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Fellows Find: Digital tool allows Spalding Gray scholars to compare various drafts of performance notebooks

By James Sitar

James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?

 

Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.

 

By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.

 

As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.

 

You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.

 

I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.

 

Related content:

Listen to audio from the Spalding Gray archive

Fellows Find: Early recordings show how performance artist Spalding Gray developed his signature style

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

An iconic photographic moment with Spalding Gray

“The Journals of Spalding Gray”: An interview with editor Nell Casey

A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

 

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Image: First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for Swimming to Cambodia.

Fellows Find: Early recordings show how performance artist Spalding Gray developed his signature style

By Ira Murfin

Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.

 

The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.

 

Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.

 

Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.

 

Related content:

Listen to audio from the Spalding Gray archive

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

An iconic photographic moment with Spalding Gray

“The Journals of Spalding Gray”: An interview with editor Nell Casey

A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

 

Image: Audio cassette and video cassette tapes from the Spalding Gray archive. The archive contains more than 150 audio tapes and more than 120 VHS tapes. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

By Jean Cannon

This week, The University of Texas at Austin prepares its podiums and fireworks for Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the 131st in the school’s history. Countless graduating seniors can be seen in front of Littlefield Fountain, posing for photographs beneath the Tower, wearing gowns and mortarboards and smiles. Some smiles are of elation, others, somewhat apprehensive: as anyone who has graduated from college will probably agree, the event creates conflicting emotions—happiness at having achieved a milestone and uncertainty about what the future may hold. Commencement is a bittersweet time for the staff at the Ransom Center, as we send former undergraduate interns Alyssa O’Connell, Alyse Camus, Alexandra Bass, Elizabeth Barnes, Patrick Naeve, Emily Neie, and Kelsey McKinney out into the world to seek their—no doubt impressive—fortunes. Our interns have been valued colleagues and friends, and we will miss their energy, intelligence, and good company.

 

The navigation of this crossroads of school’s ending and adulthood’s beginning has resulted in a genre of address practiced each spring in colleges across the country: the commencement speech. In honor of our graduating seniors, we’ve investigated the myriad drafts of commencement speeches held in the manuscript collections at the Ransom Center, searching for advice that might help as the new alumni move forward to jobs, graduate schools, new cities, and unknown adventures.

 

Throughout the past few decades, writers and thinkers as disparate as Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Diane Johnson, Lillian Hellman, Nancy Wilson Ross, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Spalding Gray have advised graduates entering post-university life using a wide range of strategies, from the sprawling anecdote to the political call to action to the spiritual meditation. Some, like David Foster Wallace in his acclaimed 2005 speech at Kenyon College, have used humor (the diploma? “An eviction notice written in Latin”) to mesmerize the audience before presenting graduates with the difficult challenge of maintaining a heightened awareness of the choices they make each day, each hour.

 

Playwright Terrence McNally, speaking to a group of graduating artists at Julliard, encouraged a policy of absolute honesty with one’s self: to create beauty and meaning according to one’s own standards, not the standards of the outlying world.

 

While scribbled notes reveal the difficulties writers faced in settling on the right topic for a graduation speech (“The one thing you do not do at a graduation is talk about depressing matters,” wrote Norman Mailer), many of the manuscript collections reveal writers’ deep misgivings about being qualified with enough wisdom to address a graduating audience at all, or feeling overwhelmed by the importance of the task. Spalding Gray, for example, known for the self-effacing humor that made his autobiographical performances and writings so popular, assured graduating seniors in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, that, “My heroes are still the ones that do their best in the face of not knowing.” His speech emphasizes modesty and reverence for a large, mysterious world. Alongside this speech is a one-page document titled “The Graduation Speech I Never Made,” in which Gray questions his ability to recognize the importance of his diploma (he couldn’t remember where it was) or of a commencement ceremony (admitting he skipped his own). Accepting his spurious relationship to official commencement traditions, he encourages students thusly: “Feel free to make up a life. If you don’t like the one you have, make up another. This could be a very creative outlet.”

 

In a 1976 address to Mount Holyoke graduates, dramatist Lillian Hellman encouraged students to advocate free speech, individual liberties, and public service: “The highest compliment I can pay you, or any group that calls itself educated, is that you believe it is your duty to make reforms in this great country.” Hellman had famously been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities in the early 1950s.

 

Speaking to the all-female class at Bennett Women’s College in 1957, novelist Nancy Wilson Ross discussed the freedoms already achieved by women—the freedoms to vote, to receive higher education, to pursue careers, and to divorce—and encouraged the graduates to think deeply about the spiritual satisfaction that these freedoms bring. “Serenity comes from inside; it is not something you can lay on from the outside or acquire with objects and possessions and in a world like the present we are going to have to get it, if we get it at all, by interior disciplines.”

