ARCHIVE: The Monster Inside 1941-2004

Andrew wrote about the death of Spalding Gray throughout 2004 citing him as, ‘A major influence in my desire first to get into experimental theatre and then to start writing monologues. This was a man who wrote monologues on procrastination, the act of aging and the death of his mother. They were often humourous, painful and above all honest, making a direct contact with reader and audience. I was sad, but not suprised, to read of Spalding’s suicide. The greatest shame was that he was never as well known in the UK as he should have been. You can see his influence in UK comedy and theatre’.

Spalding Gray: The Monster Inside 1941-2004. Article by Andrew Oldham & Interview by Jeanne Carstensen (kindly reproduced here with permision of the authors)

The monologue, Monster In A Box begins with the line, “You see in 1967, while I was trying to take my first vacation, my mother killed herself.”

This is the perfect moment and explosive force in Spalding Gray’s life, from this he ran and in the arms of it he created and bore most of his work, and in the end he returned to it. Gray repeated his personal history on a cold New York Winter’s night and walked into fiction and speculation.

Gray would have revelled in the mystery of his own disappearance, would have loved the run he had in the New York press and those who crept out of his past to tell tales that were an equal mixture of truth and faith. For three months, countless articles dug up his past, his upbringing and the inevitable end. His remaining family, his wife and children became subjects for the press and police. The facts and fears of that cold night manifested themselves in the discovery of a body in the East River three months later. The monster in Gray had finally surfaced; it was the inevitable end for it, suicide.

Spalding Gray was a unique writer, whose brand of neurotic witty monologues revealed an ever-increasing fear of the modern world and his role within it. Gray transformed the drama world and the delivery of the monologue into a modern, open-ended means of self-expression. Even Gray’s attempts at suicide, there had been a few dry runs before 2004, had resulted in series of development workshops in late 2002. This touching, hilarious look at his own attempt at suicide, was impinged on more and more by his Mother’s suicide, now frequently surfacing in his own life. In Gray’s words, about the night he jumped from the Staten Island ferry, he was searching for “the perfect moment”. Gray seemed forever to be looking for his Mother and share in the moment he had lost her. His fascination with suicide stemmed from this. In his 1992 book, Impossible Vacation, Gray lists a suicidal moment during his teens, when he considered jumping out of a window. “I figured I’d just break a leg or something, and end up in a cast for the rest of the summer … Then I also realised that mom wouldn’t be able to give me any attention, because she was cracking up and needed all of it for herself.”

Spalding Gray was raised in Providence, Rhode Island, as a Christian scientist, he was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age (he was held back for two years at a boarding school and was further segregated to the edges of his own life). In the sixties he attended the Alley theatre, in Houston; there he learnt and crafted his skills as actor, here he gravitated towards avant-garde theatre of the New York scene. Spalding Gray was a founding member of the Wooster Group. A keen observer of life, he wove monologues out of improvisation, starting with Sex And Death To The Age Of 14 (1979), but his breakthrough as an actor came after a minor role, as the US consul in The Killing Fields (1984), which yielded the monologue Swimming To Cambodia, later filmed by Jonathan Demme. The play focused on the behind the scenes events on the set of The Killing Fields, but ruthlessly explored USA’s responsibility for the ravages in Cambodia. It also showed how Gray saw his life, his failures and his darkest personal secrets, bore out the fact that he was comfortable on the edges of his own life. Other monologues followed, Terrors Of Pleasure (1988), Monster In A Box (1992) and Gray’s Anatomy (1996). All of them were made in to films.

Spalding Gray was haunted by his past, hemmed in by his Mother’s suicide and his own neurotic fears. Gray he played his life’s foibles, pit falls and highs out before audiences, blending fact with fiction, he actively sought out the bizarre underbelly of society, the peripheral groups, the minority fears, the UFO chasers, the Native American rituals, the Thailand Doctors, the quacks and shrinks, the scientists and Christians. Gray created a cut and paste life in his performances, art was life and life was art. He likened his unpleasant experience smoking marijuana in Thailand, to being trapped in “a demented Wallace Stevens poem, with food poisoning”.

It’s a testimony to Gray that he survived his childhood and later life. His personality was constantly raw, childlike and on the edge. His stage style ranged from throwaway to hysteria. And in the end his pasted together existence, his ability to hold back depression and the memory of his mother, just gave way.

