Sep 20, 2018
A Spalding Gray Appreciation, On The Anniversary Of The Day He Vanished
We lost Spalding Gray 10 years ago today, although we wouldn’t know it for another two months. I saw him give a sort of free-floating lecture — just a talk, not one of his monologues, if that makes any sense — at the University of Arizona a million years ago in the early ’90s, years before the 2001 car wreck that drove him into his final depressive spiral. He was amazing, just standing — often on one foot, holding his raised foot with one hand, the microphone with the other — and reeling off loosely connected stories about acting and art and stuff.
The only thing I really remember from the talk was a question: Gray had talked earlier about being the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center revival of Our Town that was going to be on PBS soon, and a student in the audience asked why he settled for being the stage manager instead of holding out for an acting part. Amid uncomfortable, embarrassed laughter from people who knew the play, Gray very politely explained that the Stage Manager is the main character, and then explained what an avant-garde thing that was in 1928. The guy loved talking and explaining and worrying about the little things, and even if his monologues spawned far too many self-indulgent imitators, he did it brilliantly.
NPR reminded us this morning of the anniversary of Gray’s going missing, with this sweet, sad reminiscence recorded by his wife, Kathleen Russo, and his stepdaughter, Marissa Maier, about that day and their memories of Gray.
There’s also this 2004 New York Magazine profile, published shortly after Gray disappeared but before his body was found in the East River; I remember reading it at the time, just a fan wondering what right I had to feel any anxiety over a performer’s disappearance, imagining the hell that Russo and the people who actually knew him must be going through and almost ashamed that I worried about what had happened to him, too. But then that was the illusion of intimacy that Gray created through his monologues — watching Swimming to Cambodia makes you feel like you know him, or wish you knew him, even though of course you know better. And of course, along with Stop Making Sense, it’s another amazing Jonathan Demme movie that captures the feeling of being at a live performance.
But talking about Spalding Gray is nowhere near as good as listening to Spalding Gray, so here is part 1 of a 1987 documentary, Spalding Gray: A Life in Progress, with plenty of performance excerpts.
The YouTubes are swimming with Spalding Gray clips, too, some of dubious copyright provenance, so we won’t be linking, but they’re out there. And of course if you haven’t seen Swimming to Cambodia, you need to, or we just can’t hang out with each other anymore, OK? (Actually, we can, but I won’t be able to look you in the eye, I really won’t).