February 10, 2004

Spalding Gray

It came as a frigid gust, the news that monologist Spalding Gray was missing and the worst presumed. In mid-January his family filed an official report. He was suffering mightily from depression and the lingering aftereffects of a terrible car crash. The best guess proffered by family and friends is that on the evening of January 10, he leapt off the Staten Island Ferry into the ice clogged waters of New York Harbor.

According to those close to him, he had long been fixated with suicide. His own mother committed suicide at the age of 52 giving him cause to think he, too, would be similarly fated. A possible prior attempt had been foiled in September when alerted police on the Staten Island Ferry intervened.

Spalding Gray first broke into broad public awareness in 1987 with the theatrical release of the film, "Swimming to Cambodia," directed by Jonathan Demme. An uncommon film, it was a documentation of one of the monologues that Gray had been developing and performing for years to enthusiastic Lower Manhattan audiences. The film featured nothing but Gray alone on a stage sitting behind a desk talking.

“Swimming To Cambodia” was received as a revelation. People were astonished that they liked it. The notion of watching a head talk for 90 minutes seemed antithetical to having a good time and yet it proved rousing, deep and accessible.

What was immediately shocking about “Swimming” was what was most obvious about it - that it was simply a man speaking in the first person about the events of his life. Stripped down, no frills, yet rich and complete, the film and Spalding Gray’s voice demonstrated the case that one’s story is THE story - that that’s what we have in common.

Those practiced in advertising say it’s necessary to put a brand or a name before a person seven times before they will be able to retain it and fourteen times before they will recall it without prompting. But, in the narrative of MY story, I know I remember the very first time I heard the name Spalding Gray.

I had just walked off the stage having finished a six minute monologue of my own - a walking, talking, off-balance jangle of an extemporaneous jag - and was feeling swells of uncertainty. It was 1986 - still prior to the film’s release - and I was in a performance art class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Though I’d enrolled in school as a painter, the vagaries of a “Time-Arts” curriculum requirement had suddenly thrust me on stage before audiences telling tales. Up to that point in my young life, I hadn’t found it all that necessary to speak much.

During the post performance critique of that six minute monologue, I was mortified, debilitated with feelings of apology. A quick calculation and I determined that fifteen people multiplied by six minutes equals a full hour and a half of collective living - ninety irretrievable minutes - spent attending to what I said and did.

The professor assured me that a six minute performance is not a defacto indulgence. That’s when he said, ”I saw Spalding Gray deliver a two hour monologue at the Goodman Theater and, believe me, the duration was immaterial. It’s not too long if it’s brilliant.”

That little moment sent me thinking differently.

By the following year, when “Swimming to Cambodia” was released, I‘d become regularly engaged in my own bit of storytelling, delivering monologues on the stages of the lively Chicago performance scene. To my lights, Gray did something similar for the poets, performance artists and all-purpose storytellers of the era as Jackson Pollock did for the painters of 1950's New York: He broke through.

Here was no pundit, this was a talking head with credibility, demonstrating - in convincing fashion - that one’s life is both the medium and the message.

The Spalding Gray of “Swimming to Cambodia” (and great prior and subsequent monologues) contributed in no small way to the enlivenment of the communal spoken word event. Tracing the genealogy of influence would be a quantum physics calculation, but it would seem safe to figure that both the performers and the audiences who supported such events at that time were freshly familiar with the thrill of Demme’s movie. It gave a contemporary context with which to create and perceive such work. It’s effects continue to this day.

The Poetry Slam form, now an international phenomenon, was propelled at the start by at least some significant assistance courtesy of the breakthrough example of Gray speaking his truth. Just after the release of “Swimming” and thanks to the vision of Marc Smith, the Green Mill bar in Chicago’s Uptown hosted the first poetry slam in the Summer of 1987. People from all sorts of circumstances and perspectives got together to tell each other carefully wrought stories of their discoveries to date - all with a bit of sports ritual thrown in for happy irony and challenge.

At this time, too, Rap - another discipline, like monology, that places primacy and veracity on the voice of the individual - was in fast ferment, continuing its inexorable assumption of cultural heft. The Performance Poetry that evolved from the slams was, among other things, an organic counterpart to the ongoing innovative frontiers rap was opening. Sitting behind his desk, talking, Spalding Gray was rapping like only a self-aware New England WASP could.

Solo performance - lone artists constructing and inhabiting characters as a means to storytell - also benefitted from Gray’s impact. Thanks to “Swimming to Cambodia,” Eric Bogossian, David Cale, Anna Deavere Smith, and John Legiuzamo (to name but a few prominent figures) have practiced their work in a landscape graced with a heightened predisposition toward valuing the spoken word.

It should also be noted that “Swimming,” despite being told in the first person, exuded merely the guise of narcissism while simultaneously telling the story of US involvement in Cambodia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the country’s subsequent descent into Hell.

The individual brings specificity to the collective. Gray’s personal experience serving, here, as a conduit for the human epic. Sad evidence of the apparently timeless nature of “Swimming” appears in today’s headlines where, just this week, the New York Times ran a story revealing that professionals are being targeted and assassinated in Iraq - an eery parrallel to the behavior of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. So far, it is estimated between 500 and 1000 professionals and intellectuals have been murdered.

I never knew Spalding Gray, though once enlightened to his endeavor, I sought out his work. I saw him perform live four times, read his books, and watched the body of his work on the videos archived at the Lincoln Center Library. But I never spoke with him, knew him only in the context of the art he made.

Once, a few years ago in the summer twilight, I was sitting on a bench at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park when I glanced up and saw Spalding across the plaza walking in my direction. He strode in an unmistakable beeline right toward me - there was no other apparent destination to his trajectory. I figured this must be the moment our two monologues intersect. With about two steps before he would have crashed into the bench and fallen onto me, he abruptly pivoted on his heels, turned at a right angle and proceeded into the green of the park. Art as life.

As my professor once said, “It’s not too long if it’s brilliant.” In Spalding’s case, though, it would seem it can be too short.

On the January night of Gray’s disappearance, news reports indicate a troubled man resembling Gray’s description was spotted on the Staten Island Ferry. Final confirmation of his demise - if it comes at all - may have to wait until Spring when, in a grim ritual of nature, the bodies of those drowned in the harbor during the preceding Winter rise to the surface.

Whether Gray is still among us - having chosen to radically rewrite his story - or if, indeed, his monologue has gone silent, his reasons and intentions are beyond presumption. Perhaps though, it may be safe to say, that - whatever his purposes that cold night - they remain as unique and universal as his performances and legacy.

Posted by mark at February 10, 2004 04:20 PM

"It's not too long if it is brilliant."
I remember seeing a performance at the University of Dayton in Ohio in 1997. It was a monologue, and one of the connecting themes was a Greyhound bus ride. The time of the performance passed quickly. And during that time I was sad, and I was happy. At times my heart was pounding, and at other times I could not take a breath. I also laughed out loud. At the end of the performance, I had gone through so many emotions I was jumbled inside and all I could think was 'wow'.

It was surely much longer than a few minutes, though it did not seem to be.
And it was brilliant.

Posted by: Debora at February 11, 2004 11:02 AM

After reading your reminisence of Spaulding Gray, I am left with a deep poignancy for his life which may have shifted to another realm. I think, had he read your lines, he would have been infused with hope to give us more of his life as performance art. Thanks for honoring him so movingly. Dan

Posted by: Dan Turner at February 11, 2004 03:22 PM