"I really do collage work. I readjust memory to make it into art, to make it more dramatic, like a good dramaturg," Gray says. "I'm working from a tangential stream of consciousness," he continues, citing writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as his influences. "So it's not a classical dramatic arc. Rather, I'm trying to engage the audience, get them caught in the fabric of a personal story."
As a "monologist"? Or a "storyteller"? Or something else entirely? "I'd always hoped I'd be thought of as an 'American Original,'" says Gray. His characteristic, unflappable New England tone gives no clue as to whether he's actually serious.
And then he discusses the origin of a label he does like. It was after a performance of an early monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, at the Performing Garage in New York. The piece concerned Gray's adolescent sexual encounters and his first thoughts of the great beyond. Gray became used to seeing young boys in the audience: "Neighbors would send their sons to get initiated," he recalls. But, at one performance, he spied a 10- or 11-year-old girl.
"When I asked her why she was there, she said, 'My dad told me I had to come and see the talking man.' 'The talking man!' That's the label I'm most comfortable with."
On stage, at least. Off stage, the talking man is hard at work trying to be comfortable in his own life, in a role he never thought he'd be filling--and then figuring out how to talk about it. The old "life and art" thing, made more complicated by the fact that Gray's life is his art. Sort of.
As if on cue, there is a shriek of a small child who's not getting his way, or attention from his dad. This is followed by the sound the phone being dropped. "What's the matter?" coos Gray's calm voice in the background. And after a moment, "Well, watch it together!"
"Morning, Noon and Night is another world, a visitation to a time that isn't any more," says Gray. "My life is the same, yet that day is very distant. It's always strange to have the children burst into the dressing room [after a performance]--the real chaos, rather than the mastered chaos." And then, with the sound of boys negotiating in the background, Gray echoes a sentiment familiar to all parents. "How quickly it changes!"
What is the real Spalding Gray's latest challenge? "To get the balance," he replies. "Not to perform more than I live. That's what I'm trying to do."