SPALDING GRAY TALKS ABOUT ACTING, AMERICA AND THE WOOSTER GROUP’S 20TH ANNIVERSARY.
Byline: Elizabeth Barr
“Spalding, you look unhappy,” warns one of Spalding Gray’s friends as the actor poses for a photo.
“I am unhappy,” he replies unemotionally.
“Well, you’re an actor. Act happy.”
Perhaps Gray is experiencing that inescapable melancholy that comes with reflection on the last 20 years of one’s life. That’s how long it has been since Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte formed the Wooster Group, the innovative performing arts ensemble based in New York’s SoHo. “Is that how long it is?” the 53-year-old Gray asks, as though he doesn’t know he’s scheduled to perform at the Group’s 20th anniversary benefit Wednesday.
“I was just thinking when I was walking up the stairs today that I hadn’t counted the years. I’m not a great fan of that, being terrifically phobic of death and old age and the end of time, and a real clinger. I think all performers and actors are real clingers,” he continues in his elliptic way, finally making an analogy between Freudian thoughts on breast-feeding and his feelings for the Wooster Group.
Gray is perhaps best known for autobiographical monologs such as “Swimming to Cambodia,” and although he rarely performs with the group these days, it’s no surprise he will come back to support the place that nurtured him as a performer. And even though the group now stages ensemble pieces almost exclusively, and counts such names as Willem Dafoe among its members, it is Gray who will headline the benefit — an evening that includes a dinner at Match, a performance of “Gray’s Anatomy” at Washington Irving High School and a reception (sponsored by the Group’s first and only corporate sponsor, Dewar’s) at Webster Hall.
“That’s definitely an ironic contradiction, isn’t it? It’s one of those wonderful twists. I think it’s probably because the way that I work is very popular right now; it’s more accessible because people understand it. The Wooster Group has been more underground. They certainly haven’t made any videos that have been on Showtime, so it’s easier, with me, to get a larger group of people in.”
The Wooster Group has remained “underground” for 20 years for several reasons, according to Gray, one being that most Americans don’t appreciate what it is doing.
“Art is not popular in America. I don’t feel that we are living in America — I always refer to Manhattan as an island off the coast of America — and I always get that sense when I tour. I was just touring in Memphis and Lexington, Ky., and Washington, D.C., and it’s just a very different place out there, particularly after the election. What the Wooster Group does is not something that would tour America well because they would have to educate their critics and they would have to educate their audiences.”
While the Wooster Group might not play in Peoria, the ensemble’s unorthodox multimedia performances have occasionally come under fire from New York theater critics, as well. “Critics don’t understand ensemble work in theater,” Gray contends. “They simply don’t understand it because it’s not an American tradition. Here, it’s a star system or it’s a show that is put together just for that moment. They don’t understand the maintenance of an ensemble. I can remember when they used to write about our work and they’d say, ‘Spalding Gray’s this’ or, ‘Spalding Gray’s that,’ and I’d have to write letters to the New York Times explaining it to them, that we collaborate on this.
“All criticism, in my opinion, is based on nothing but personal choice anyway. I don’t think anyone is writing from some sort of Aristotelian fulcrum in which there’s some sort of cultural norm that we’re supposed to be attuned to, so I don’t even see how critics write except from personal taste.”
Gray adds that a woman director doesn’t go over well sometimes.
“There are a lot of heavy-duty female critics at the Village Voice, women libbers, that are offended by Liz’s not being politically correct.”
He notes, however, that LeCompte’s direction can be offensive.
“Liz has some investment in offending the audience. I think that’s a perversity in Liz that she delights in — offending the audience with something that is dynamically mind-changing: art. So when it’s not just offending the audience, which I don’t think she does gratuitously, she also is being very personal and selfish and saying, ‘I think this works.’ In fact, the group, when the piece finishes, all go right upstairs and look to Liz for the reactions. They never look to the audience.”
Gray says he began moving away from the Wooster Group when he started doing his monologs and using the audience as his thermometer, and he claims he couldn’t join in the group’s ensemble productions these days.
“The time it takes to do a production — there’s a year of making and then two years of touring — I can’t do it. I’m too old. I feel the sense of time collapsing and I have too many other things I want to do.”
Ironically, one of the reasons the Wooster Group has succeeded, according to Gray, is the amount of time it is able to spend on a production.
“I would never have evolved my work, my monolog form, somewhere else because you have to rent a space and then you get just a certain amount of time and then the critics have to come. We had the great luxury of being able to work — not under some gun, timetable, opening, need to review. We could test it.”
Looking around the Performing Garage, the group’s permanent home, Gray thinks of his time spent on that stage.
“There is this enormous history contained in this space. I don’t even have a home that has this kind of history. Actually, it’s like a home. It’s more home than the loft I live in, in some ways because the association has been longer, but in others, because for me, making art was always more interesting than living a life.”