Shades of Gray

Spalding Gray, one of the most revered and irreverent storytellers of our time, became an indelible image: sitting alone at a desk on a bare stage, delivering hilarious and moving monologues. But what made Gray’s performances so memorable and timeless was the universal way his words—the observations, neuroses, fears and joys they expressed—resonate so deeply with audiences. His work lives on in the funny, poignant, and ultimately life-affirming Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell. A limited run of performances will take place Tuesdays through Sundays, February 20—May 13 at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Opening night is Tuesday, March 6.

Stories Left to Tell is co-conceived by Kathleen Russo, Gray’s widow, and Lucy Sexton, who have assembled both renowned and never-before-seen work to span the artist’s extraordinary life and career. Culturebot Writer Sarah Maxfield chats with Russo about the project, and Gray’s imprint on contemporary theater:

Sarah Maxfield/Culturebot: Can you talk a little bit about the reading of Swimming to Cambodia that Theater Communications Group organized, and how it inspired you to trust Gray’s words to other performers and organize this project?

Kathleen Russo:
TCG approached me, and I was thrilled that they wanted to reprint Swimming. I helped by organizing the reading to launch the book and asked Roger Rosenblatt, Eric Bogosian, Kate Valk, Reno and Bob Holman to read. As I sat there, it truly inspired me to find a way to do more readings because the writing was so brilliant, and I was convinced, could be read by others.

[more after the jump]

SM: During his life, were any of Gray’s works presented by performers other than himself?

KR: No. Except a one-act play he wrote called Orchards.

SM: Is Gray’s signature monologue style retained in this staging, or is this presentation a broader re-imagining his work?

KR: Our first direction to the actors was, “Read this as if it is your own story.” The last thing we want to do is have someone try to copy Spalding. That would be a disaster in the sense that the writing doesn’t require that. It is so strong that the words stand alone, and when we cast someone that is the polar opposite of Spalding, (in looks and personality), the stories really take on lives of their own. For example, Hazelle Goodman, a beautiful black actress reads The Sweat Lodge story and brings a whole new life to it.

Just so you can visualize, we’ve structured the piece as such:

Journal Reader
Family Person
Career Person

They each tell stories from Spalding’s writings that pertain to the title we assigned them. For example, Hazelle Goodman/Adventurer reads about the sweat lodge and other wild situations Spalding put himself in, only to later write about. Ain Gordon, the Journalist, really sets up each story with a journal entry. Kathleen Chalfant is the Lover and will read from Spalding losing his virginity to finally settling into a monogamous relationship. Frank Wood will read stories from Spalding’s childhood, to raising a family as an older dad. Career Person will read Spalding Goes to Hollywood-type stories, one of the funniest of which is about how he was interviewed to be a guest on The Tonight Show.

We take you through his life with his own writing and show you the 5 strands of his life through the characters above.

SM: Undoubtedly, Gray influenced numerous contemporary theater-makers, particularly those working in solo forms. What do you perceive as his legacy that will continue to inspire artists and audiences?

I think he will always be considered the “grandfather” of monologists. People often ask me if I’m bugged by someone doing a piece behind a desk and presenting a monologue the same way Sapdling did, (like a Mike Daisey). I immediately respond, “Of course not.” I think its such a great compliment if they want to tell a story the way Spalding did. Go for it. Because what ends up happening is the press will always use Spalding as the model for a monologue and compare that artist to Spalding, which keeps his name alive in the theater world.

What I’m finding through this show, (and I get this feedback a lot), is that people didn’t realize what an exceptional writer he was and only thought of him as a great performer. So with this piece, we’re highlighting the writing aspect of his work, and it gets people re-interested in reading one of his books or watching one of his monologues.

He crafted a style of storytelling that I think would be hard to copy, but one that deeply inspires artists each year to attempt and try. I’m very happy to see others do this, and that the audiences also use Splading as a point of reference when watching a monologue.

SM: In addition to performing in his own singular writing, Gray performed with the Wooster Group, and the Performance Group, as well as more commercially on the Broadway stage, in film and television. How did his original work relate to these other performance projects?

Out of the Wooster group he was able to find his own voice and go from there. He always thought he would be part of an ensemble (and he was for many years) but that nurturing and intimate environment gave him the courage and the desire to try it on his own.

TV and film work he really did for fun and health insurance! But he loved being pampered on the sets and it would always give him more material, which we’ve included in the piece by the actor that reads the career stories.

SM: Of Spalding Gray’s many wonderful works, does one stand out as your favorite?

KR: Well, Morning, Noon and Night is like watching a home movie so it is dear to my heart, but I truly feel Slippery Slope is my favorite because it put him out there, in front of his audiences, in a not-particularly favorable light. Therefore it was his riskiest piece, but one that was essential for his growth as an artist. When all that stuff was happening to him, he very much thought, “I’ll never work again; the audience will never forgive me for what I did.” And for the first time, he did receive hate mail, but it was important for him to believe in himself as an artist and that if he was true to the form he created, he had to trust that most of the audience would get it.

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