The following interview with Spalding Gray was originally published in January 1998 on SFGate.com; the interview was with Jeanne Carstensen. It is kindly reproduced here with the permission of Jeanne Carstensen and SFGAte.com

Is it true that you’re claustrophobic? I’ve heard that. So I thought, my god, I’m going to put him in this little room…

“I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia, but this room wouldn’t bring one on. This is still a big room to me. I’ve probably had two or three of them in my life”.

Are you planning on going skiing while you’re here?

“I’m leaving from here for Aspen, Colorado, to do a workshop called “The Magic of Skiing.” I’m being sent there by Snow Country Magazine to write an article about it. I’m very pleased because I’m being hired as a writer to write about skiing as a result of this monologue, ‘It’s a Slippery Slope.’ We get up at 7 a.m. and do our centring exercises. It’s a six-day workshop. Then we do whatever. I’ll find out and write about it. I’ll probably try to ski 40 days this year”.

So you’ve really become a big skier.

“I have my moments. If I ski 14 days in a row, on the 7th day I’m skiing well”.

Is skiing where you’re finding your “perfect moment” now?

“I think looking for the perfect moment is deadly, or craving them, because they’re always surprises. But I’ve had some really great moments on the slopes that keep bringing me back. Moments I’d call getting into the flow that I’ve never had before in my life. One in particular in Vail, being way out on outer Mongolia and having to get down to ski school to pick up my son or they’d treat him like a delinquent truant. And just getting into one of these flow situations where I was at the top of the mountain at the bottom and I really couldn’t tell you how it all happened. Very mystical for me. Skiing is better than sex actually, because for me a good round of sex might be seven minutes. Skiing you can do for seven hours”.

I was at the show last night and I loved the line near the end, “I see landscape. No mirror. No story.”

“You know, that’s one of my favourite lines. It’s about the breakdown of the narrative and just taking in the awesomeness of nature. I rarely use the word ‘awesome’ but I just did. I’m very selective with it because it’s overused. But of all the audiences I’ve played it to, this audience last night responded to that line. I could feel it go through the house. That line is a powerful and threatening line because it’s saying I have nothing more to say. I have run out of words because I’m so taken with this moment of being in the landscape. It’s a nice moment, both there and in the monologue. You know, I say that I can’t make anything up. I think of myself as a collage artist. I’m cutting and pasting memories of my life. And I say, I have to live a life in order to tell a life. I would prefer to tell it because telling you’re always in control, you’re like God. But that’s a tangent”

What are the parts of your life that you won’t tell. Obviously you’re not telling everything, but you’re telling some very intimate things.

“I’m 56 years old, and the monologues are an hour and a half, so look what’s been left out. Here’s what happened in the case of ‘It’s a Slippery Slope.’ It was almost five years ago, I guess, since my son is 5 now … I didn’t think I was going to make it through, whatever that means. I was down to 152 pounds. The therapist that I was seeing was forcing me to see her. I was bouncing between the East Coast and West Coast flying back and forth and involved in all sorts of shenanigans down in Santa Cruz. Going back and trying to see my son and his mom back there and also breaking up with Renee. Also shattering inside and eating a lot of drugs and drinking a lot. I was in therapy in a very touch-and-go way and she really didn’t think I’d make it through this summer, which was the summer my mother killed herself at 52 — and I had just turned 52. I finally settled on the East Coast with my son and his mother to have regular therapy sessions once a week with Martha. Martha was very good to work with because she was a woman my age who I was attracted to but wasn’t sleeping with, so we could move that sexual energy in a different way. We always worked together in the office; we never did phoners. We had this rapport and she became my friend and everything was available and we could, or I could, select what might be appropriate as a narrative. So a lot of stuff was left on the cutting room floor of the therapist’s office. I’m very grateful for that process. What happened before with Renee, who I was with for 13 years and broke up with, is that everything would be dumped in her lap, which was inappropriate. She’d say, ‘Save that for your therapist’ or ‘That’s guy talk,’ but at the same time she was saying that she was hearing it. So it was important to break up that relationship and have Kathie be the woman I was with and to have Martha the one I was dumping on. I’ve gotten better at not dumping. That was a very good process for me, but I have a lot to unload”.

