PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Spalding Gray


19 Sep 2000

Charles Durning and Spalding Gray in The Best Man.
Charles Durning and Spalding Gray in The Best Man.
Photo by Photo by Peter Cunningham

A desk, a chair, a notebook and a glass of water. For many theatregoers, this set-up is already enough to conjure one specific performer. They may be surprised, however, to find that Spalding Gray is currently surrounded by a political posters, panelled walls, props, costumes and -- gasp -- other actors. He plays William Russell in a revival of Gore Vidal's political drama, The Best Man, which opened Sept. 17 at the Virginia Theatre. It's far from the first time the famed monologist has appeared in a more traditional -- and populous -- theatre piece. He was the stage manager in the highly-acclaimed Lincoln Center revival of Our Town, and his film credits (besides film versions of his monologues) include "The Killing Fields," "King of the Hill" and "Beyond Rangoon." Still, as co-founder of the vaunted Wooster Group in the late 1970s, Gray is best known for his 18 autobiographical solo flights, from Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (1979) to last season's Morning, Noon and Night. In a phone interview conducted three days before opening night of The Best Man, Gray's the first one to label himself a neurotic, dyslexic, hypochondriacal obsessive-compulsive. Such quirky yet matter-of-fact confessions, alongside his astonishing gift for detailed and poetically intricate storytelling, only enhance his appeal as a performer.

A desk, a chair, a notebook and a glass of water. For many theatregoers, this set-up is already enough to conjure one specific performer. They may be surprised, however, to find that Spalding Gray is currently surrounded by a political posters, panelled walls, props, costumes and -- gasp -- other actors. He plays William Russell in a revival of Gore Vidal's political drama, The Best Man, which opened Sept. 17 at the Virginia Theatre. It's far from the first time the famed monologist has appeared in a more traditional -- and populous -- theatre piece. He was the stage manager in the highly-acclaimed Lincoln Center revival of Our Town, and his film credits (besides film versions of his monologues) include "The Killing Fields," "King of the Hill" and "Beyond Rangoon." Still, as co-founder of the vaunted Wooster Group in the late 1970s, Gray is best known for his 18 autobiographical solo flights, from Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (1979) to last season's Morning, Noon and Night. In a phone interview conducted three days before opening night of The Best Man, Gray's the first one to label himself a neurotic, dyslexic, hypochondriacal obsessive-compulsive. Such quirky yet matter-of-fact confessions, alongside his astonishing gift for detailed and poetically intricate storytelling, only enhance his appeal as a performer.

Playbill On-Line: After years of facing the audience alone in shows like Gray's Anatomy and It's A Slippery Slope, and at least some experience in ensembles, do you still get stage fright? And if so, how do you manage?
Spalding Gray: Oh yes. I try to ground myself as much as possible in ritual of preparation. The closer it gets to opening night, the rituals become more and more ornate. And it's become more difficult now on this show, because the director [Ethan McSweeny] is trying to give us a rest so we're not rehearsing in the daytime. I'd rather be rehearsing on a low level, because that is a grounding event. Now I've just got this whole open day ahead of me. I'm a morning person; that's when I'm most conscious. If I were doing a show at noon, I'd be a happy man. I've been up since seven... I do yoga every morning. I have a good breakfast. I write in my journal -- that's very important, to air details of the unconscious. One struggle in a play like The Best Man is keeping focused. My mind as a writer is at work all the time. I'm having associations, and you can't just put a cap on those without their wanting to break out. Also, I do basic things for luck, such as tying my necktie. In the show, I have three necktie changes which is very foreign for me. I haven't worn a necktie since I don't remember when. I always have to tie the tie so the back strand is almost as long as the front, but half an inch shorter. The closer I get to tying the back part of the tie to the bottom, but still have it shorter, the more luck there's going to be. I may re-tie my tie twelve times. In this age, people would call it OCD and medicate me. But it's very traditional; every person in the theatre is doing his own version of superstitious, step-on-a-crack business. So I have the butterflies. I try to ground myself in tasks and activities and rituals that are not easy in New York. Physical exercise is very important; I'm a big walker and have been for years. The city is a different place now. To walk here now is so confusing, and the crowds are so bad. These days I take the subway up early and then walk up through Central Park (through the Elm trees). And then I'll walk back to the theatre. I walked three hours yesterday. That spent me and stopped my mind from generating. But staying focused can be so difficult. When I was opening Morning, Noon and Night at Lincoln Center, I was sure that the food I ate that day was tainted. I'm a salad bar junkie (I usually try to get there when they've just brought the food out). On that day I'd gotten to some very old turkey and was convinced I'd projectile vomit on stage. Now, that's very hard to get rid of in your mind. If I say, "you can no longer think of food poisoning," what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Food poisoning. Another example: something happened last night. I said a crucially wrong word. I called the gathering a "congregation" instead of a "convention." Now, William Russell is supposed to be a politician. Perhaps the secret Spalding Gray, the internal Spalding Gray, is wishing he was a minister. And it connects to another mistake I made last week, when I said he was "ordained" rather than "confirmed." If I pay attention to these mistakes in my journal, that's my mind working. But it should be the mind of the play, of Gore Vidal. As a solo artist, to bow down to that is the greatest challenge for me.

