Remembering Spalding

Earlier this evening I went to the memorial service for Spalding Gray, which was alternately moving, uplifting, insightful and funny.

The evening started with a very beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Judy Collins, in which she invited the crowd to sing along. Usually a roomful of people singing together is cacophony, but this turned out quite well. People actually sang harmonies. Moving tributes and humorous anecdotes were shared by Bernard Gersten, Robert Stein, Joe Berlinger, Bob Holman and Suzanne Gluck, followed by a short film by Barbara Kopple of Spalding talking on his porch. After that John Perry Barlow, Francine Prose, Mark Russell, A.M. Homes and Lee Grant shared stories. A brief, somber, musical interlude: Facade performed by Philip Glass and Jon Gibson. Then Laurie Anderson spoke. They played a very funny short film from an old episode of Saturday Night Live in which Eric Bogosian and Spalding (as played by Adam Sandler and Michael Mckean) faced off as if in a WWF wrestling match. This was followed by the real Eric Bogosian coming up to talk. He not only had great memories and stories, but he talked a little about the whole term “performance artist” and reminded people how both he and Spalding considered what they do to be first and foremost theater. Actually, Mark Russell kind of talked about that too. That Spalding created a truly “poor theater” in that it was very simple: a man, a desk, a glass of water, a story. And also he was experimental. Those early, early works were a challenge and an experiment, “What if I just got up on stage, without any preparation, and talked for an hour? Can I be interesting? Can I make this a performance?” We take that for granted now, but he was the first.

After Bogosian came Roger Rosenblatt and a very touching moment when Spalding’s wife, Kathleen Russo, came up and shared memories and a poem. The final speaker of the evening was Eric Stoltz who talked about his time working with Spalding on Our Town on Broadway.

Finally, they showed footage of Spalding from that production of Our Town, that final monologue of the Stage Manager as he looks down on Grover’s Corners from the cemetery on the hill. It was eloquent and inspiring.

Like Spalding’s monologues, his memorial had many strands of stories, many narratives and digressions, yet it all held together and made meaning in suprising ways. In the end you felt bigger, like you’d learned something, like you’d been somewhere special and come back somehow more than you had been when you came in.

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