Photo by Paula CourtWHEN SPALDING GRAY WAS A KID, HE'D MASTURBATE in the neighbor's yard. “But there were no witnesses,” he laughs during a phone conversation. Gray wove that experience into his first performance monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14. “Ultimately,” he concludes, “the audience is the witness.” Some call this a boundary issue. Others call for tickets. (Gray will present his latest piece, Morning, Noon and Night — A Work in Progress, for six performances at UCLA starting on Tuesday.)
A writer-performer with 18 autobiographical monologues to his credit, Gray helped define the solo-perform-ance genre nearly 30 years ago. At 57, he is, perhaps, the ultimate emotional exhibitionist, a self-described narcissist and “poetic-journalist” with a compulsive need to share every aspect of his life — publicly. “There's no area of my life that I haven't spoken about or confessed or discussed with someone,” he reflects.
Wait, Gray has a brainstorm — there is something: “I rarely tell this story,” he begins. “I've actually forgotten about it.” Then he launches into an anecdote about studying acting in NYC that I've read verbatim in one of his books. Sharing — professionally — is such a part of Gray's life that the lines between performance and reality blur occasionally.
The habit of performing his life out loud has swelled to such a degree that often the artistic material itself — rather than life events — gives rise to new works. The experience of writing his novel, Impossible Vacation, became the monologue Monster in a Box, and Gray's small role in the movie The Killing Fields spawned his Swimming to Cambodia.
Morning, Noon and Night traces a day in the life of Gray's family, unearthing universal truths in the daily minutiae of suburban parenthood. As Gray puts it, “It's the rhythm of that day, from the chaos of that morning scene — getting the children off — to my being left without them; my inner reflections about that other chaos that exists outside of us all, which is the absolute meaninglessness of life.”
When I ask for a nugget from the show, Gray offers the ceremonial protest, then embarks on a full-blown narrative: “In the monologue, I'm putting [my son] to sleep, and he keeps asking me about the stars — what's beyond them. And I say it's a mystery, you know? And I say to him: 'Now you tell me what I've just told you.' And he says: 'Shitty, caca, pee-pee, penis-breath, poop.' Which is, to me, a wonderful, great, ultimate expression for the mystery.”
Noting the difference between writing for the page and the stage, Gray remarks, “You can go a little further in the [prose] writing, because it's a private space, and you can make the choice to edit or not. [Whereas] there's always, in front of an audience, that issue of inhibition.” He pauses for a second. “Though a slighter issue for me than most people.”
Morning, Noon and Night is at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall Tues.Sat., April 1317, 8 p.m., and Sun., April 18, 2 p.m.; (310) 825-2101.