Wolf Man Cometh
Will Shephard brings his one-man play about Jack London to Carmel’s Indoor Forest Theater.
Thursday, February 5, 2004
It was a simple suggestion, based more on looks than anything else, that started the haunting. That was back in 1975, when Will Shephard—now head of the Teledramatic Arts and Theater department at CSU Monterey Bay—was a struggling actor working in Southern California. His friend and co-actor Will Geer suggested that he write a one-man play about Jack London. The suggestion wasn’t based on much more than the fact that Shephard and London shared a similar stocky build, square face and deep-set eyes. But it set Shephard to thinking and reading, and ultimately on a path that even he is at a loss to describe.
“I was caught up in the story of his life,” says Shephard. “I’ve written other plays, but I’ve never found another historical figure I had such a connection with.”
After devouring as many biographies on London as he could, Shephard said he felt there was something missing, something hidden between the lines about the legendary author.
London’s exploits, of course, are well chronicled. Born in 1876, the author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf rose from poverty to wealth and fame before dying at the age of 40. Along the way, he was a pirate, a prospector, and a playboy. He was an alcoholic and an adventurer, one of the best-known authors of his day, a noted socialist, and a possible suicide.
After doing his research, Shephard decided that London’s life indeed cried out for dramatic interpretation.
“I use poetic license,” says Shephard about the one-man play he eventually penned, Jack London: The True Story. “But I try to stay true to the man and his works.”
Interspersing selections from London’s works with his own, Shephard performs the play as London’s ghost, come back to tell his own story. And here, again, Shephard says that it was Geer who helped focus the piece. After completing his first draft of the play, Shephard took it to Geer, who asked the pivotal question, “Why did you come back?”
The resulting play, says Shephard, revolves around exploring two questions, “What would he tell us, and why would he tell us?”
For 10 years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Shephard performed the play around the country, from Alaska to New York. His performance at the Performing Garage in Manhattan garnered rave reviews. Then other projects and interests prevailed—Shephard is also a poet, author, teacher and filmmaker—and the piece lay dormant for about 20 years.
At the urging of his friend, Richard Newhouse, who co-directs the production that opens Friday in Carmel, Shephard picked up the script again late last year and began re-evaluating it.
Although Shephard says for the main part he was happy with the piece, 20 years of maturity caused him to rewrite some of it.
“The score is still there,” smiles Shephard, “I just added to the music.”
As Shephard talks of London’s life, there is an unmistakable intensity to his voice and from time to time his eyes glisten—clearly this is no trivial pursuit for him. He seems at a loss to account for how his path and London’s keep crossing.
At one point Shephard got a gig with the Alaska Repertory Theater—and found himself dog-sledding in London’s snowy haunts. Now he’ll be performing his play at Carmel’s historic Forest Theater, a locale that was ground zero for Carmel’s Bohemian crowd shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
The theater was not just a gathering place for the ragtag band of artists, writers and free spirits who lived in the town, it was also a place where they merged their talents to produce theatrical events. London would have been well aware of the venue where Shephard will be performing; the writer made several trips to Carmel in those years to visit his good friend George Sterling, the leader of the town’s Bohemian flock.
For his part, Shephard denies he’s intentionally shadowing London. It’s all coincidence and mystery.
“It’s not as if I was following London’s life,” says Shephard. “It’s more like it’s following me.”
But then, almost in the next breath, Shephard talks about his decision to perform the play again, after so many years. And you almost have to wonder who’s haunting whom.
“There was something missing from my life,” says Shephard. “I didn’t know how much I was missing.”
Will Shephard presents the Carmel premiere of Jack London: The True Story at a gala opening Friday at the Indoor Forest Theater, Mountain View at Santa Rita, Carmel. 624-1531.