Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1995
False alarm. Last year, Spalding Gray said his career was headed downhill. He was retiring. He was gonna be a ski instructor for children. No more monologues. No more touring. No more stage work. “I want to make a living with my body,” said the acclaimed writer/actor/performer at age 53.
That was Fall 1994, when he last appeared in La Jolla (he also performed there in 1985 and 1991).
Fast forward to Fall 1995. Gray has spent a good deal of time skiing. He tore his left knee meniscus last Christmas in Tahoe, and kept on skiing. He got “crazed” with skiing. Now it’s become a metaphor, and what else? He’s turned it into a monologue, “Skiing to New England” (alternating with “Interviewing the Audience,” December 13-17 at the La Jolla Playhouse).
It’s hard to tell whether Gray actually lives his life, or just writes monologues about it. Anything that happens to him, either in reality or in his phobic dream-states, turns up onstage, usually with him sitting behind a desk, dressed in a plaid shirt and khakis, his only prop a glass of water. And he talks. And talks. It’s the same when you interview him. It’s never a conversation, just a monologue. Mostly about him.
Gray calls it “the talking cure.” He writes his life to understand it, for catharsis, to “rein in the chaos.” In his fourteenth monologue, “Gray’s Anatomy,” he talked about his rare eye affliction and his cure-seeking forays into “the Bermuda Triangle of Health.” He confronted his hypochondria and his loss of vision (both real and metaphorical).
Prior to that was “Monster in a Box” (which, like “Swimming to Cambodia,” was made into a movie), a monologue about “a man who can’t write a book about a man who can’t take a vacation.” In that one, Gray tackled his fear of fear and his mother’s suicide. The “monster” of the title was the book he was trying to write (“Impossible Vacation,” published by Knopf), which, he says, ultimately contributed to arthritis in his right hand and blindness in his right eye.
Now skiing is his metaphor. It represents “learning something late in life. A leap of faith. Objectifying destructive impulses. Internalizing fears. And death. The whiteness of rebirth…. It’s about separation of loved ones, the birth of a son, the death of a father.”
All in one year, 1991, Gray split from his mate of fourteen years, lost his therapist of seven years, saw the birth of his son and the death of his father. “I was almost hospitalized for it,” he confesses. “I’m still a little shaky.”
He’s finished collaborating with a significant other. Twice, it hasn’t worked: once with Renee Shafransky, who co-wrote and directed several of his monologues, and earlier, with Elizabeth Lecompte, with whom he started New York’s Wooster Group in 1977.
For years after leaving the Group, he did annual benefits for Wooster. Now he and Elizabeth aren’t on speaking terms, and he no longer works with Renee. “It’s too painful now, with Kathy (current live-in) and Forrest (their son). I was extremely fused with Renee. She was living through my work. And I acted out. Had an affair, had a kid. It’s very important to get back to myself…. Now I know one thing. I want to go skiing. It’s an addictive kind of thing. Like my former addictions, only healthier. But still potentially dangerous.
“Now I’ve got to learn something physical to do in the summer. I’ve got to master this wind-surfing business… I’m looking for physical things to obliterate the thought process. My new heroes are the ones who ride the elements…. In skiing, all the death wish and fear is objectified.”
So though Gray has moved on, and mastered a new skill, he’s still obsessing, and we’re gonna hear about it, in his sardonic, literate, New England WASPy, neurotic, antic, depressive way. Self-indulgent, yes. But also intelligent, insightful and sometimes very funny.
Far from backing off, Gray is just gearing up. He’s currently “totally overbooked,” with performance dates through May. He’ll squeeze in skiing in Utah, Vermont and New Mexico. He’ll do the West coast premiere of “Skiing” in La Jolla. He’s into his second dozen film appearances, most recently, the remake of “Diabolique” with Sharon Stone, close on the heels of last year’s “Beyond Rangoon.”
He’s making a film of “Gray’s Anatomy,” to be directed by Steven Soderbergh. And he’ll do “Interviewing the Audience” in La Jolla, too. This piece has no real script or predetermined shape. During the intermission, he chooses four or five audience members, and interviews each of them onstage for about twenty minutes. He goes on intuition, selecting people of different ages, occupations and “a kind of private personality; people who are not exhibitionistic, but will open up.” This is his evergreen piece; “I’ll perform it as long as I live,” he avers. “It’s new every time. Because I’m changing, the world is changing, the audience is changing. Powerful, unexpected things happen by chance. It’s in the moment.”
That’s the line that keeps coming up. Skiing is, of course, in the moment. And, AT the moment, Gray looks ahead at his hectic schedule with “a combination of excitement and dread and fear. I’m afraid I’ll physically give out, like (53 year-old Grateful Dead rocker) Jerry Garcia.”
Poor Spalding. He has to live with all those fears. We just get to be entertained by them.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.