PBOL: Even though you've appeared in other playwrights' works before?
SG: Well, I did Our Town, but that was really like monologues in a way, and I felt absolutely at home with the speeches. The Best Man is more of a challenge because of its grammatical structure. If you take any of the speeches here, you can grammatically outline the sentences the way they used to do in school. At the same time, there was one comforting thing about learning lines: it took my entire daily focus. I'm dyslexic, so one way I learn the lines is writing them on block letters on 3 X 5 cards. This way I "own" it as well -- it's my hand print. I can memorize it better. Then I would take these cards and say them to myself softly. It became like a mantra as I walked all over. That left no room for fears, hypochondria, worry about the future. Street people and tourists stayed away from me. They thought I was mad, talking to myself. But yesterday I was in Battery Park watching the sailboats. I no longer have the mantra. And when you let go of that, it's like you've stopped your religious practice. And up comes all the old existential anxiety. For example, one new line presented itself and it stayed in my head. I believe it's a Kerouac line: "Life is like a dream that never happened." I must have said that to myself for an hour; I couldn't shake it. That was the bottom line. I said to myself, "I can't even do another monologue -- how can you do 90 minutes about one line?" It's the kind of thing that killed Kerouac, though Allen Ginsberg took it by the horns. It's a nihilistic idea. Life is like a dream that never happened. The non-happening dream. Like Prospero's last speech, or the end of Hamlet: "The rest is silence." And there's a pun there, on the word "rest..." I would love to be in a silent state. Stop my mind and just become a prop waiting to go on. Just be a vessel for exercise, sex and drink. And now I'm being quite abstinent. I'm down to two beers and a sandwich -- I've never drunk less than that amount in my life. I'm like a theatre monk. I'm in a monogamous relationship with Kathy Russo, but she's out of town with her family in Sag Harbor. So I'm also redirecting my sexual energy. Tantric sexuality. Abstaining from direct sexual contact. It goes back to when they'd tell athletes "Don't have sex before big ball game." And I'm trying to be able to discipline myself to sit on it long enough. If you do, it really does start to move in other places. I grew up at the end of World War II. We didn't have margarine then, we had lard. This giant yellow block, and in the middle, there was a colored flavor-ball, and mom would give that to me. It's like trying to extract that sexual ball out of the spine. I'm not sleeping well, though. I hear the voices of the play. The lines in my head. I'm onstage a lot, and I have a character with a very long thruline, a history on stage, and I like that very much. But especially on days when you have two shows, that is the world, and it comes back on you, the same way any intense experience would. Sometimes I wake up saying the lines to myself.

PBOL: Had you ever tried your hand at writing a more typical play, with characters and other actors?
SG: Back in Smith College I wrote a one-act play. Later on, I and some other playwrights were commissioned by John Houseman's acting company to do one-acts based on Chekhov. My story called "The Witch." I was supposed to write a monologue. I wrote a quick, hand-written monologue that was then typed up and performed by another actor. That was very fulfilling. But I'm kind of a lazy guy. I don't commission myself very well. I'm very dreamy and lead a quiet fantasy life. Eventually the stuff gets plugged into some kind of order, and that becomes a monologue.



