Ticket Stub: Spalding Gray

I have this ticket stub (above) from a one-man-show – Spalding Gray at Massey Hall. It was good. I don’t know how to describe his “show” in practical terms: he didn’t sing, he didn’t dance, he didn’t perform in the traditional sense. He talked. About himself. He was a monologuist. And his stories would encapsulate, in ever widening circles of narrative, the great many wonderful and (more often) terrifying things going on with his life.

He was an actor/playwright whose home was primarily New York. I’m not sure if New York makes people like Gray anymore. These performances were not “actor/playwright” shows – these shows were, in retrospect, a form of therapy. Gray talked about the things – worries, revelations, lost epiphanies – which affected him as a regular human being; the things which happen around the things we do with our lives.

His best-known performance, captured on film by Jonathan Demme, is Swimming To Cambodia. In it, with a desk, chair, and glass of water he discusses the events which surrounded the time he played a small role in the critically-acclaimed film, The Killing Fields. He talks of his research for the role in the film, of what actually happened during the reign of terror in Cambodia during the early-to-mid 70s.

Gray was a man given to self-exploration, perhaps painfully so. His mother committed suicide while he was in his 20s, and he exhibited symptoms of bipolar depression himself. Her death held an eerie fascination for him. In subsequent performances (also made into films), Monster in a Box (about writing a novel) and Gray’s Anatomy (about his fear that he was going blind), he explored his neuroses and anxieties and how they filtered through his relationships with those close to him.

The key to Gray is that he was funny as hell, which turned all of his painfully honest accounts, his public descriptions of private contortions all the more enlightening for the viewer, as opposed to merely sympathetic. Gray was neurotic, but he wasn’t looking for sympathy from the audience, and I think this is the second key to understanding him (as a performer, at least). When I saw him at Massey Hall in November of 1996, I don’t remember a lot of details (it was his It’s a Slippery Slope tour), with the exception of his description of sitting outside, trying to have a soulful discussion with his distant father while a fog horn sounds in the distance. I remember this because I was laugh-crying throughout most of it.

When I heard in 2004 that Spalding Gray was missing, that it was suspected he had jumped off a ferry into the East River, I was not shocked. Suicide – as an objective event, as a subjective idea – was something he had discussed since Swimming to Cambodia. Add to this that he had been in a terrible car accident a few years earlier which had left his right leg partially disabled (not to mention having a fractured skull), and you could see (in retrospect, of course) how, given his frame of mind, it might have pushed those dark thoughts further toward the limelight of contemplation.

It is a shame.


Miscellany: November 18, 2008

  • Ingrid is approaching world domination. Her plaudit-winning reinterpretation of the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has not only received international online acclaim (Bookninja, The Guardian, Boston Globe), but her work was featured in Sunday’s New York (bloody) Times Book Review. Print and online editions (with the unfortunate misspelling of her last name in the print edition – needless to say this took a little of the shine off of the accolade. They will, however be printing a correction in an upcoming edition and the online version has her name spelled correctly).

  • I’ve sent the first revised draft of my novel to a few selected readers. Unofficially looking for feedback and consensus that what I’m doing is worthwhile. Nervous. Anxious. Perhaps as a result of this and other things, I’ve been struck by some interesting what-if’s regarding a new book idea. I must be a masochist. At least it doesn’t hurt.
  • I turned 38 on Saturday. I share that day with Ed Asner and Tilda Swinton (they were not in New York, unfortunately – I tried).
  • Two films I worked on opened within two weeks of each other. One is a franchise horror film (of the “moral error leads to violent suffering” kind) which traditionally draws massive audiences and box office gold (if not good reviews). The other is (wait for it) a gore-Goth rock opera which is only receiving an eight-theatre release (if not good reviews). They represent what I’ve been working on for the last twelve months. Working in film/TV is “what I do for money”, a distinction I wish I didn’t have to make, save for the fact that the quality stuff (often Canadian) doesn’t pay my rent. It’s a quandary punctuated by background horror-movie funhouse screams.