What’s it like still telling this story five years later? There’s some painful stuff here…

“It’s very hard. I was so nervous yesterday. I was a mess. I couldn’t be around the children. I’m with all three children here: my stepdaughter who is 11, Forrest who is 5, and Theo is almost 1 year. I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t sleep; I was so agitated. I was trying to listen to an old tape of the monologue: I couldn’t stand myself; get out of my body, out of my head. We’re staying at a nice suite at the Pan Pacific; I guess they upgraded us: we can go from room to room; it’s a joy. I went and hung out with the children. Forrest was watching ‘Men in Black’ on TV and I watched that and then played with Theo, and that really helped me get out of myself because it’s a beast to perform. I’m so glad it’s almost over. It’ll be 4 years old in August and I’m ready to lay it to rest”.

Were you a natural-born storyteller?

“No, I wasn’t. I was very withdrawn as a child. I can remember when, my mom told me this: My Cocker Spaniel died of distemper when I was maybe 6 years old; my mother said I didn’t speak for almost a year. And they were thinking of taking me to a therapist, which would have been very unusual in Rhode Island at that time. It wasn’t until I got to Emerson College that I began using storytelling to shape my day. I was working on a garbage truck and scraping dishes and I would tell stories of my day to the chefs there and other workers, and that continued and got most intense when I moved to NYC in 1967 and was living with Elizabeth LeConte. We had no television and I would come back from walking the streets of New York. I was collecting unemployment from Texas, and I would shape my day at the end of every day and the ritual of that was extremely satisfying. I took a free workshop with the Open Theatre in 1969. Joyce Aaron was running it, and everybody was encouraged to bring in short autobiographic tales and to tell them in a theatrical way; and if you had a moment of blocking, the Open Theatre had a technique called ‘jamming’ in which you’d repeat the word over and over like a musician, like ‘I fell and I fell and I fell and I fell and I fell and I fell.’ I stood up and did one day in my life with no jamming. I just flowed. And afterwards Joyce said, ‘Who wrote that monologue for you?’ And then I knew I had something. But that was ’69 and that was the big era of Grotowski and theatre of the body and deconstruction of text, so it never occurred to me that would be appropriate to use as an art form until years later. You know, I’m really influenced by the American autobiographic movement. I am more influenced by writers than I am by theatre. I was reading Thomas Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell and even Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. And Baba Ram Dass, for that matter, when he came back from India and did those first tapes, which were oral reports of his experiences in India, which he later published as a book. I didn’t graduate from boarding school until I was 20. I failed 7th grade and 9th grade, and my senior year I was in the senior play and was also writing very well, and I couldn’t figure out whether I wanted to write or act, and all my life I think I was trying to figure out how to get the two together and finally I did”.

And since you started doing that, of course, this has become a new theatrical genre. Why do you think this kind of autobiographical performance has become so popular in the last two decades?

“I think it’s a reaction to the virtual. I think it’s the simpleness of it, the presence of it, the minimalness of it in the face of not just the virtual but the extravaganza – Titanic, Speed II, Cats – the huge megaproduction of life. And it’s going back to a very simple form. I grew up with radio. I didn’t see a television in our home until I was 11. And radio allowed me to have my own imagination. So Ozzie and Harriet’s house was internalised, personalised. Television stripped that and literalised that and put it outside of me and stole it from me. Now we don’t have a television. We have a monitor and the children rent videos. But they’re also forced to be within themselves in relationship to reality”.

Speaking of virtual, what do you think about the Web?

“First of all, I have an allergy to computer screens. They remind me of electronic jello. The substance of the computer screen doesn’t hold my attention or my eye”.

You mean the low resolution, the way it flickers?

“The whole composition of the screen. The quality. I just finished working with the singer James Taylor, editing a version of ‘It’s a Slippery Slope’ for Mercury Records. And we were doing 12 and 14 hour days in which we were looking at ProTools. And they were literally carving the image on the screen. So you have the sound, a representation of my voice physicalised on the screen, and you’re taking the mouse and you’re shaving and shaping the sound. Fascinating, but not of any interest to me at all. James really got into it. I didn’t. I sat in the back and basically daydreamed and had sex fantasies and waited to be asked to listen to something. I don’t type. I’m extremely dyslexic. I write longhand when I write, and I rarely do write. I compose all of my monologues orally. I refer to myself as an unconscious Luddite, but I’m not against it. I have friends’ access information for me. What you get is a lot of opinions. You have to spend a lot of time sorting through it. What I’m worried about is the ecology of information versus feeling. How much information can you feel anything about? I live a very minimal life in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Population in the winter: 2009. I have all I can deal with just in terms of the library. I love to go into the Sag Harbor library and not look at the computer. I can’t call up anything on the computer. I like to wander in the shelves and look at the books and actually pull one out and look at it”.

