Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gray Eminence

The first time I saw Spalding Gray he was performing live at the Painted Bride; I had never seen a monologist in action before. At the time I didn't know that he and my sister Jo had been friends, way back in the day when they were in an experimental theatre group together in New York City. I also couldn't know that pretty soon he would be outgrowing the Painted Bride and be appearing at larger and larger venues and eventually on the silver screen itself. I just knew that this low-tech performance-- a table, a glass of water, a notebook whose pages he riffled through occasionally --was compelling and personal and deeply moving. I loved his New England accent, his patrician WASP-y air, his stream-of-consciousness writing which looped around and held together in some magical and mysterious way. I even loved his copybook- I believe it may have been the black and white marbled kind but maybe not- and I loved the way he glanced down at his story only rarely and made his performance seem effortless and spontaneous, even though it wasn't even remotely so.
I guess that evening at the Painted Bride turned David and me into Spalding Gray groupies, of a sort. We scrambled for tickets whenever we saw that he was giving a performance. We talked about him with friends and family and so it came as no surprise that during a visit to my sister Gail's in Boston many years ago a whole bunch of us went to see him in Cambridge for a performance called "Interviewing the Audience". Paula and Steve, our dear friends and anti-nuke colleagues, came along. My nephew Tony was there- he must have been in high school?- and my mom and dad, David, me and my sister Gail. [ Had I known what was to transpire , I would have tried to have a therapist there for my sister. Or at least a paramedic... ] I think my niece Jen must have been at Wesleyan then, maybe even working on her senior thesis, which was a paean to Spalding himself. I think it was called "Sleeping With My Mother" and I believe it referenced my sister's nighttime orthodontic appliance, but I may be wrong. I know that Jen actually spoke with him about it, but whether it was in person or on the phone I cannot say. What I do know is that my extended family had, in various ways and for quite a while, been intricately intertwined with the inestimable Mr. Gray, but nothing could prepare me for what was to occur that night at "Interviewing the Audience".
While we were filing into the theatre an usher asked people to write something down on a 3X5 card about themselves if they wanted to be considered as an interviewee for that evening's show. It all occurred rather quickly- a bit of a blur- but before we knew what was happening my mother ["The World's Oldest Living Child Star"] had somehow pushed herself to the front of the line, indicating in the midst of the mayhem, that she was Jo Forman's mother and that Spalding would probably want to be talking to her onstage.
I can't remember much about the other people who were interviewed by Spalding. It would be hard to outshine the likes of Doris Helene Forman, who walked up to the stage and immediately stole the show. Stealing the show from Spalding Gray is no mean feat, but I stand by my critique. My mother, clearly a frustrated performance artist herself, has a habit to this day of channeling Blanche DuBois on special occasions. She began speaking in her faux Southern accent and, truth be told, she always has "depended on the kahndness of straynjuhs. " Spalding asked her some leading questions and I seem to remember her mentioning that she had once "dropped mescaline" and that she had always wanted to try "that X.T.C."
At this point I glanced to my left where my sister Gail was sitting. I was surprised to see her slumped way down in her seat, hands covering her eyes and face, hyperventilating. Up till then, I had always thought the phrase "dying of embarrassment" was hyperbole. I tried to attend to her but I was fixated on the spectacle on stage. I was wondering vaguely what effect my mother's confession might have on my adolescent nephew, at which point I realized with a mixture of pride and awe, that my mother had just brought the house down. Gail suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder from the event, but it didn't stop her from remaining a lifelong Spalding fan, along with the rest of us.
If I thought Spalding's tragic death would end his influence on me, I was dead wrong. I urged my kids to "netflick" the recently-released DVD of Monster in a Box. I used up a good portion of my last therapy session talking about him and how I have a hankering to become a performance artist myself, at least once, before I die. I could schlep my giant binder with "Things Are Looking Up" in magic marker on the vinyl cover and I could read some of my meandering memoirs and I could raise the water glass and take a sip, in a toast to my late mentor.
When I read recently in the Times that a bunch of actors are performing Spalding posthumously, I immediately asked Anna and Zack if they wanted me to get tickets for them as well. They said sure, any time in May would probably be good for them.I went ahead and purchased 4 non-exchangeable tickets for May 6 and when I told Anna to mark down the date cause we would all be going to the Spalding Gray show that day she looked stricken. "What's the matter? I thought you said you'd be free the whole month?".
"We ARE free, every day but May 6. That's when we're going to the TLA to see Amy Winehouse!

5 comments:

Heidi said...

Poor Spalding. He could have used some of your therapeutic intervention himself...
Thanks for the anecdote!

Nancy said...

Keith and I saw S.G. at the Painted Bride too. Swimming to Cambodia. I was smitten. I read his book(s) and waited to hear him on the radio. He was so wonderful, but ached soooo much. I miss him. Nan

Nancy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gail said...

The tears of laughter are running down my face as I write this-what a great chance to relive this experience from your vantage point . Your writing is terrific. You are VERY funny. I hope Jen gets to see this!! Amy has quite the voice. I checked out the link. Gail

Lynn said...

Congrats on figuring out how to take away the underlined text! You're getting good at this!