Spalding Gray abused me for being too optimistic.
When someone asked me the other day about my interview with the guy who pretty much defined the term “monologuist” all I could think of was how I’d pissed him off.
Our issue… I wasn’t impressed with his idea of the perfect moment – death.
I remember getting a panicked call from the publicist for Gray’s Vancouver show. She warned me he was in a bad mood. The interviewer scheduled to talk to Gray before me called a few minutes late. Gray apparently abused the reporter for a moment before hanging up.
I wasn’t taking chances. I called a few minutes early
Here’s the story I filed for The Georgia Straight in 1996.
I have no clue if this is how the story ran ’cause The Straight archives aren’t available online.
When the Los Angeles Times recently did a story on Spalding Gray they decided to simply let him interview himself. After all, this is a man who makes his living by sitting on stage behind a desk and sharing the stories that make up his life. Each performance he gives is like a perfect Larry King interview and Gray is willing to talk about things even Geraldo Rivera would feel rude asking about.
There is almost nothing Gray hasn’t answered or said in interviews and the actor-writer who has been described as a WASP Woody Allen confessed that at the end of our phone conversation when he apparently startled himself by coming up with a new insight about his work.
I suspect it happened because I pissed him off by being just a little too cheerful.
The past few years have been tough on Gray. The monologist who has talked about himself in over a dozen shows including Swimming to Cambodia (his account of his experience acting in the movie The Killing Fields) and Monster in a Box (his tale of writing a novel, which played at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1992) was convinced he would never create another monologue. Life had become too serious to talk about.
“Over the past three years my life was a like a slow motion traffic accident and I got completely fractured,” says Gray. “You see, I see myself as a collage artist. In order to have pieces one has to bust up a life to make the pieces so I kind of pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall in a major way and I didn’t think I could put the pieces together.”
Gray still sounds damaged as he recounts in his soft New England accent the catalogue of reasons he felt that all the Kings horses and all the King’s therapists weren’t going to have much luck putting him back together. “I was coming apart. In one year’s time I turned 52, meaning I survived my mother who killed herself at 52 — I never thought I would get past 52. I got married, I impregnated my neighbour down the street, three days after my son was born — I wasn’t there for the birth — my father died. The woman that got pregnant I brought in to see my therapist and he had a bad kind of transference and wanted to get her in bed and he died of a heart attack before I could kill him and I separated with Renee (his new wife but long-time lover) who I’d just married. And all of that happened and I was taken to a psychopharmacologist and said that I was on the verge of being institutionalized because I was manic depressive. And here I am to tell the story. And that certainly gets back to the primal image and that is Ishmael — I alone have escaped to tell you. Except I would paraphrase it and say I also have escaped to tell you because I think this story is about everyone’s survival.”
In addition to his surprise at developing his new monologue — which premiered in Martha’s Vineyard last August — he was also startled at how well it seems to have connected with the people who have seen it. “I thought the audience would absolutely be aghast — that the women would walk out, that the men would smirk in the corner. And it turns out that the story is not that uncommon but really the monologue is about surviving a mid-life crisis by finding my balance on skis. The skiing saved me. Someone told me recently that one cause of depression is lack of rhythm and I’d lost any rhythm in my life. I was paralyzed by indecision and the only rhythm I found was skiing seven hours a day, forty days a year. And that saved me.”
The new monologue, which he performs at the Cultch on May 14 and 15th is fittingly called It’s a Slippery Slope and it is still very much a “work in progress.” He has performed it roughly thirty times and Gray — who composes his work on stage — says the story is still being reshaped each night. He’s also performing another new work, Gray on Gray (at the Cultch on May 16th), in which the audience is asked to write questions for him and that show (which he has done about a dozen times) will consists of his answers.
As someone who specializes in spelunking through his own soul Gray says one of his favorite descriptions of what he does was a story in a St. Louis newspaper about his show Gray’s Anatomy. “It said Spalding Gray makes us laugh about what makes us cry. And I said that guy has got it down as to what my work is and what the ambition of my work is. That it is not unlike new physics or particle wave, laughter and crying happening in parallel universes.”
So how did I piss Gray off?
I asked him about a line in the press release for his show that says he’s afraid of perfect moments. “I’m not afraid of them I just think that pursuing them is a disaster because it negates the moment you’re in. I think it’s just a junkie’s mentality… If I’m afraid of perfect moments it’s essentially, I would have to say, it’s I’m afraid of death which I assume is the only perfect moment because I just sort of have a feeling that death is perfect in the sense that it completely obliterates you, the perfection of nothingness.
I reply that the idea of death as the perfect moment is “kind of sad” and without missing a beat he’s teasing me in his most sarcastic tones. “Kind of sad. Oh my goodness gracious, did you think life was happy?”
“Its got its moments,” I reply.
Then he gets excited. “Oh it does have its moments,” says Gray and his comments quickly evolve into a soft-spoken rant. “Exactly. And that’s what’s wrong with moments. That’s all it has is moments. But the real basis, the real foundation is death which is King and personally I don’t see anything happy about that or redemptive. In fact it undermines me all the time because every moment I’m doing something I’m aware that I won’t be doing it for longer than I’m doing it and long is an understatement. Forever. Can you imagine the absurdity of that? Of living in this world with the knowledge that you will never be in the same spot again? And the dizziness that causes in people who are conscious of it? That’s why all the denial’s going on. I think the whole world is the way it is because of its reaction to death. The poor earth is being brutalized by people’s reaction to death which is party consciousness. Party consciousness is how do we live the moment because we’re about to die? We do it by consuming. The earth. Eating it. Eating the mother. No, no, no, no, no. Death is a terrifying thing. There is no one that I have run into on this tour that will face up to that and admit to that. No one. Everyone is using a paradigm of denial, from the Dalai Lama to Stephen Hawking.”
So I suggest that it sounds like he’s spending a lot of time outside of his life, observing it.
Not when he’s on-stage, says Gray. “ I’m completely inside it… but when I’m talking I’m not talking about my life I’m talking about the story I created the night before, you know. It starts with my life but it turns into a story. It’s another existence. The story, the monologue, is referring to the previous performance. So if it’s 30 performances old, it’s 30 times away from the original event and 30 times more in its own form. The original event is gone. Forever. And the way of coping with its loss is to eulogize it — so to some extent and I’ve never said this before and it’s worth a quote — the monologue is a eulogy for my own life.”
And it’s obvious from the way he says the line that he’s savoring it.
“That’s a good ending and it’s new. I have never said it before and that’s rare in an interview.”
And if one of America’s most acclaimed story-tellers says it’s a good ending, who am I to argue?