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The Man behind the Microphone
Spalding Gray at the Walker

By Philip Bither

“Oct. 2 — Sex and Death to be performed in a big formal 350-seat auditorium at Walker Arts [sic] Center. It was overwhelming after small galleries and a grange hall. I suggested that they put chairs on the stage all facing my table, and they did it. All those empty black chairs facing the backdrop looked like the setting for a symphony orchestra headed the wrong way. The audience came in cautiously. Most of them sat onstage, but many chose a “safer,” distant and more comfortable seat out in the “house.” When all the seats onstage were filled, I began. There was no laughter, and I began to think that they were a serious and uptight audience until I realized that, for the first time in a long time, the audience was fully concentrated on the content of the piece. As opposed to the immediately enthusiastic reception I sometimes got, they were listening to me tell the story in a way I had not experienced before on the road. This made me feel whole again. I gave up going for laughs and just told the story. They were with me all the way.”

—Spalding Gray, excerpt from “Touring Solo: A Performer’s Diary,” published in the Soho News, January 7, 1981

In his plaid shirt, sitting at a table with a glass of water and a microphone, Spalding Gray was an anomaly within downtown New York’s theater scene, which was noted for its messy excess, in-your-face intensity, and ensemble creations. By using language in a performative way, he created a new form of contemporary monologue, an urbane version of front-porch storytelling. He was beloved for his neurotic obsessions and for the fact that he was able to turn a self-deprecating but very literary and keenly observed view of his own life—or carefully chosen moments of it—into complexly layered stories that had universal appeal. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, he had an uncanny ability to connect with people, who came to his shows eager to hear the next chapter of Gray’s life-as-adventure.

I always regretted not having the chance to pay tribute to Gray after his tragic suicide in 2004. So I was intrigued when his widow, Kathleen Russo, and director/performer Lucy Sexton created Stories Left to Tell, in which some of downtown New York’s most accomplished writers and theater artists perform excerpts from works spanning Gray’s career and life. At the Walker, special guest performers join New Yorkers David Cale, Ain Gordon, Josh Lefkowitz, and Carmelita Tropicana onstage: comic and former Minnesotan Louie Anderson, Minnesota Public Radio host of Midmorning and Talking Volumes, and Minneapolis writer/storyteller Kevin Kling.

Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine separating Gray’s words from his unique voice, his mannerisms, his impeccable comic’s timing. But this diverse group of artists really inhabits his work; what could have been a memorial reading instead becomes a great theater experience. Stories Left to Tell highlights his renowned pieces as well as excerpts that have never before been seen or published, validating his words as something rich, finely crafted, and moving even when detached from Gray the performer/author.

Marking almost 30 years since that debut performance, Stories Left to Tell is also an occasion to look back on the Walker’s history with Gray, who helped define this place as a unique arts institution in the same way that visual artists such as Chuck Close or choreographers such as Trisha Brown have done. It arrives at a fortuitous time, when Event Horizon, Benches & Binoculars, and the other exhibitions are celebrating and rethinking the Walker’s collections in visual arts, performing arts, and film/video—and pointing to key works that are important to this institution and the community. Gray’s performances here are a part of that legacy, and the reason why the Walker helped establish the Spalding Gray Award. Now in its third year, this award supports writer/ performers who fully realize both aspects of Spalding’s achievement: who are fearless innovators of theatrical form, and who reach into daily experience and create resonant, transcendent work that makes us all bigger, wider, wiser and, somehow, more than we were when we entered the theater.

—Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts

Note: Gray was hardly a household name when he performed at the Walker in the fall of 1980—this was years before his Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box performances were made into movies. But as an artist whose potential the Walker recognized early on, his debut was a three-evening minifestival of monologues: Sex and Death to the Age 14; Booze, Cars and College Girls; and India and After (America). It was the start of a relationship that would have Gray returning multiple times in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Spalding Gray

Performing at Walker Art Center’s Word Works, Walker Auditorium, October 1, 1983

Photo courtesy Walker Art Center Archives