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Awesome Men Throughout History: Spalding Gray

Modern audiences are used to seeing blends of stand up comedy, theatrical monologue, and spoken word, but there was a time when those three styles of performance were kept separate. One of the guys who helped bring them together was Spalding Gray, and it’s time more of us learned about him. After all, guys like Louis C.K. wouldn’t have successful hybrid careers without Spalding’s efforts paving the road for them, even if he never reached those heights himself.

gray1Spalding was born in Rhode Island and raised as a Christian Scientist, and lived in California for a while as an adult until his mother committed suicide, at which point he moved to New York permanently.

From that point on, Gray was active in theatre. He joined The Performance Group in 1970, and then helped found a new theater company, The Wooster Group, with Elizabeth LeCompte and Willem Dafoe.

He was also in a really weird porno movie called Farmer’s Daughters around this time, which would probably kill an aspiring actor’s momentum today. It’s probably online somewhere, but be warned, there’s a lot of peeing.

Anyway, Spalding broke away from acting troupes altogether to focus on producing his own monologues, for lack of a better term. In a setup that’s more familiar to us now, Spalding would sit onstage with a bottle of water and a notebook and just talk to the audience about his life, albeit in an exaggerated and stylized way.

This was pretty groundbreaking in the 1980s and 1990s, when direct connection with an audience was hard to come by in theatre, and Spalding’s was a hit. People would come see his performances to be talked to instead of talked at, and he was funny and engaging enough to make the audience forget that they’d paid money to sit and watch some guy talk about himself and wallow in his own minor quirks.

That’s a rare thing, too. Not only is it tough to talk about oneself on stage at length and not feel like a vain, navel-gazing douchebag, it’s even harder to not sound like one. Instead, Spalding came across like a weird, interesting guy with a lot of good stories and a surprising honesty that guys like Henry Rollins, Louis C.K., and Marc Maron have built their own careers upon.

Unfortunately, Spalding Gray took his own life in 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. He’d been in a nasty car accident in 2001, and that, coupled with lifelong bouts of manic-depression, drove him to suicide. But he played an important role in how we express ourselves as a culture through storytelling, and a quote from one of his favorite movies, Big Fish, sums up his impact on the arts:

“a man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.”

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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