Remembering Spalding Gray

“You have to watch this. It’s brilliant. It’s this guy who sits at a table and talks non-stop for 85 minutes.”

-My friend Craig, circa 1994

I’ve tried Craig’s pitch a few times over the decades since those words were said to me, and it’s a rare person who takes the challenge. But when Craig told me to watch something, I usually did.

Spalding Gray.

He sat at a desk. And talked non-stop for 85 minutes. Exactly as advertised.

Swimming to Cambodia

It was autobiographical monologue. Personal storytelling. It was like nothing anyone had tried. Spalding sat at a microphone with one or two props and a scribbler and told a narrative of his life. He would digress, he would interupt himself, he would find a thread that he left behind 20 minutes before. He was mesmerizing.

Swimming to Cambodia is Spalding’s story of his time in Thailand while filming a small part in The Killing Fields. It has sex, drugs, war, politics, and a neurotic storyteller who won’t let you stay in one place long enough to get tired of any of it.

You might recognize Spalding. He had a recurring role on The Nanny as a psychiatrist. Spalding was terrified of psychiatrists and doctors, but his physical type meant he played them often.

Spalding drew me to my favourite movie of all time, one you have likely never heard of – Glory Daze. It’s a tiny movie with Ben Affleck, Alyssa Milano, Sam Rockwell and a few other recognizable faces. Spalding played the nameless “Jack’s Dad” who gives Jack the great advice “You’ve had four years to do what you want, it’s time to give up” and then drives away yelling “send us a postcard from skid row!”

Spalding laid bare his whole life for his art and his audience. He told in sometimes painful, often funny, never boring, solo work about the ups and downs of his life and the pure experience of it all. Sex and Death to the Age 14, Monster in a Box,” and the final, tragically unfinished, Life Interrupted.

I thought of Spalding when I visited New York. The city that Spalding called “a small island off the coast of America.”

I can’t help but think of New York the way he spoke of it. The city he sought to escape so many times, but that he always returned to. The city where he first experimented with monologue. Where he played the Stage Manager in Our Town on Broadway. Where he finally found some peace with his second wife and his children.

The city where he got on a ferry alone, signed an autograph for a fan, and then stepped off the side into the cold water.

The water that separates Manhattan from America.

The water they would find him in.

Fourteen years ago today.