 

We wish to assure graduates that the Ransom Center archives bear witness to the fact that the individual road to “the eviction notice written in Latin” is not always easy.  Often alongside drafts of commencement speeches, usually delivered late in a writer’s career, are papers that document a writer’s own struggles in college: citations for drinking, notices of academic probation, and letters home threatening to drop out of school. In the interest of discretion, we will restrain from naming names, but rest assured that even literary luminaries had their share of troubling transcripts, embarrassing yearbook photos, and take-home essays abysmally flunked. And the failures and successes that followed the diplomas?  Too numerous too count. The individual roads to the podiums were certainly paved with highs and lows—and, perhaps most importantly, perseverance. We send the class of 2014 best wishes for the education that begins once commencement ends.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

More than 50 fellowships provide opportunity to research at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.

The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.

Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”

Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.

When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.

My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?

The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.

Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.

Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.

Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.

Related content:
Information about fellowships.

Storytellers from The Moth tour Spalding Gray archive

By Elana Estrin

Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.

Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.

Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.

“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”

So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”

This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.

The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.

The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.

“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”

Baer showed Cino and Lane two photographs of Gray which the Ransom Center recently acquired from photographer Ann Rhoney; the Ronald McDonald notebook which appears at the beginning of Swimming to Cambodia (“Oh my gosh, I remember that part: ping pong, coke bottle, banana,” Lane said); one of Gray’s journals (“That looks exactly like my journal!” Lane said); and a psychoanalytic questionnaire (“I’m suddenly fixated on this. I’m like: must read it till the end,” Cino said).

Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.

“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.

Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.

“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”

“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”

“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”

Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.

“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”

An iconic photographic moment with Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Who was Spalding Gray?

Fans have debated this question for years, as Gray was a pioneer in blurring the line between real life and theater in his autobiographical and often very personal monologues. He left audiences wondering how much of the stage persona was the real Gray and how much was Gray the performer.

Photographer Ann Rhoney captured the real Spalding Gray at home in his Wooster Street loft in New York City on an August day in 1990. He wasn’t wearing his usual plaid shirt. He wasn’t sitting behind a desk with a notebook and props. He was sitting comfortably at home in his grandmother’s chair and having a conversation with a new friend.

***

Rhoney splits her time between New York and the West Coast, and after a photo shoot in San Francisco the previous day, she took a red-eye flight to New York City to meet Gray and photograph him for a portrait assignment related to his forthcoming monologue Monster in a Box.

She described Gray as affable but somewhat meek and reserved when she arrived. He was wearing a shirt with a color somewhere between green and gold. “He may have pressed it himself,” Rhoney notes. “He appeared to be rather dressed up for that hour of the morning.”

As she started chatting with him and asking questions to try to get him to relax and open up for the session, he told her about the piece he was working on—a monologue that would become Gray’s Anatomy, which chronicled Gray’s medical problems with his eyes.

“Then all of the sudden, he started going into character, in a way,” Rhoney noticed. “That’s when a great moment happened.”

Gray dramatically described going to a medicine man in Niagara Falls to seek treatment for his eyes, as if he wanted to impress his new audience. Rhoney’s uncharacteristically blunt response?

“Oh, you fool!”

Rhoney describes Gray’s shock at her response: “His eyes opened in wide surprise and bewilderment. He jumped back, as if ‘What are you saying to me?’”

Then Rhoney explained that she was born and raised in Niagara Falls with a familial heritage of a funeral home in close proximity to an Indian reservation.

“He lit up,” she said.

The ice had been broken, and from then on, Rhoney had Gray’s full attention. Gray peppered her with questions as she did her light meter readings and prepared for the shoot, loading her Hasselblad camera.

Conversation flowed, and the result was 271 frames of Gray in what Rhoney says is, essentially, a still-life movie. “It’s a portrait of a soul with a range of every human emotion in this session of 15 rolls.”

“To get a successful portrait, you have to enter into an honest exchange with the person so that their spirit, their personal landscape emerges. You have to put them at ease and put yourself in their place.”

Rhoney spoke about how people are unable to see themselves, but once in a while—”every once in a blue moon”—a person can look at a photograph and recognize oneself.

“I always try to get that photograph where the person will say, ‘That’s me,’” she said.

The Ransom Center recently acquired two images from that session, one with an animated Gray using his hands for full effect and a second, quieter image of Gray midthought. Gray’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and recently opened for research.

“He completely offered me and my camera—even though at times he thought the camera got in the way of the conversation—an honest openness throughout the session,” she said. “He moved differently than he did on stage. It was as if I had a private performance. Yet it was not a performance at all. He was giving me his spirit.”

As Rhoney studied the images, she kept coming back to the hands in the first image. Though she’s looked at the photo hundreds of times, she made yet another discovery.

“Think about a palm reader, and if you look at the palm on his left, how poignant and beautiful that is. It’s as if he left us with his hand imprint,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “Especially the left palm. The detail on that? If everyone wants a road map to Spalding, there it is.”

As Rhoney studied the second image, she thought more about how he interacted with audiences.

“There’s a stillness. Yet you can see his thought process in motion,” she said.”We know him as talking to an audience, but I believe when he talked to the audience, he talked to everyone individually, even though he couldn’t see their faces. There’s something about this image where he’s talking to me behind the camera. That’s how he really, truly regarded his audiences—as a collective whole of individuals.”

