SPALDING GRAY'S AMERICA
By William W. Demastes
Foreword by Richard Schechner
272 pp. Limelight Editions. $19.95. With photographs.
Spalding Gray never wrote an autobiography, although no one would ever mistake his monologues and novel, Impossible Vacation (1992), as being anything but. His suicide in 2004 didn’t lead to a biography either—if a proposal ever was making the rounds for such a book, most publishers would have deemed it too late. William Demastes’s close reading of the performer’s work in Spalding Gray’s America, therefore, is as near as we’re likely to get to an in-depth understanding of the downtown hipster who made his work “all about me” and landed in Hollywood. That’s too superficial an estimation of Gray’s importance, of course. As Demastes contends, “We need to get beyond seeing Gray as talking only about himself and see him, rather, as a performer who talks about us all as he talks about himself.”
Gray’s pieces typically included the performer clad in an L.L. Bean flannel shirt, sitting behind a simple desk with a glass of water, notebook, and microphone. He felt his shows began “as performance art and then when I understand . . . what I’m doing, I begin to act.” Demastes, who importantly includes information on Gray’s aesthetics, continues, “Having finally settled into a routine, his actual performance run still had a freshness to it, largely because his monologues weren’t actually memorized but took slightly different turns each night. That freshness also found its way into his filmed performances, making his performance and acting legacy a lasting one.” For all writers who labor over continued rewrites—both self-imposed or as requested from collaborators–it may be worth noting an analogous point: aside from meeting a deadline, no work will never be final-final, nor can or should it be. As Gray said, in a 1999 interview, “[The monologues are a] condensation of a lot of memories. It’s really like collage art, because I’m cutting and pasting my memory. Everyone that has a memory is creative, because you’re recreating the original event through memory. People don’t realize that. They have the fantasy that they’re in touch with the original event.”
Gray’s widow, Kathleen Russo—she conceptualized the Obie-winning Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell as well as the Web site dedicated to his memory: http://www.spaldinggray.com/ –and Gray’s longtime colleague and friend Richard Schechner, allowed Demastes (a professor of English at Louisiana State University and a friend of Gray’s himself) access during the writing of Spalding Gray’s America (Schechner is, additionally, the editor of The Drama Review and provided a foreword). Gray said, “Schechner . . . was a liberator from assembly line acting techniques. The way that I interpreted (his) theories was that I was free to do what I wanted, be who I was.” Schechner’s Performance Group—which spun-off into The Wooster Group–was “a place to get away from the debilitating demands of commercial theater. . . . Had Gray chosen to remain with the Performance Group, he would likely be remembered today as one of the great experimenters of the period, having created a valuable body of work during this free-flowing, dynamic period of theater experimentation (the early ‘70s).” Instead Gray began his own brand of storytelling—which often humorously pinpointed America’s unspoken issues and angst. Then, among other things, he went to Hollywood, became a national celebrity, continued to feel guilt over his mother’s suicide, felt intimidation by Sam Shepard—Gray acted early on in Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime, as well–and beyond. Or, see it like Gray does on what the important issues are, in one of his last monologues called “The Anniversary”:
On the subway I tried thinking about the words “fate,” “necessity” and “chance.” I kept trying to put “necessity” and sacred” together. I thought also about how I could not imagine living without my children, and how I would either have to die or learn to live without them. I thought about my mother and how she couldn’t live without us, and how she took the more extreme way out. I thought about how none of this day would have been had I not gone alone to P.S. 122 to see the avant-garde drama that fateful night in November of 1989, where, while watching Frank Maya perform, I was tapped on the should by Larry Champoux, who just happened to be Kathie Russo’s boss at the Pyramid Arts Center in Rochester, New York.
“How would you like to come up and perform your stuff at our space?” he asked me.
“Sure, why not?” I said. Here’s my phone number—give me a call.”
And he did.
And I went.
And Kathie Russo picked me up at the airport.
© 2009 by Bob Shuman
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