PBOL: It sounds like monologues are really your complete and total calling.
SG: I put myself on a limb with the monologues. I had an epiphany with Sex & Death to the Age 14. It was done in what had been a rag shop; we knocked a hole in the wall of the Performing Garage, and that was the alternative space where I did my first monologue. I can remember after doing it (for about 12 people) I was standing there, putting my arms around myself, looking out on Wooster Street, realizing I'd come into something. I'd found my center. That was such a moment of faith. I never doubted it from that moment on. I just understood there was a contact made with myself and my audience; otherwise I'd probably be in a 12-step program for regional theatres. Or maybe, in my fantasy life, being a child psychologist. I doubt I'd have gone back to school to do it. Instead I had children later in life. I'm in a very good, harmonious place with myself now, so I can't imagine a life elsewhere. Still, I have fantasies. I took up downhill skiing at 52. I had instructors I thought were Greek gods because of what they could do on the slopes. My fantasy: I wish I'd been a ski instructor, but that's just fantasy.

PBOL: After more than two decades of doing monologues, has it gotten harder to come up with material, or has doing Best Man perhaps steered you in a political direction.?
SG: Morning, Noon and Night was the completion of 20-year cycle, culminating with this family. I'll only continue thinking and talking about that. But the Vidal play has also lifted me out of that and focused me in entirely different direction. This experience will be a seedbed for something, I just don't know what yet. I cannot force-generate a topic. I'm no good at assignments. I tried not too long ago; I went to Washington DC to follow my tax dollar. But I couldn't catch up with the idea. I'm best when I have a need to tell, to share private insights. The Vidal play is as close as I want to get to Washington. But it does make me follow political coverage. At the same time, I am active in Eastern Long Island. This is the first time I've ever been actively involved in politics; when I lived in Soho, I was just part of the art ghetto. Now I'm on the board of STAR (Stand up for Truth About Radiation). We want the Milford reactor shut down in Waterford, CT. They can't restore the fuel rods, and it's one of the most dangerous reactors in America. Where the Eugene O'Neill center is -- that's a very polluted area. I get so depressed about it and tempted to just sell and move. The Sag Harbor property values are so high now, but we're just 15 miles down-wind of the reactor. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants to tell us that they can draw a safety line of 10 miles. That's ludicrous. But it has to be close to home for me. I was offered a trip to Burma by the Pen Center to be a spy. They wanted me to pretend to be a tourist and come back and do a monologue about repression in Burma. But I've got three children, a life; I don't want to risk being imprisoned. For me, you gotta start at home. Much as I feel for the writers and artists of Burma, I'm not gonna go over there.

PBOL: And yet you do take an interest in other people's stories. One of your shows was "Interviewing the Audience," and you also teach.
SG: I do workshops in monologues. I've been teaching at five-day workshops at Southhampton College, the Omega Institute and Esalen. Fifteen people come with personal stories they start to tell and tape record. They learn to objectify, to become outside themselves. I always tell them: "You have got to find a space. A place. A center that supports this." One of my students was a 76-year-old man -- Fred Rocklin, who worked on The Old Man with a Baseball Cap at Esalen. I encouraged him, and he's started his own storytelling group. I'd like to do more of that.

PBOL: Has your own style of performance changed over the years?
I've held very much to that ritual and tradition of the way I do it. But one thing has changed. In Swimming to Cambodia, I had no director. It was organic, and I evolved it in front of an audience. Then I had that long relationship with Renee Shafransky. The problem was it was an emotional relationship, and she was my director, giving me notes after every show. it was overload, and I burned that out. We broke up. I was suddenly without a director. But now I've taken on a director, an artistic advisor, Paul Spencer. He's an ad man (he did the Lotto thing -- "You never know"). I generally bring him in after I've done 15 performances, which is when I start to know what the structure is. I think that's important, and it's one reason I'm working well with Ethan [McSweeny], who's also young. Collaboration is very important. It's good to have a director I'm not emotionally involved with. But other things haven't changed. I don't want to ever memorize. I'm speaking what I see in my head. Describing images from my life. People think I'm reading from my journal, but I'm really doing it extemporaneously. Every performance is significantly different until it's organically set. That's the difference between what I do and improvisation. An improviser goes further and further out. I start out and pull in. It's like water coming down a mountain in a rainstorm. After a while, it finds its own path. After 25-30 performances there's a stream.

PBOL: But your works have been published. Technically, odd as it sounds, other people can "do" them.
SG: I've never seen anyone do my monologues, but my agent gets letters, requests to do excerpts. People do them for auditions. But I discourage it. The character of Spalding Gray is only interesting when it's Spalding Gray.

-- By David Lefkowitz