Spalding Gray 1941-2004

Remembering an artist who relied mostly on his own story

I first saw Spalding Gray on the cover of the paperback version of Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime. He was Hoss, shaved head, beard, body twisting away from Crow. I was an undergrad at the University of Texas searching for some theater equivalent to rock and roll. It looked like Spalding Gray.

Turn the journal pages forward a few years and I'm in New York watching Spalding in Rumstick Road—chasing Libby Howes and Ron Vawter around the tiny set. Chasing the dark nightmare of his mother's suicide. A true story—a true thing.

And so began Spalding's journey of discovery. He broke it down to a table, a glass of water, a spiral notebook, and a mic. Poor theater: a man, an audience, and a story.

Spalding sitting at that table, speaking into the mic, piecing his life back together, one memory, one true thing at a time.

Like all genius things it was a simple idea turned on its axis to become absolutely fresh and radical.

I loved to see Spalding's shows early in their development—to catch him in the act of discovering his own story. As the performances progressed, the show would build up steam to become the snappy, racing tall tales he spun for the big paying customers uptown.

Spalding opened the door for hundreds of artists to make live events out of their own experience; he gave permission for the theater of Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Lisa Kron, Dael Orlandersmith, and so many others. It was a theater of identity—personal politics—a way to unearth stories that had not been told.

Now we take the solo performance form as a fact, but Spalding was the original. The master. Sliding down his own slippery slope of a life, taking us with him.

In the late '90s Spalding came to work at P.S.122., making his last two pieces on Sunday and Monday nights, where our audience got to watch him build his shows one memory at a time. One perfect moment on top of another.

I found an old school desk on Houston Street, bought it, stripped it of gum and old paint, and stained it myself in the play yard of P.S.122, so he would have a special table to work on when he visited. We kept a cold beer backstage for him post-show, Anchor Steam Liberty Ale. The tech crew, not ordinarily used to costume duty, made provisions to iron his plaid shirt each week.

When he was making Morning, Noon and Night we would go out to the Telephone Bar. Afterward, I'd watch as he and Kathy walked home to Wooster Street, like young lovers. He seemed like one of the happiest men in the world.

Morning, Noon and Night became one of his most beloved pieces. Spalding actually grows up and finds a family. Miraculous.

Then came the black spot. The accident in Ireland that aged him 20 years in a split second. (See Davis Sweet's Essay.) Of course there would be a piece about it, one rich with premonitions, heroism, absurd comedy.

We were planning a long string of workshop performances, which we had to cancel when Spalding attempted to jump off a bridge two weeks before performances were to begin. He was talked down from that ledge. This was going to be a longer, harder story.

Paul Zaloom and I visited him in the hospital, a lockdown ward straight out of Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest; Spalding just lay there in the dark answering in monosyllables.

"Are you writing, Spalding?"

"No."

"Do you look out the window?"

"No."

In the spring of 2003 we decided to try again. The show had a new title, Life Interrupted.

We had to cancel the first weekend of performances due to some more physical complications. I remember waiting with the tech crew for the second weekend. Would he show up? He did. Just a few minutes before curtain. The table, the tall glass of water, the spiral notebook, and the mic. We skipped the beer backstage—traded for hot tea this time.

The first few shows barely clocked in at 35 minutes. I got a couple of letters from disgruntled patrons, but we didn't have to refund any tickets.

Then, slowly, the old Spalding Gray started coming back. He came alive behind that table. The piece grew in length and complexity. He was gaining energy, becoming more animated onstage and off. I felt he was healing himself through the act of performing. We were all witnesses to this act of recovery, participants in reclaiming a life.

Spalding read a story that starred him and his son, Theo, who took to jumping up from his seat and taking bows with his dad. There were standing ovations.

We ended the run on December 15.

It was the last public performance for Spalding. He left the table, glass of water, and mic, took the notebook, and headed home with Kathy.

We were making plans for a return workshop in April—this time to take the story through the great national interruption, 9-11. I needed Spalding to walk me through that one—to reach through the craziness and grief to find the perfect moment, a true thing.

We won't get that part of the story. All P.S.122 has left is the table, glass, and mic. One wishes for closure, and then you get it, like a black spot, a life interrupted. A long, wonderful monologue, cut short.

 
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