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November 18, 1987 - Image 56

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-11-18

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The Art of Making Sense
Spalding Gray becomes more than a talking head

Sitting in his loft apartment in New
York's artsy Soho district, Spalding
Gray conducts a snapshot tour of the
horrible house he used to own upstate in
Krumville, N.Y. As.he talks, he's flipping
through images of decay. "See the exposed
log beams," he says, "with the pinholes
that turned out to be powder-post beetles."
Flip. "Here's the collapsing
fireplace." Flip. "Look at the
foundation-cinder blocks fall-
ing in." Flip. "The broken gut-
ter." Flip. "The front-look at
the crazy angle of the porch."
Flip. "There's the hatch to
the crawl space where there
wasn't room to crawl." Flip.
"See how the house is sinking
into the clay? That's moving.
The house is moving."
For most people, the mistake
of buying a ramshackle house
would have no redeeming val-
ue. But not for Spalding Gray.
Because, for Spalding Gray, all
of life-even the really bad
moves-is the raw material for
art. As a monologuist who
draws upon his past experi-
ences for material, his subject is
always Spalding Gray. His ex-
perience as a supporting actor
during the filming of "The Kill- 'That's m
ing Fields" became the jump-
ing-off point for "Swimming to Cambo-
dia"-a freewheeling meditation on any
number of things, from his personal search
for contentment to the horrors of Cambo-
dia in the mid-1970s. As in most of his work,
Gray, 46, assumed the role of an uncertain
Everyguy, a surrogate for everyone who
struggles to find meaning and content-
ment. Says the artist of his work: "I'm a
typical American man on display."
A lot of people want him to show his stuff.
"Swimming" has just been released on vid-
eo cassette. His monologue about the house
in Krumville, "Terrors of Pleasure," has
been adapted for a forthcoming HBO spe-
cial. This month PBS is broadcasting "Bed-
time Story," a comedy that he wrote with
his companion of eight years, Renee Sha-
fransky. He and Shaf'ransky are now writ-
ing a screenplay about Americans in Nica-
ragua, and he's working on a novel. He's
acting this fall in a Whoopi Goldberg mov-
ie. He's working on a new monologue that
he'll further develop in residence at the

prestigious Mark Taper Forum in Los An-
geles. And, oh, yes, he still manages to
squeeze in an occasional stage appearance,
even though he's trying to cut back on live
"'Terrors of Pleasure" shows Gray edging
away from the monologue form. During
most of "Terrors," we see him seated at a

best of luck-they, like us, will need it.
Ironically, by forgoing live performance,
Gray has opted for the very thing he once
attacked: "I used to say, 'Only the live event
is important! I'm always going to be pure to
that!'" But, with the passage of time and
the success of his monologues, Gray has
had the itch to try new things. Besides, his
career has never seemed to follow a
straight line. Although he majored in the-
ater at Emerson College, Gray did not see
himself as a performer.. But he came into
his own as an actor when, as a member of
the Performance Group in New York in the
early '70s, he toured for two years as the
swaggering lead in Sam Shepard's "Tooth
of Crime." He began to deal with autobio-
graphical themes in the mid-'70s with the
Wooster Group, through a
number of plays in which he
portrayed himself. After grow-
ing disenchanted with group
theater-"relating to the audi-
ence became more important
than relating to the other per-
formers"-Gray began to do
monologues in 1979.
Organized by memory: He has
since become a master at
storytelling. To the naked eye,
Gray's monologues appear en-
tirely spontaneous. In fact, his
anecdotes are carefully culled,
and his performances-as 4
the persona of Spalding Gray
-painstakingly crafted. The
monologues seem fresh be-
cause Gray doesn't write them
down. In part, they are organ-
ized by memory. "I see the film
in my head as I remember
NELCH- events, and I simply tell it."
And some structure is seren-
dipitous. Because he performs
with only a rough outline in front of him-
the first 20 minutes of "Swimming" might 4
be "sanug, formaldehyde, Zorro, Rasputin
and Jesus"-Gray sometimes tells his an-
ecdotes out of order and then finds he actu-
ally prefers the monologue that way.
But where do the stories come from, and
how careful must he be not to do things
simply.to generate a catchy tale? During
"Terrors" there is a moment when Gray
turns to the camera with a look of horror
and asks, "Did I really buy this piece of
shit just to do a monologue about it?" The
answer is "no," pretty much, although
Gray admits to leading "a dramatic life."
Even if he does fling himself consciously
into a situation for a story, what does it
matter if it leads him to the truth?- Gray
believes that the best stories should "talk
about life and growing up in this world,
what it means to be a human being in
these times." Through his own voice, and
now others, he has taught us well.

oving. The house is moving': Master storyteller
table delivering his monologue. But fre-
quently his narration is illustrated with
shots of the actual house, his discovery of
its decay and the smirking faces of trades-
men who ridicule Gray for buying such a
lemon. We lose some of the immediacy of
Gray's embarrassment by cutting away
from him this way, but director Thomas
Schlamme lets us see how very bad the
house really was.
"Bedtime Story," on the other hand,
doesn't resemble a monologue at all. It has
several characters played by a number of
actors. It's a pretty conventional, if some-
what surreal, comedy. Gary (Gray) cannot
sleep. His girlfriend (Jessica Harper) wor-
ries that she doesn't have much time left
to have a child, and when she falls asleep
you can actually hear her biological clock
tick. "Bedtime Story" is rather sweet. It,
like much of Gray's solo efforts, shows
people trying to cope with the awkward
predicaments handed them by life. We
laugh at these people and wish them the


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