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The Trembling Shadow of Chance

Spalding Gray Risks a Return to the Stage

True Stories: ˘When I first started telling my monologues, it never occurred to me that it would go beyond the little theater that I was doing it in,÷ Gray says. Now, ˘you get people who are wanting to sue because I told a story about playing strip poker.÷

By Brad Aaron | Posted 4/25/2001

Writer, actor, and monologist Spalding Gray has appeared in films ranging from The Killing Fields to True Stories to The Paper. His 18, usually autobiographical monologues include the Obie-winning Swimming to Cambodia, captured on film by director Jonathan Demme in 1987. Having completed a limited Broadway engagement in Gore Vidal's The Best Man last December, Gray is back on the road. His latest monologue, the Drama Desk Award-nominated Morning, Noon and Night, which runs as part of Center Stage's OffCenter series April 26 through 28, chronicles a day in the life of his family on Long Island. Gray was interviewed by phone while vacationing in Colorado.

Brad Aaron: [Your 1997 monologue] It's a Slippery Slope seems like a prequel to what you're doing now.

Spalding Gray: Yeah, they're companion pieces. Slippery Slope is a long slide into the place where I've landed, which is this new family nest, you know. They really are companion pieces, and I do play them together sometimes on request.

BA: Are you a neurotic parent? Do you obsessively worry about your kids or what they're doing? I'm afraid to have children because I'm afraid I would never let them out of my sight.

SG: I know. I go through periods of that, but [Gray's partner] Kathie is a very, very good hands-on mother. The kind of parent I am is very hands-on, very close, very intimate, and then I go out on tour and have a break and get away from it. I suppose I was early on when Theo was born, my second son. I would wake up every four hours and listen to his breathing, because he seemed to barely be in the world. And I'm very cautious of that. I agree with you, I don't want to radiate [fear] to them because I think that I got that from my mother, and I don't want to repeat that. I don't think of myself as neurotic, but I'm someone that doesn't believe in destiny, and feels that things are very chancy, and that we can count ourselves lucky just now, you know. So I'm always worried about how things might go wrong.

Of course, Forrest--he's 8 now--made me take him to a psychic in San Francisco. He's interested in that. And he did it on his own, he had a tape of it. I didn't go in with him. And the psychic told him he was going to live to be 102, so when I called him this morning I said, "Well, at least you don't have the plane crashing." He said, "Why?" and I said, "Remember, you're going to be 102," and that put him at ease.

BA: What do you think your children will think of your monologues when they're older?

SG: Well, that's a good question. I'm not a futurist. I never really project ahead and I don't think about that. I do think about it now, and I see how delighted Forrest is--and less so Marissa, my stepdaughter, because she's more private now--but Forrest is still delighted by hearing his history played back. So it's not just photographs. His mother has endless and wonderful photographs of his history as a child, but [Morning, Noon and Night] is an oral history that is also shared with an audience. I don't know what that's going to do to them in the long run, but right now I think it makes him very proud. And it gives a sense of self-worth, and not in a celebrity sense.

In Tacoma, Wash., they were in the wings when I took my second curtain call. It was a big house, easily a thousand people there. And Theo, who's 4, really eats it up. Forrest is very humble in the curtain call. He came out and bowed but he said, "You know, Dad, I don't mind taking a curtain call at a drum recital when I've played the drums, but it's harder for me when I haven't done anything." And I said, "That's a very healthy attitude."

BA: Has there been a personal price in putting your life, and those of family members, "out there" in your work?

SG: I suppose it's gone fairly smoothly. The only thing, and I don't miss this, is that I had an utter breakup with my stepmother after my father's death, and that had to do with the eulogy--I talk about that in It's a Slippery Slope--but also having written about her in my book Impossible Vacation, and she felt it was unredeemingly insulting. Now I don't feel that loss, you know. I'm glad she didn't sue. Marissa's father, I think, tried to sue me--but he didn't have a leg to stand on--for defamation of character. But he couldn't get a lawyer to take the case on it. So I have been blessed.

Early on, when I did my monologue Sex and Death to the Age 14, I was using all real names and sent out pieces of the book for people to sign them. I got a letter from a friend who'd hired a lawyer to go after me if I ever used his name. So that made me more cautious. When I first started telling my monologues, it never occurred to me that it would go beyond that little theater that I was doing it in. Once they got published, that becomes a whole other thing. The printed word is like the Bible. It's no longer spoken. And you get people who are wanting to sue because I told a story about playing strip poker.

BA: In Slippery Slope you mention Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death; in that book he proposes that those who stand on the street corner screaming are the rational ones because they recognize the fragility of existence, and it's the rest of us who are insane. Do you see life that way?

SG: I occasionally do. I see life as a big denial, particularly in our culture. And I try to see the positive side, and I have to in order to get on an airplane. But for instance, I think that flying is insane, and I think that everyone on there is treating it just like it's an everyday thing. I think it's a very unnatural thing, and all the stewardesses and everyone on the plane are acting like it's the most natural thing in the world. So it strikes me that much of culture and much of society is an agreed-upon act, and underneath it is the trembling shadow of chance. I think that's what Becker's book is about.

And ultimately, I feel the only thing I can bow down to is the mysterium tremendum, and I say that in Morning, Noon and Night. It's all a mystery, and it's also a chancy mystery. And so far, I've been blessed, I think, by chance and have never thought of accidents in the pejorative, because both my sons are accidents, and all my monologues are accidents. They're all serendipitous, they were never planned. So that's the good of chance. And the dark side, well, it hasn't struck me yet.

BA: I have to say you've validated my reason--that's exactly why I don't fly, and I have the hardest time explaining that to anyone. I feel like I'm naked standing on the edge of the abyss whenever I'm in an airplane.

SG: I know. I know the feeling. And I'm doing it all the time. The hardest part of my work is the traveling. They say, "Do you have stage fright?" Oh no, I have a fear of airports and airplanes. When I'm on stage, I'm comfortable.

BA: What do you see as the greatest threat to humanity today?

SG: Oh . . . I was going to say overpopulation, but I think what's really on top of that is the destruction of the environment. From the ozone layer down to the water, you know, the elements are going.

And I really am a Freudian in that I think there is built deeply into the human psyche a desire to return to stasis. We don't want to call it death because that's too shadowy, but stasis, a complete state of stillness. And humanity seems to be doing a pretty good job of what they're doing with the earth.

The other thing is that we all have egos, and there will always be Islamic jihads and there will always be capitalists, because we'll all be individuals. And as soon as you don't have that, you have total fascism, so there's no in-between.

Brad Aaron is news editor for the Athens, Ga., alternative weekly Flagpole, where this story was originally published.

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