The tactile experience.

“Yes, because I’m very disconnected. It takes me a lot to ground. I’m a very airy Gemini. Part of why I live in NYC is that it’s a real city. The children help ground me. I have to have that physicalisation for me”.

Was there anything special about the audience or the performance last night?

“I tried to tell myself: ‘Don’t worry, don’t have great expectations,’ because I played this show in Berkeley as a work in progress. I had always said that the Bay Area was one of my favourite audiences, but after the experience in Berkeley I began to think again about it because I thought I detected a lag in there. They were checking on SC: spiritually correct; and PC, politically correct. Like when they put a lag in a radio broadcast to make sure there’s no bad language going out over the air. The audience was thinking if it was proper to laugh at or not, a bit self-conscious. So I tried to prepare myself for that last night, and we started out and there were a few pockets of laughter here and there and I thought, OK, I’m just going to play it for myself and we’ll see where it goes. So I got into a real nice neutral place, and right at the beginning when I said, ‘I did my first monologue in 1979 called ‘Sex and Death to the Age 14′; nothing too traumatic, basically masturbation and the death of goldfish.’ Boom, they were in. Not to say that laughter is the only thing it’s about. It’s a humorous piece. But it’s one of the ways that the audience signals to me about their involvement. It’s very erotic. I don’t laugh a lot. But if I can make people laugh it’s like being a good lover. From then on out it was a great house. And a big house, and hard to play. And it was so good that I gave all my material, so it turned out to be 1 hour and 49 minutes last night. It was supposed to only be an hour and a half”.

So it’s not totally memorized?

“It’s not memorised at all because I don’t memorise. It’s visualised. So I’m speaking memory. But it’s organically memorised because there’s no text to memorise. It’s what I call ‘bushwhacking.’ An actor or an actress memorises lines and then they have to pretend they don’t remember them so they’re fresh. But there’s a track there. I’m running up a different trail every time and eventually one gets set through tramping in the same space so many times”.

I understand you’re working on a new monologue called “Morning, Noon and Night.” How’s the development process going?

“It’s a very healing, positive piece, not that ‘It’s a Slippery Slope’ wasn’t, but it’s a monologue that reflects the comfort zone and it’s still funny and it’s still working. It’s one day in my life in Sag Harbor in Eastern Long Island from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep. So it’s my ‘Ulysses,’ my ‘Under Milkwood,’ my ‘Our Town.’ In fact, I’m listening to Donald Donaldson read all of ‘Ulysses’ when I have insomnia: it’s 42 hours unabridged and that’s my meditation for the one day. I’m workshopping it now at PS 122 in New York. I just finished doing Mondays. This works well because the audiences are very used to that process there and come in open. Morning, Noon and Night is one day and I’m up to 3 in the afternoon and it’s already an hour and a half. I will bring it back in the fall and try and develop the whole piece there before I take it out on the road. I’m not in a rush to get it out. I’m not in a rush to turn my children into characters before they’re people”.

But they will be characters if it’s a day in your current life.

“Forrest is a very central character. The dialogues with him are incredibly funny”.

Has fatherhood changed your work at all? You seem to be turning toward the positive, letting go.

“It’s not sentimental, but it’s extremely human and grounded and less ironic and less cynical and trusting those other emotions to surface in a sincere way that are also fun, and play well. Most of all it changes me as a person and it’s going to change me as a performer. It’s extremely humbling and a very strong event for me to be in a situation where the other’s need is larger than mine and I can accept it. With a woman it would be very hard to do that because of what I went through with my mom. Her need devoured her – it was so big, and I’m sure it smothered me as a child. So suddenly, that I’m able to deal with it with a child is a big surprise. Also, in the relationship with Kathie, who I’m not married to but live with: we’re not in that claustrophobic one-on-one thing because the children are an enormous filter system or other point of reference. Maybe we’ll have to keep having them. I say in the new monologue: I understood once I held a baby in my arms, why some people have the need to keep having them. Whoa, what an anchor”.

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