Saturday, May 3, 2014

Rumstick Road film & memories of Spalding Gray

I was looking through the Times arts section the other day and just happened to notice the review of Rumstick Road, a 'video reconstruction' of a 1977 Wooster Group theatrical production.  The reason it caught my attention is because the play, and now this film, stars the late, great Spalding Gray.

I may have mentioned in the past how I adored Spalding Gray.  Let's do a little backstory, shall we?  I may get long-winded, self-indulgent and mushy, so forgive me.  When I was an undergrad, one of my professors was an expert on the avant garde theater companies in the 70's.  I was introduced to Spalding Gray for the first time, however, in the movie The Killing Fields - I was impressed with his performance and my boyfriend, who was a great friend of that professor, told me about Spalding's work as a monologuist.  I guess I first started to follow Spalding to impress my boyfriend, though, after that relationship ended, Spalding Gray is the only performer I continued to enjoy afterwards.

I found Swimming to Cambodia to be completely brilliant on film, and I was so sorry I didn't get to see it live onstage before it took on a life of its own.  When I moved to New York, I was thrilled to see that Spalding would be trying out a new piece, Monster in a Box, at the Performing Garage.  I took a couple of students to see the show and was just mesmerized by his work - it was hard to believe I was actually finally seeing him live.  I loved it so much, I actually took a summer box office job because Spalding would be doing that piece over one weekend.

The artistic director of that theater knew I loved Spalding, so he promised to introduce me after the first performance.  Which he did - I was SO NERVOUS, meeting an idol.  After we were introduced, being me, I babbled like an idiot.  Instead of telling him about how big a fan I was, I instead asked him why he made a particular change in his monologue.  He looked at me strangely and then asked me why.  I explained why I missed that section; he then excitedly called Renee over and told me to tell her what I had just told him!  What a trip, to be talking to Spalding Gray and Renee Shafransky!!  They were using the weekend at this small theater to work on Monster in a Box before the Lincoln Center run.  They were very kind to me and let me in on some of their conversations and thanked me for being so knowlegeable and interested in developing his work.  HE THANKED ME. Wow.

Our paths crossed a couple more times over the years - I chatted with him briefly at a book signing in Cleveland after seeing Gray's Anatomy (the photo is of how he misspelled his own name when he got flustered because he couldn't remember why I looked familiar); I went to one of his Interviewing the Audience evenings at PS 122 - I was standing in line to get in and he walked along the line to approach people to interview.  He stopped in front of me, looked at me intently and said "I know you, don't I?"  I said uh, sort of.  He said "Then I can't use you," and started to walk away.  I laughed out loud, so hard, he came back and said, "sorry."  I also saw all of his monologues, in the theater, read his books, and grieved for him after his car accident in 2001.  When he first disappeared in 2004, friends called me to check on me.  My heart was broken when he was found.  It wasn't just that I had met him, but I was so compelled by his search for connection and answers throughout all of his work.  I still quote him often.  I feel like I've jumbled this whole post and haven't really expressed what he and his work meant to me, but I don't have his gift for words and self-examination.  No one does.

Getting back to last night, the Wooster Group has spliced together Super 8 footage, slides, still photos and other projections to put together a video of Rumstick Road, which was a successful production for the group in the 70s.  The piece deals with Spalding's search for answers about his mother's suicide, which was a popular exploration in much of his work.  There were also audio recordings of Spalding's father and grandmothers.  It was chilling to hear their voices trying to talk through that suicide, always with the spectre of Spalding's death hanging overhead in my brain. The creepiest audio was a recorded phone conversation with the mother's psychiatrist - he doesn't remember much about her, but he spends several minutes trying to reassure Spalding that her mental illness wasn't necessarily hereditary and that Spalding shouldn't worry about the same thing happening to him.  Imagine me crying as I type that and it was worse as I watched the film.

I can't really describe the experience of watching Rumstick Road - it's a fascinating look at what avant garde theater looked like in the 70s (at one point, an actress was doing a repetitive motion for maybe 15 minutes; at first it seemed self-indulgent, then it was compelling and then it was thrillingly horrifyingly representative of mental illness), how Spalding's methodology began, plus it was heartbreaking to see the young artist before his demons took control of him and to hear him try to figure out why his mother's demons took control of her.  It was powerful, stirring, nostalgic and oh so sad, all at the same time.

After the showing, there was a brief Q&A with Ken Kobland, who worked with Liz LeCompte to assemble this video.  He was very loose and self-deprecating, yet still got choked up as he talked about Spalding and the layers over layers attached to this piece.  He described Rumstick Road as being a piece that's incredibly raw and naked, yet also artificial at the same time in its theatricality, and it's the combination of the two that gives it its power.  I would agree.

If I hadn't blathered so long, I would share with you the hell that was my commute home afterwards.  Maybe in another post.  To end, I'll quote Spalding (and when I heard it last night, I cried), thank you for coming.

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