A Perfect Moment : Actor Spalding Gray says that after 13 monologues, he’s going to give up the medium.
Actor Spalding Gray has a way with words. Especially in the spoken form he’s made famous: monologues delivered in direct personal address to a live audience.
Intelligent, funny and disarmingly confessional, he sits at a table with only a glass of water and his outline of key words, ports-of-call in his freewheeling, autobiographical odysseys that strike resonant chords of cultural anxiety in his listeners.
In perhaps his best-known work, “Swimming to Cambodia,” Gray’s quest for his “perfect moment"--which he had in Thailand while on location as a supporting player in the film “The Killing Fields"--became inseparable from broader issues of cultural barriers, genocide, relative sexual mores and nuclear annihilation.
An art form as ancient as the first storytellers and as contemporary as the analyst’s couch, the 13 monologues Gray has created to date have brought him success, fame and no end of discomfort. How could it be otherwise for someone who farms his material from the deep soil of neurotic ambivalence?
But now, it all may be coming to an end.
“There are no more monologues,” he announced two weeks ago when contacted by phone in St. Louis at the start of a three-month, 14-city tour that will include two performances at UC Santa Barbara on March 7 and 8. “I’m very, very tired.
“When I got on this tour, I knew. This is really too much. I am being eaten alive by the market. Maybe I’ll recoup my energy, but right now I just want open space, to move in the direction of the unconscious. It’s saying ‘Don’t rush out into the world and think that it’s all going on out there. Get a little quietude to try to create. . . .’ ”
Being turned into a commodity, Gray admits, is definitely “one of the hazards in my variety of work.”
Part of the mass appeal of Gray’s monologues is the way they reveal through personal stories how neurosis has replaced the ritual foundations in so many aspects of our culture.
In “Monster in a Box,” one of the works he will perform at UCSB, the “monster” turns out to be Gray’s 1,400-page manuscript about someone who can’t enjoy himself on vacation.
Chronicling his own difficulties in completing the work leads him hysterically into urban blights of indecision and paranoia, and the piece becomes, as he says, “a monologue about a man who can’t write a book about a man who can’t take a vacation.” (Actually, Gray did complete the book, and “Impossible Vacation"--pared down to 285 pages--will be published in June by Knopf).
Gray’s monologues may have the feel of casual conversation, but no one could mistake their intricate construction for free association.
“There’s a pretty straight narrative in them,” Gray maintains. “It’s discursive and associative, but it’s always coming back to the story.”
He says the monologues become very structured after a while, even though he doesn’t write them ahead of time.
“I just make an outline and speak my memory, simply describing what I remember, using the keywords to guide me through the narrative events. Really, I’m doing a kind of oral writing, in collaboration with the audience.”
Despite slight variations each time the pieces are performed, he says, “they get pretty set after 50 performances.”
In this respect, he points out, there’s a big difference between “Monster in a Box” and the other piece he’s scheduled for UCSB, “A Personal History of the American Theater.”
“ ‘A Personal History’ is really not a monologue. I stand at a microphone and I just talk openly about the process. So it’s a cross between entertainment and a lecture, because what I’m doing is really chasing why I think. And then I take questions from the house afterward. So that is a wide-open form, because anything might occur to me--it’s not scripted or set in any way.”
Gray finds he’s become even more self-revelatory in less structured pieces such as “A Personal History.”
“It’s because I know it’s not going outside of that room in any mediated way.
“In a way, the ‘Monster in a Box’ monologue is a defense against intimacy, because it appears to be based on private events, but they’ve been digested and shaped, and it’s almost 3 years old. So it’s old history, and to that extent it’s a finished, mostly understood piece of work. Being in the moment now, questioning and dealing with present dilemmas, is going to be much more risky.”
Gray believes his work became a personal necessity because of a therapeutic benefit he recognized only in retrospect.
“I’ll tell you, I have a particular problem,” he confides. “There’s a phrase from Freud: ‘All determination begets negation.’ As soon as you make a choice, you negate hundreds of other possibilities. And what I have a tendency to do is fantasize about the life not lived--the possibilities rather than the one that I’m living in.
“What the monologues were doing therapeutically was reminding me that I did something else. And that story is constantly grounding me and saying ‘But you have made these choices because this is what happened.’ ”
The monologue have given Gray a sense of personal history, he says, “as well as reminding other people that they have one, as well as entertaining them. And giving them certain information about living in the world. And also advocating the examined life to some extent, though I’m primarily an entertainer.”
It’s the arrangement of these personal anecdotes into steadily building narratives that gives the momemtum. The monologue-building process contains many techniques of formal theater and playwriting.
“That’s because I was trained as an actor for 20 years before I began playing myself,” he said. “I think that’s all intuitive, from having worked in theater and with texts for so long-it was just naturally absorbed through osmosis.”
It is difficult to believe Spalding Gray could permanently retire from the medium that has for so long given him personal insight and public acceptance. After all, this is the man who once said: “Telling about the perfect moment is almost as important as having it.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll perform,” he concedes, “but I have to wait until the desire is there. I don’t want it to be work--I’ve never been interested in work. And then I’d perform in much smaller and selective places and not try to do massive tours like this.”
* WHERE AND WHEN
“A Personal History of the American Theater,” Saturday at 8 p.m.; “Monster in a Box,” Sunday at 7 p.m. Both performed at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $18, $16 and $12. Call (805) 893-3535 for reservations or further information.