Thursday, April 27, 2017

Please, Tell Me About Spalding Gray

Saturday, two weeks ago, I found myself in Albany, to see, for the last time, the minor league hockey team I grew up with. After 24 years they finally folded, taking with them one of the predominant pastimes of my child and adult life. It was an emotional day, full of vivid memories and odd outbursts of emotion.

I was there with a friend, and as we walked downtown, she noted the odd shape of The Egg, which I explained was a performing arts center. I looked at it, got lost for a moment, then told her that when I was in high school, my best friend saw Spalding Gray perform a monologue there. At the time, I had no idea who Spalding Gray was, and thus, I had skipped the show.

Gray’s art is difficult to define or describe: it’s a blend of public speaking and performance art, “Autobiographical Monologues” – a brainy and seamless mix of history and personal anecdote that gets viewers engaged, entertained, and leaves them better informed about the world. Much of his art had to do not just with his words, but with how he delivered them – a particular brand of neurosis that is impossible to transcribe to the page.

Given that the performances are largely him sitting at table speaking, they’re not the easiest thing to transcribe to film either, but a genius auteur found a way to capture his mannerisms on film in a way that was, like Gray’s performances, both engaging and entertaining. Many years ago I had read the manuscript of his most famous monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia,” and was largely unimpressed. Years later, I saw the film Swimming to Cambodia and Gray instantly became a hero of mine.

Yet, before I could ever see him perform, he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry, ending his life.

Reflecting in front of the venue where I could have seen him in life, I told my friend, “Never getting to see Spalding Gray will forever be one of the great regrets in my life.”