Shades of Gray

Writer and performer Spalding Gray spent his early years in Rhode Island, a child of Christian Scientist parents. Like most children, he was preoccupied with the intricacies of his family -- and sex. His microcosm extended as far as school, dead pets and making out with a neighborhood girl while "Sh-Boom" by The Crew Cuts played on the phonograph.

Gray doesn't describe himself as a playwright or actor. "I'm an oral writer," he says by telephone from his home in Long Island, N.Y. "I make it up as I go along, drawing on memory." His spoken work began in 1979 in the Performing Garage in Manhattan. "One day I sat down at a table, told my story (which would become his first stage work, "Sex and Death to the Age 14"), and it evolved from that. It just grew, more memories accumulated." It was to become his life's calling.

"I remember hugging myself," he says, "thinking I'd found a form. I remember just being very happy that something was working, that I understood it intuitively."

The latest work of this talented, eccentric and wholly original artist, "Morning, Noon and Night" (2000), revisits his world of family and sex, with tender vignettes of Gray telling stories of his own childhood to his son, Forrest, and of dancing with his wife and new baby to the music of Chumbawamba.

However, the Spalding Gray we've come to know is the one in the middle of those two time extremes, the Spalding who traveled to Thailand as an actor for the filming of "The Killing Fields" (1984) and found that memorizing lines was almost as appalling as the history of genocide practiced by the Khmer Rouge. In "Gray's Anatomy" (1993), he continued a lifelong phobia of doctors as he attempted to cure partial blindness by going to a psychic surgeon in the Philippines and a sweat lodge in Minnesota.

Ten writers are coming to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach on Jan. 25, in hopes of absorbing some of the Spalding Gray magic. They will be participating in the Master-Artists-in-Residence program, which, since 1982, has united internationally acclaimed writers, artists and musicians with hopeful associates from around the world for three weeks of focused work.

Nicholas Conroy, residency manager at ACA, says, "Spalding's been on our list for a long time. Our national advisory committee (which includes playwright Edward Albee, composer Lukas Foss and writer Ismael Reed) approved him years ago, and he's just now found time to do it."

Gray will share the facilities of the 69-acre center with composer Harold Farberman and visual artist Martha Rosler, who have their own hand-selected groups coming to use the music rooms and art studios. The list of Gray's associates includes a writer from Australia, five applicants from New York, one from Philadelphia and three Florida writers, including a teacher from Daytona.

Applications for the Gray residency were high; a record 63 people sent in résumés and samples of their work. Gray's sessions will center on "trying to strike a balance between personal confession and style."

It seems to be impossible to separate anything about Gray from personal confession. Asked what he is working on currently, he replies, "I'm working on recovering from an automobile accident that I had in Ireland and some depression from that." His 60th birthday trip last June was cut short by an oncoming van that left Gray in a Dublin hospital with a fractured skull and hip.

With the noise of his kids playing in the background, he speaks like a philosophical writer weighing the value of his life as new material: "The accident -- I don't know what I'm going to do with that. It's a story that's there; I just haven't recuperated from it yet."

Does he think someone was trying to tell him something?

"Yes," he says emphatically, "I felt witchcraft was afoot."

"Monster in a Box," the subject of his 1992 stage show and film, was an 1,800-page behemoth of a manuscript that found Gray in Nicaragua, Moscow and Los Angeles, attempting to both finish it and avoid finishing it. With the help of editors, it eventually became his only novel, the 228-page "Impossible Vacation." It also may prove to be his last work of fiction, since he describes the process with an uncharacteristically enthusiastic, "Dreadful! It was lonely and taught me that I didn't want to do it again."

Gray, in fact, is not the actual "writer" of his books. Each one is a concise transcription of his stage work. That, he says, is "as close" a way as possible to bring his real work on the stage to the printed page. "I can't even type," the self-described Luddite says with a hint of pride. "I'm not one that sits down and writes a lot."

The stage show of his travails in Thailand, "Swimming to Cambodia" (1985), became his first film release, with Jonathan Demme directing. "I'd seen [Talking Heads' performance documentary] "Stop Making Sense," and it seemed so hands-off and ego-less, really giving over to the celebration of the show, so I knew he was the one to do it." Spalding the actor has appeared on Broadway in "Our Town," and in the movies "Clara's Heart," "Beaches" and the new Meg Ryan film, "Kate and Leopold."

Gray thinks for a moment about the idea that his current work is echoing his first, intuitive experiments on the stage, as if it hadn't occurred to him.

"I suppose so," he says. "It's come full circle. That's where it ends."

Other events: Opening reception for Master Artists-in-Residence Spalding Gray, Harold Farberman and Martha Rosler, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 25; and "INsideOUT" presentation of works-in-progress by associate artists working with Gray, Farberman and Rosler, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8; both events at Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, free, 386-427-6975.

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