For more than two decades, Spalding Gray has been known as America’s “Talking Man.” Inspired by the tradition of Beat-era legends Ginsburg and Kerouac, he is an artist of the spoken word and master of the autobiographical monologue.
But dialogue, it seems, is something else entirely. One-on-one, the otherwise verbose and articulate Gray is reluctant to talk about himself. To most, this would seem an ironic revelation, given Gray’s legendary performance persona. But not to Gray himself.
“Well, I was quite shy and withdrawn as a child,” Gray explains. “Really, up until the time I went and began drama school in Boston.” He pauses, for what seems an uncomfortable eternity. “Choosing drama as a focus was perhaps an unconscious effort to become more outgoing.”
By his own recollection, much of Gray’s career path lends itself to unconscious effort. A serviceable actor who provided supporting roles in movies like Beaches and Dolly Parton’s forgettable Straight Talk, Gray finally grew tired of reading other people’s lines. His frustration became an epiphany, and a new calling was born.
“In 1979, I decided I wanted to continue to perform, but in my own words. So I started writing, then reading monologues at the Performing Garage in SoHo. I still act once in a while. But this (spoken word) is what I’ve really kept at. I’m not even sure why. I guess it gives me a chance to continually reinvent myself.”
Due to Gray’s reluctant nature, he chose first to hone his craft among close friends and artists. And, of all places, even in therapy.
“I tested material, while I sorted things out, [and] had the benefit of a small intimate audience,” he recalls. “My process is to outline things, not memorize them. But follow them along. Visualize them. That way, it’s never really set. But spontaneous. I like to keep it fresh. But with a conscious, intentional delivery.”
Gray’s various monologues alternately detail triumph and despair in his signature, very personal format, which makes their self-referential retellings sometimes painful and emotionally draining.
“It’s been hard, but refreshing in some ways,” explains Gray. “It’s strange to go back to difficult times in my life through monologue. But it’s obviously safer to revisit those dark times through words.”
He finds it just as hard to revisit monologues with which he has grown bored along the way—all part of his personal editing process. If only discarding unwanted bits of life’s journey were so easy.
But if given the opportunity to truly re-live a period in his life, the choice is clear to Gray. “I suppose I’d want to re-live high school. Be more outgoing. Have a girlfriend. Do all those things people do at that age.”
Again, there’s the pause.
“But of course, if that would have been my experience, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
For Gray, there are really no regrets. He’s found his milieu. His style reflects a subtle change to the more ardent Gray fans—most notably in his recent piece, Morning, Noon and Night piece, a work seen by some to be more positive and less ironic.
Gray attributes the subtle shift to his late-in-life fatherhood status, which he addresses in his current show It’s a Slippery Slope. In it, Gray also describes how the sport of skiing changed his life. In trademark, witty form, Gray draws parallels to his own New England childhood, particularly amused by the eccentric ski folk he encounters along the way.
But Gray’s passion for the slopes isn’t all laughs. Introspection about his father’s death, his mother’s suicide and the bitter end of a long-term relationship are what truly make Gray’s It’s a Slippery Slope a captivatingly downward spiral.
“I don’t know if I’m less ironic these days,” he muses. “I think I’m just imitating my family. How they see things.”
Gray finds himself comfortable in his routine: developing a loyal audience, revisiting favorite locales, and taking the rigors of touring in stride. Even when weather strands him in a hotel room in Colorado, alone with his thoughts, during last week’s blizzard.
Sounds like the catalyst for another great monologue.