The Gray archive contains no photos, so Rhoney’s portraits give scholars an additional lens through which to view Gray and his work.

“I’d like the photos to be a window into who he was,” Rhoney said. “Hopefully, this leads the scholars into seeing him with fresh eyes. As a photographer, I feel lucky to show him in a form of reality. This is who he was and is. A photograph is the truth and a scholarly document at its finest.”

Rhoney said this photo session led to a strong friendship, and Gray often told her how much he loved the photograph with the hand detail Rhoney loved. As she studied her photos and her contact sheets, she laughed often as she recalled details from the shoot and their conversation.

“The man can really still, in his own way, jump off the contact sheet and make one laugh,” she said. “He’s not here anymore, but they leave us with a whisper, an echo of who he is.”

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Win a copy of "The Journals of Spalding Gray"

By Alicia Dietrich

'The Journals of Spalding Gray" was edited by Nell Casey.
'The Journals of Spalding Gray" was edited by Nell Casey.

Writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive opens for research today, is best known for his highly personal monologues and for helping to define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Gray’s archive was acquired by the Ransom Center in 2010.

Writer Nell Casey had access to the archive before it arrived at the Ransom Center, and her book The Journals of Spalding Gray has been released today. Cultural Compass interviewed Casey about her work in the archive and the surprises she found in Gray’s journals.

In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the volume. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Spalding” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.

Related posts:

The Journals of Spalding Gray: An interview with editor Nell Casey

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

Spalding Gray’s life as told by…Spalding Gray

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

"The Journals of Spalding Gray": An interview with editor Nell Casey

By Kelsey McKinney

Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.
Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.

Spalding Gray was an actor, performer, and writer. He appeared on Broadway in various one-man shows and is widely accredited with the invention of the autobiographical monologue.  His archive, recently acquired by the Ransom Center, is composed of more than 100 private journals that span more than 40 years of Gray’s career. Nell Casey, editor of the book The Journals of Spalding Gray, which was released today, distilled the mass of journal entries into a portrait of the man behind the magnetic performer who ended his life in 2004. Cultural Compass spoke with Casey about her interest in Gray, the surprising notes she found in the journals, what she admires about his work, and more.

Casey’s interaction with Gray began in 1992 when, after moving to New York, she wrote one of her first magazine articles about him. After Gray’s death, Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, created the play Leftover Stories to Tell, which told the story of Spalding Gray’s life through excerpts from his monologues and journals.  Casey interviewed Russo for The New York Times and says that the journal entries that appeared in the play were “incredibly beautiful.”

“One of the things about the play was that with other people reading [Gray’s] work you got a sense of his incredible talent as a writer,” said Casey.  “When I saw the play and the writing was taken out and away from him and other people were reading it, I realized that his writing was a talent that had been sort of overshadowed by his personality and performance.”

When Russo approached Casey to ask if she would be interested in writing a book about Gray, Casey enthusiastically agreed. She had always loved Gray’s work. Her first step was to read the journals. Initially, she was concerned that the material found in the journals would be repetitive of what Gray himself told in his monologues.  What she found was anything but.

“[The journals] are this incredible under life and sea of experience that he had not included in his monologues, and part of that experience was the struggle he had,” said Casey.

The writings are so raw and intimate that Casey says she was “caught off guard by almost every journal entry.” On paper, Gray reveals himself as a more extreme version of the person he portrays in his monologues. Casey describes him as a self-reflective narcissist with a broad sense of himself.

“He had this unbelievably broad sort of analytic and therapeutic sense of himself, so he could explore himself, even though he could not stop himself from actions that were very self-destructive and brutal,” said Casey.“The monologues are where he found perspective. The journals were where he showed himself to be completely lost.”

While Gray’s entries do correspond to his monologues, his writings are not for performance but for his life. Casey says, “There is some similarity, but you see in the journals that he just hasn’t gotten his footing yet.”

The themes present in his monologues come up in the book, but they are explored more deeply. As Casey read through the thousands of journal entries, she found that there were very specific themes: his drinking, his narcissism, his performance, his struggle with relationships, his mother’s suicide, and his fantasy life. These themes acted as a guide to help Casey winnow the mass of information into a chronological account of Spalding Gray’s private life.

Above all, Casey says that her years with Gray’s journals have led her to admire him for his writing. She admires it for “its beauty but also for the incredible, tender, searching thought that went into what he wanted to find in life.” Gray’s quest for truth was relentless.  “Honesty is really guesswork, isn’t it?” Casey questioned, quoting British editor and writer Diane Athill.

“The point being, what is truth?” Casey says. “Your own truth is just a stab in the dark, and I admire Spalding Gray for his endless attempts at trying to find his truth.”

“We have lost Gray,” Casey writes in her introduction to the journals, “but there is still more for him to tell us.”

The New York Times recently published an article containing excerpts from the journals.

Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour. The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available for purchase October 18, 2011.

Related posts:

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

Spalding Gray’s life as told by…Spalding Gray

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

Spalding Gray's life as told by…Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.

Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.

The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.

The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.

The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.