By Marianna Levine
Back in 1978, the writer/performer Spalding Gray commented in his journal “the unobserved life doesn’t feel like living.” It is an entry of major significance considering a man, who eventually made a successful career out of observing and relating the captivating details of his daily life, wrote it. And also sadly a reminder of how that articulated life ended.
“Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell”, a performance of some of Gray’s written works by a five member cast, will have a homecoming of sorts at the Bay Street Theater this Saturday night, when it is performed for one night only as a fundraiser for the imperiled Bay Street Theater. Mercedes Ruehl, who will perform the stories relating to Gray’s career and ensuing fame, will be that night’s celebrity guest reader.
Gray wrote about his life in Sag Harbor, and some of those stories will be performed at Bay Street. He had moved to Sag Harbor from New York City in 1996, and his family continues to reside here. Therefore, some of the stories will really resonate with locals who will intimately know the people and places mentioned in the tales.
His widow, Kathie Russo, the producer of The Morning Show with Bonnie Brice on WLIU as well the co-creator of this compilation, explains that bringing the play to Bay Street after having it performed in other U.S. cities “feels like coming home. The references to Sag Harbor will have a much more profound impact.” Although she also acknowledges that what makes Gray’s personal stories so compelling is their universality.
Gray, who during an era of burgeoning high tech communications became famous as the guy who sat behind a desk with a note pad and glass of water telling stories, left a tremendous body of work both published and unpublished for his family to sift through after his untimely death in 2004.
Russo explains that the play’s title “Stories Left to Tell” came from something she found written within Gray’s notebooks.
“Spalding had written ‘left over stories to tell’ as a title in a journal,” Russo explained, and she along with director and co-creator Lucy Sexton decided to change the title so it didn’t sound like the stories were mere “left overs.” That is certainly not the case with these stories, several of which have been published already, and which have been grouped into categories such as love, family, career, and adventure by Russo and Sexton. A different cast member specializes in performing each category.
Russo started compiling this work about a year-and-a-half after Gray’s suicide. It could have been an emotional and daunting task but it turned out to be a positive experience for her.
“I found it really therapeutic to go through his journals,” Russo explains, and then notes, “but I am currently working on a book and find the book more painful than the play. There are more difficult stories in the book.”
The play, Russo explains, was crafted in the likeness of Gray’s monologues, which gained a larger audience with the success of the film “Swimming to Cambodia” in 1987. She clarifies, “There are ups and downs. You’re laughing and crying.” Russo continues that she very much intended the play to be a celebration of his life and therefore the stories selected represent the entire arc of his life.
Russo worries however that “some people might shy away from coming because they are aware of how his life ended. People might walk in (to the theater) knowing the end, but this play is about what comes before all that happens.”
Watching the play, as Russo has done numerous times, has been an affirmative experience for her, and she certainly hopes audiences will come away with the same life-affirming experience.
Gray has been so tied to the performance of his words that it has been a new and inspiring experience to hear all different types of actors speak them. Both men and women speak Gray’s words. Russo says she remembers one of the best pieces of direction Sexton gave the play’s cast of actors was to remember, “This is your story. Tell it the way you want to tell it.”
And yet she also explains despite the different voices, “I feel like he’s in the room during the performance. I will catch something new each time. It’s surprising sometimes. Even some of the dated stuff still works, about Studio 54 or Kung Fu. It’s still funny.”
In the end, the ancient tradition of telling an entertaining tale to a group of friends is still alive and well with this new production of Gray’s work. Despite all the high tech ways people communicate these days, hearing a human voice live still seems to penetrate the soul more satisfyingly then a text or email, and thankfully Gray, who kept this tradition going into the 21st Century still had a few words left to pass on.