Skiing and Nothingness
By Steven Robert Allen
MARCH 23, 1998: Countless egomaniacs have compiled autobiographies from the stories of their lives, but Spalding Gray might be alone in building a life around the performance of his autobiography. Though he's acted in underground theater and in movies like The Killing Fields and True Stories, the diamond of Gray's existence is his performance of live monologues that dramatize the stories of his world. In his 14th monologue, It's a Slippery Slope, Gray reaches out with his sticky, spoken-word tentacles to juggle with life, crisis, rebirth and learning to ski at the age of 52. He'll be performing it in Santa Fe and Ruidoso beginning this weekend.
Your new monologue is about skiing.
It's four years old actually, and it's about skiing, lost love, loss, betrayal, birth of my first son, surviving my mother's suicide and the death of my father. ... It's about surviving a midlife crisis by finding my balance on skis. Skiing is certainly very important, but it's not all of it.
Do you use skiing as a kind of metaphor?
It's a metaphor but not only a metaphor. It's an actual accounting as well. It's certainly about finding my balance, about challenging my self-destructive impulses.
Have you ever injured yourself while skiing?
Yes, I hit a tree in Heavenly (Valley), that fearful place of death for Sonny Bono. I was skiing in spring conditions and hit a patch of ice under a tree that I was not ready for and was thrown out of my skis and impaled on a cut-off tree and broke three ribs which tore right through my outfit. That's how I ended the season.
After an experience like that, I can see how you would be more cautious.
Or after an experience like the death of Sonny Bono and Kennedy.
Did that also have an effect on your attitude toward skiing?
I'm a great advocate of chaos theory, and if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it has an effect. Everything is interconnected. It made me a little wary because friends started saying: "Look out. It happens in threes, and you may be the next celebrity to go." ...
When you're on stage, you're in performance mode. How difficult is it to get out of that mode, when you step off the stage and interact with the people in your life?
It's fairly easy to get out of that mode. What's hard to get out of is the energy that the mode creates, which is kind of a heightened, manic weirdness that takes quite a few hours to come down from. Particularly when I'm in the West and I'm jetlagging ... it really takes its toll. It takes me a lot of hot baths and a lot of beer. I just line the beers up by the bathtub and sit in there sipping and steaming. I mean, I just can't come down. When you talk for an hour and 45 minutes like that, it sets off a chemical, manic energy, and it's very difficult to unwind from that. It's just a work hazard.
Does that affect your personal relationships?
Oh, sure. Because my way of coming down (used to be) picking up women, and that ultimately led to meeting Kathie, which turned out good--I have a family with her--but that was complicated. I've given that up. Now I just sit in the hot bath. But yes, it's affected my whole life. I didn't want to spend lonely nights in a hotel after doing a show with plenty of people there to choose from. It also affects your heath. It's a very wearing thing to do a solo performance like that.
But ultimately worthwhile?
Well, I don't judge it. It's all I do. It's all I can do. It's all I want to do.
The only reason I'm going to ask this next question is because you've suggested as much yourself, but does it ever worry you that your monologues may be egocentric, or to use your word, "narcissistic?"
Oh, I was just joking when I said that. I don't think I'm egocentric or narcissistic, because I'm telling everyone's story. I'm talking about myself and the way I perceive the world around me, but I'm also talking about the world around me. I'm not a Beckett character talking in a dark room. ... There's a certain amount of narcissism operating in me, but it's not crippling.
I suppose there's a certain amount of narcissism operating in anyone who writes autobiography.
Yes. Yes. ... I've never understood objective reporting, so I feel like I'm doing what anyone's doing: I'm talking about the way I perceive the world through my filter system.
Does the performance of your monologues have a therapeutic value for you?
It's therapeutic in the sense that I'm pretty sure that I'm only going to live once. So how can you live a second time? By reinventing yourself through your stories. That's a way of coming back to the earth again. It gives you a sense of your own personal history, too. You say: "This happened to me. I have existed." It's a very grounding experience, more than anything else I can think of, to tell one's stories and to have resonance. ...
So in a way, it's like cheating death, prolonging and playing with your past. Does a fear of death push you to do these monologues?
I have a great fear of death, yes, but also my mind is blown by it. I don't often know how to live in the face of it. That I feel that I am alive only once and that I could die at any moment, therefore I must do what? That's the big question mark that makes me dizzy. In the face of my possible immediate ending forever, the first thing that comes to mind ... is to tell a story. That always calms me. Like a child just before (he) sleeps asking for a story. It's my way of dealing with mortality and the abyss. My five-year-old son used to ask me to make up a scary story. But I'm no good at making up stories. I would say: "This is a scary story. We are living it." ...
I remember sitting in (this movie) with the kids. ... I was sitting there, this was last Saturday, and all of a sudden it was like a trumpet blew in my head, and I realized I was not going to make it through this life without dying. How would I do it? What would it be like? ... Would I go into another realm of consciousness? Would it just be oblivion? All of these thoughts came rushing in on me in the movie theater. Almost to the extent that I couldn't handle it, and I had to put them out of my mind. And I am fascinated by critics, like from the Chicago Tribune, saying, "Great review of It's a Slippery Slope, but also once again Spalding Gray obsesses on his fear of death." And I think, well, what else is new? Death is king and queen. Death is god. Death is forever. It's the ultimate. ...
I suppose that an awareness that we are going to die is essential, because otherwise we couldn't do anything, we couldn't act.
It's what gives our life an edge. ... The thing that I am discouraged about in America is the attitude about death, how 90 percent of the people believe in an afterlife and near-death experiences and reincarnation, and there is no one you could run into on a talk show or in any popular writing that's going to say, "In my opinion, it's oblivion." No one buys that.
Do you think it's unhealthy, that those beliefs in an afterlife are escapist?
I think it's unhealthy when those beliefs are manipulated by any kind of fundamentalist that's controlling arms. In the case of Saddam Hussein or Ronald Reagan. When Reagan starts talking about the hereafter and how it doesn't really matter whether we blow this place up or not. Any concept of the hereafter negates the present. ... I think it's the ultimate form of narcissism, to believe that you can't die. ...
I think you've hit on something. It's purely escapist.
Particularly since we don't know. There are very few people who will bow down to the mystery. Everyone's got an agenda. Everyone's got a dogma. Even the Buddhists. No one just says, "I don't know." You don't hear that. I'm inundated with doubt. That's where I am. I don't know. I don't pretend to know. ...
In a way, the only sincere position is to be uncertain.
Absolutely. "I know that I don't know." ... Are you taping this?
Yes. I am.
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