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  • Date of birth : 05/06/1941
  • Date of death : 10/01/2004

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  • Gray Spalding

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Spalding Gray (1941)

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  Summary  

Spalding Rockwell Gray (June 5, 1941 – ca. January 10, 2004) was an American actor, playwright, screenwriter, performance artist and monologuist. He was primarily known for his "trenchant, personal narratives delivered on sparse, unadorned sets with a dry, WASP, quiet mania." Gray achieved celebrity status for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was adapted into a film in 1987 by Jonathan Demme.

He began his career in regional theatre, moved to New York in 1967 and three years later joined Richard Schechner's experimental troupe, the Performance Group. He co-founded the Wooster Group ensemble in 1975. He died in New York City of an apparent suicide. A documentary film about his life, entitled And Everything Is Going Fine, was released in 2010 and was directed by Steven Soderbergh.

  Biography  

 early life
Gray was born in Providence, Rhode Island, to Rockwell Gray, Sr., the treasurer of Brown & Sharpe, and Margaret Elizabeth "Betty" Horton, a homemaker. He was the middle-born of three sons: Rockwell, Jr., Spalding and Channing. He was raised in the Christian Scientist faith and grew up in Barrington, Rhode Island, spending summers at his grandmother's house in Newport.

After graduating from Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine, he enrolled at Emerson College as a poetry major, where he earned his B.A. in 1963.

In 1965, Gray moved to San Francisco and became a speaker and teacher of poetry at the Esalen Institute. In 1967, while Gray was vacationing in Mexico City, his mother committed suicide at the age of 52. After his mother's death, Gray moved away from the west coast and permanently settled in New York City.

Gray's books Impossible Vacation and Sex and Death to the Age 14 are largely based on his childhood and early adulthood.

 career
Theatre historian Don Wilmeth noted Gray's contribution to a unique style of writing and acting: "The 1980s saw the rise of the autobiographical monologue, its leading practitioner Spalding Gray, the WASP from Rhode Island who portrays himself as an innocent abroad in a crazy contemporary world. . . others, like Mike Feder, who grew up in Queens and began telling his life on New York radio, pride themselves on their theatrical minimalism, and simply sit and talk. Audiences come to autobiography for direct connection and great stories, both sometimes hard to find in today's theatre."

After starring in some supporting actor movie roles, such as in The Killing Fields, and television parts, including Saturday Night Live, Gray first achieved national prominence with his play Swimming to Cambodia, which he wrote in 1985 and was adapted into a film in 1987. It was a monologue based entirely on his experiences in Southeast Asia where he played a small role in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. For his monologue, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Award in 1985.

 Minimalism and monologues
Describing the uniqueness of the film-play monologue, theatre director Mark Russell wrote:

"He broke it all down to a table, a glass of water, a spiral notebook and a mic. Poor theatre—a man and an audience and a story. Spalding sitting at that table, speaking into the mic, calling forth the script of his life from his memory and those notebooks. A simple ritual: part news report, part confessional, part American raconteur. One man piecing his life back together, one memory, one true thing at a time. Like all genius things, it was a simple idea turned on its axis to become absolutely fresh and radical."

Aside from his more well-known monologues, Gray was a founding member of the experimental theater company The Wooster Group, and appeared in a large number of plays, including a high-profile revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gray performed his monologues frequently at The Painted Bride in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He appeared there yearly, and the admission price was always nominal for the time. It was believed that he kept the admission low, as The Painted Bride had provided a venue for his early performances. He read from Swimming To Cambodia as a work in progress at The Bride.

 "Neurotic" and hilarious storyteller
Journalist and author Roger Rosenblatt, describing Gray, called him "Spalding the storyteller... Spalding the mystical. Spalding the hilarious. Spalding the self-exposed, the professionally puzzled, the scared, the brave. Spalding the supporting actor. That's what he was in the movies. But as a writer and a stage performer, he changed the idea of what a supporting actor is. He supported us... He played our part...


"We tacitly elect a few to be the chief tellers of our tales. Spalding was one of the elected. The specialty of his storytelling was the search for a sorrow that could be alchemized into a myth. He went for the misery sufficiently deep to create a story that makes us laugh...


"In so doing, he invented a form, a very rare thing among artists. Some called it the 'epic monologue' because first it was spoken and then it was written, like the old epics, and because it consisted of great and important themes drawn from the hero's life. ... And the one true heroic element in his makeup was the willingness to be open, rapidly open, about his confusions, his frailties."

In 1992, Gray published his first and only novel, Impossible Vacation. The novel is strongly based upon Gray's own life experiences, including his Christian Scientist upbringing, his WASP background, and his mother's suicide. True to form, Gray wrote a monologue about his experiences with the book entitled Monster in a Box.

During an interview in 1997 with film author Edward Vilga, Gray was asked whether the movie industry was "confused" by his writings and roles: He replied,

:"I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this—I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan says 'I may look like Robert Frost, but I feel just like Jesse James.' I say 'I may look like a gynecologist, an American ambassador's aide, or a lawyer, but I feel like Woody Allen.' ...


:"My insides are not what my outsides are. I'm not who I appear to be. I appear to be a Wasp Brahmin, but I'm really a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew. When I was performing one year ago at this time in Israel, a review came out in Hebrew about Monster in a Box, and it read, 'Spalding Gray is funny, sometimes hilarious, wonderfully neurotic for a non-Jew.' Only the Jews can say something like 'wonderfully neurotic.'"

Director Jonathan Demme said of Gray, "Spalding's unfailing ability to ignite universal emotions and laughter in all of us while gloriously wallowing in his own exquisite uniqueness will remain forever one of the great joys of American performance and literature."

"He took the anarchy and illogic of life and molded it into something we could grab a hold of," said actor and novelist Eric Bogosian. "It took courage to do what Spalding did, courage to make theatre so naked and unadorned, to expose himself in this way and to fight his demons in public."

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Whole or part of the information contained in this card come from the Wikipedia article "Spalding Gray", licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.