooks 1951-1959. There are books I reread turn-by-turn, like Seamus Heaney’s Door into the Dark, Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and one or another collection of poems by Georg Trakl. There are wonderful poets writing the West: Paul Zarzyski, Adrian C. Louis, Larry D. Thomas, Trevino L. Brings Plenty, Jeffrey Alfier, J.V. Brummels, Linda Hussa, John Dofflemyer, and Sherman Alexie.

You were a true admirer of Sam Shepard. What is the legacy that he leaves for American drama and in terms of even him as a figure in American culture?

Sam Shepard, back in the sixties, as a kid, as a junior college dropout, as a would-be rock star drummer with a side interest in playwriting, rescued American Theatre, because, as he much later admitted, he did not know dramaturgy, so his plays broke the rules, cut new trails, gave us new ways of looking and seeing. Shepard was not the Lone Ranger of American Theatre, not a movement of his own. Shepard was part of a rich Off-Off Broadway movement. But his work has endured… its wildness and its jagged, raggedy perceptions and wild conflicts. Young playwrights will be learning from Shepard for decades. He has cast a long shadow. As Stephen Rea recently noted, our time of theatre was dominated by Beckett, Pinter, and Shepard. When my children were young, and this they remember, instead of bedtime stories, I read to them from Hunter S. Thompson, from Ernest Hemingway, from Yeats, from Kay Boyle, from plays like Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class and Cowboy Mouth.

What are you currently working on, and what themes would you like to tackle next?

The work ahead includes a string of one hundred short-short plays, one for each 20th century year in the West. Themes: legacy… inheritance… entrances and passages. And out of notebooks come poems. So I shift from one genre to the other… back and forth between poetry and trying to make theatre pieces.

What advice do you have for American writers who are currently writing in the genre approaching themes about the American West? What kind of literary landscape are they entering?

You can’t write better than you read. Jim Harrison, when young, read the Europeans, the Russians, and later gave us Legends of the Fall, Dalva, and great poetry. An MFA does not guarantee good writing, but a fine talent can benefit from a good creative writing program. For decades I drove the West… drifted and rambled. It was instructive to sit bars and cafes and listen… to keep a traveler’s log. It’s easy enough to map out a landscape to drive, say Comancheria, the High Plains, Texas Longhorn Country, Apacheria, or Buckaroo Country… and then spend a few notebook weeks on the road in cheap motels. If you drive long enough and far enough in the West, you might find poems, short stories, a novel, or a play or two.

Rumors and Borders: Eight Western Plays will be available internationally via print and Kindle on August 25, 2017. Further information may be found via http://www.humanitasmedia.com.

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