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Spalding Gray : His New Favorite Subject--Him : Spalding Gray's latest monologue, 'Monster in a Box,' examines his life since 'Swimming to Cambodia' made him a celebrity--sort of

November 11, 1990|HILARY De VRIES

It is his way, Gray says, of coping with "the chaos." And sitting here in his loft with the pale northern sky backlighting his flowing gray hair and the pale stubble on his cheek, Gray looks like a man who has seen a lot of chaos. He is taller and thinner, far less robust than he appears on stage. His demeanor is as flat as his Rhode Island accent, his humor sheathed in ice-cold irony. As Shafransky says, "When I first met Spalding, I thought he was a Martian. He revealed so much of himself onstage but he hardly ever talked to people in a real emotional way." In June, Gray will turn 50. While he admits that he and Shafransky are considering having a child, the avant-garde seems suddenly very, very tired.

Of his work process, Gray says, "The only way I know it's working is when I find myself in chaos. I start keeping a journal and the chaos becomes resolved. I get a big cardboard box and I throw in everything that is relevant. Later I see how it's organized." Later he will hone the monologue in front of audiences for nearly a year, editing and rearranging the material.

It is a performance technique that Gray stumbled on during his early years as an actor in New York. Born in Rhode Island in 1941 to an upper-middle-class New England family, Gray suffered from minor dyslexia and some behavioral problems as a child.

He didn't finish boarding school until he was almost 20, then attended Boston's Emerson College, where he majored in theater and discovered he could make people laugh with his storytelling. "It certainly wasn't on stage. I could barely get up there," he says. Instead, in the kitchen of the tony Katherine Gibbs School for secretaries, "I would hang with the help and tell stories to the other Emerson students, the old Irish ladies and the Merchant Marine guys, the reformed alcoholics. That's when I discovered I could be funny."

After graduation Gray drifted around the regional theater circuit for five years before landing in New York at the experimental Performing Garage. "I thought I would be a professional actor going from regional theater to regional theater, living alone, being a bachelor, putting myself to sleep every night with beers and spending the days pretending I was someone else," says Gray.

"But part of me knew that was a death trip," he adds when asked about the transition into confessional monologues. "And it was the '60s and I wasn't taking acid, but I had come to New York to work in underground theater. It was New York in 1967, and I went to see (Richard Schechner's) 'Dionysis' and it just blew my mind. I was terrified that these naked women on stage would come and pull me down and do something terrible to me. All my concepts about theater were just blown away by the Open Theater, Joe Chaikin's work and count everything else into it--Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, Charles Ludlum. I just walked into a caldron of creativity."

For five years, Gray worked with a variety of downtown artists before forming the Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte, an artist and theater director whom he had met in Saratoga, N.Y. "It was a community, we all went to each other's work. That's how I found my form," says Gray. "I realized this was the place for me to initiate things." Indeed, it was at the Wooster Group that Gray first began using autobiographical material, in the company's early productions--their performance trilogy, "Three Places in Rhode Island." Much of those pieces were based on interviews Gray had conducted with members of his family after his mother's death. "They were very revealing tapes," recalls Gray. "We played them onstage as part of the performances."

"Always, Spalding told stories," recalls LeCompte, artistic director of the Wooster Group, whose headquarters are across the street from Gray's loft. "A lot of what he did at the beginning he did as therapy. His work is more complex now. But Spalding was never a naturalistic actor. He works very well with a mask, even if it's a mask of himself playing himself."

By 1979, Gray had spun off from the Wooster Group and was performing his first autobiographical monologue about coming of age in Rhode Island, "Sex and Death to the Age of 14" and began earning comparisons to Mark Twain.

"I first saw Spalding perform at a theater conference 10 years ago," recalls Gregory Mosher, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theaters. "I was at the Goodman (Theater in Chicago) then and after five minutes I was laughing so hard I was crying. I had to block the aisle to keep other directors from getting to him first."

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