“I began to realize I was acting as though the world were going to end and this was helping lead to its destruction. The only positve act would be to leave a record. To leave a chronicle of feelings, acts, reflections, something outside of me, something that might be useful in the unexpected future.”—Spalding Gray, 1970, The Journals of Spalding Gray
Two friends and I started a theater company in the summer of 1990. Perhaps you have not heard about it; it was kind of a not-at-all-big deal in Poughkeepsie, New York, for almost two entire weeks. Call it ten days.
Our endeavor yielded one sell-out summer night’s performance in the open-air back porch of a bar, a bad review in our local daily newspaper, yet one more (mostly unattended) performance, and a bunch of t-shirts. With grad school beckoning we shut it down, and with time and many residences I lost our newspaper clippings and even eventually forgot the name of the “company” we had started.
My one t-shirt wound up in Spalding Gray’s hands. Spalding Gray was born 75 years ago today, which prompted this recollection of one of my more awkward moments with celebrity.
I found our one playbill at my parents’ house a couple years ago. We called ourselves “Fading Gentility,” which is not a bad name at all. (I did not name us.) Our one play (a one-act that was written, again, by one of us not named me) was titled “The Smoking Car.” Ah, well. The play was written, as many are, to give the writer the opportunity to flirt with the young woman (we were all 21 then and we were all going to be 21 forever) whom he had cast in the role of the young woman he wanted to flirt with. (He was living with his future first wife. I was living with him and his future first wife.)
Our best work was actually our group-written press release that announced our imminent debut production, “The Smoking Car.” The owner of our favorite bar had decided to allow us to try and earn our drinks, which lit a fuse under us—the three of us took turns writing each sentence under the guidance of a copy of the I Ching, just so you know—and that press release got us an interview with our city paper’s entertainment maven. Being featured in the Poughkeepsie Journal‘s “Enjoy!” section meant we were either going places, had arrived, or that the entertainment section’s editor needed something to fill his pages in the slow summer months.
The attention from the local newspaper and our relentless 20-year-oldness landed us a sell-out performance one Saturday night of our two-person, one-act play. But the performance of one one-act play that hardly lasts from twilight to night and no other material at all whatsoever does not often result in many drinks or dinners sold, which is for some people—restaurant owners usually—the entire point of theater. So we saw few happy returns from the evening. Even the playwright went home with his future wife and not with his objet d’crush whom he had cast in his playlet.
Spalding Gray, monologist, storyteller, someone the three of us idolized, was scheduled to appear down the street from our venue, at Poughkeepsie’s historic Bardavon 1869 Opera House that same summer. Here was one more opportunity to attract attention for ourselves. Or for us to speak with an idol. Or for us to “network” with a theater legend. Or for me to stare at an idol.
My friends and I do not appear in Gray’s journals from the summer of 1990, at least not in the published entries. I am not surprised about this. That year he was in turmoil: he was still with his partner Renée Shafransky, and they had even set a date to marry, but in January that year he met Kathleen Russo, who became his second wife. By the time we met him, he was pointedly not including Russo in his journal, for fear that Shafransky would read it.
Shafransky was Gray’s first audience for his monologues, a subject of his monologues, his collaborator. He wrote in his journal in 1993, after he ended the relationship: “Renée was the delight. Renée was always the delight behind the stories. She was the heart of the story and I have cut the heart out.”
The vision in his left eye became incredibly blurry at the start of 1990, as well; this was eventually diagnosed as a macular pucker and became the subject of a monologue and film, Gray’s Anatomy. In his journal, he views this through the prism of his psychology: “What is it I don’t want to see?”
His monologue (Monster in a Box) was the first act of a multi-act fundraiser, so after his performance, he was supposed to continue to be available for audience hobnobbing in the lobby, where a temporary bar was set up (the three of us looked at each other and thought aloud, that’s how they do it—even the theaters sell drinks!). We could not, or we dared not, get near him.
On July 26, 1990, Gray wrote:
I don’t like the way I am after 6 when I don’t drink. I get real shut down. No expansive spontaneous anything. Just a sober, somber man. The little bit of white wine changed me a little. I get just loose and more outspoken but it’s that horrid TAPPING DOWN I feel. [Emphasis is Gray’s.]
SO PENT UP like I’m sitting on something. I seem only to overcome that in performance where I’m the center of focus for 90 minutes. [Emphasis is Gray’s.]—The Journals of Spalding Gray
That was written right around the time we
met encountered him.
He stood at the bar in the theater lobby and downed glass after glass of something. After reading the journals, I know it was water. That was not what I thought it was at the time. At the time, I thought I was watching a semi-heroic act of alcohol consumption. (I had my own not very heroic acts of consumption ahead of me.)
After the required 20 minutes of hobbing and nobbing with Poughkeepsie’s delighted to meet hims, Gray and Renée left the lobby and headed back into the theater and off towards their life together. Sometimes one can tell, even in the moment, when something is about to become the memory of a missed opportunity.
A former professor, Tom G., interrupted our gawping reverie from a distance at the famous writer/performer and pushed us (definitely verbally and perhaps physically) towards the door Gray had just walked through.
We three plunged ourselves into the theater, which was dark for intermission. I was the only one of us with a loud enough stage whisper, so I used it: “Spalding!” For some reason, I was calling him quietly, as if he was a cat that had gone hiding, and it was my job to coax him down. “Spalding? Spalding!”
Spalding Gray stopped and turned. We were all, now five of us, at the front of the house at this point, near the stage. Someone in a position of authority ought to have been there to chase us away. No one in a position of authority was or did.
My stage whisper became a nervous speech. “Hi. We’re big admirers and we just wanted to let you know we started a theater company here in Poughkeepsie recently and you are a big inspiration and we just wanted you to have one of our t-shirts.” That all came out as one word, and the way I remember it, each of the three of us contributed at least a couple of syllables to my nervous blast of a star-struck sentence.
Renée reached out a hand and my friend reached under his sweater to pull out the Fading Gentility t-shirt that he had waddled up and smuggled into the theater. She took it and handed it to Spalding. She asked us about the theater scene in Poughkeepsie, something we knew precious little about, although according to us we were among the leaders of the theater scene in Poughkeepsie that summer. It was a short chat.
Spalding Gray looked at the front of the shirt, the back, the front again, and spoke as if to himself, “I get a lot of t-shirts. People think I like t-shirts. I like t-shirts.” That was all he said to us, although he said it twice. “I get a lot of t-shirts.” Goodbyes were exchanged and we all shook hands.
Many backhanded compliments are statements of plain fact inserted into a conversation at the place where one thinks a reply is required but no compliment is truly possible. Whatever my friends and I desired or rather fantasized would happen from our one moment with Spalding Gray—”I must get to know you three. Report to The Wooster Group next week!”—what we got instead was more valuable: a dose of beautiful reality. “I like t-shirts.”
I saw him perform one more time at the same venue a couple years later; our encounter was not the subject of this monologue, either.
* * * *
I am now just about the age Spalding Gray was when we encountered him 26 years ago.
* * * *
A portion of this first appeared almost two years ago.
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