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Spalding Gray on Zen and the Downtown Theater Scene

Spalding Gray on Zen and the Downtown Theater Scene
by Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman, who is writing a book on the relationship between Zen Buddhism and the American avant-garde, spoke to Spalding Gray this past summer at his home in the Hamptons.

Spalding Gray: Just talking to you sparks me into my lineage of association about the influences of Buddhism, and the first thing that comes to mind is being a very late, really retarded student. I had a lot of problems with school, a bad student, I was sent away to a boarding school in Maine, Fryeburg Academy. I was a terrible student, and I guess that I was one or two years behind everyone else because I repeated 7th and 9th grades because of math problems. But my senior year in boarding school, I was reading, I was just breaking away from Christian Science.

Ellen Pearlman (Rail): What year was this?

Gray: I graduated from Emerson College in ’63, so it would have been ’61.

Rail: Ok, good.

Gray: Senior year in boarding school was ’61, so I was reading, moving away from Christian Science, I was jumping into the existentialists, but the two prime books I remember reading were On The Road as well as the work of D. T. Suzuki, which were the only books then on Zen that were popular and available.

Rail: What was the Suzuki book called?

Gray: Zen Buddhism. It was exactly that, Zen Buddhism, plain and simple, and it was an attempt to give the history and description of it. After that, for me, a more readable book was the one by Alan Watts, which I, still to this day, think is very well done.

Rail: Tell us about your theater work around that time.

Gray: Moving into traditional theater was a real low period for me. I was in regional theater in ’67 down at the Alley Theater, I got my Equity Card, and I read an article in the New York Times about Andre Gregory being fired from the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia for directing Rochelle Owens's play Beclch, fired by the board of directors, and I thought, well, something is going on in the East Coast that someone can be fired from the theater, that someone is doing something interesting. All the stuff we were doing in Houston was so retrograde and just so safe. So after a summer in Mexico living with Elizabeth LeCompte in San Miguel where I was really studying photography— —

Rail: What do you mean that you were living with her—were you her boyfriend, or were you just friends?

Gray: We had met each other at Skidmore College when I was acting in theater up there, and so when she graduated at Skidmore, the plan was we would live together for the summer and see how it went. So she joined me in San Miguel and we spent the summer there. When I got back—and just skipping through this real fast to see where I can touch down with the Buddhism—my mother had killed herself when I was away, and no one got a hold of me, so basically we got back to her ashes in an urn. My mother was dead, which was an enormous shock, but I didn’t recognize it. I got a bad cold, instead of crying, I got a bad head cold, and moved to New York City right away. Elizabeth and I started living together, at 6th and Avenue D. So here I was in New York City on the Lower East Side, not having any idea what I was going to do. I was so disillusioned with theater, regional theater, traditional theater, the conservatism of it, the lack of consciousness, it was never ahead of its audience, it was temporal. In the case of Houston, Texas, it was dependent on the audience to condone it, saying this will be comfortable for us, so you keep the subscribers. So here I am on 6th Street and Avenue D thinking I was going to be a photographer, a film editor, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was collecting Houston unemployment, and kind of walking the streets of New York, getting used to it. It was a very, very charged time then in the Lower East Side at that time because of the mix on 7th Street of hippies and Hispanics, that was the neighborhood, so Elizabeth LeCompte and I were living on 6th and D and got involved.

Rail: How did you get involved with the downtown theater scene?

Gray: Our first contact really, with the downtown scene, was that I started doing workshops with JoAnne Akalatis in her attic, just the three of us, because she kept saying the director of Mabou Mines (which they hadn’t formed yet), Lee Breuer, was in Paris and was coming over and they were going to form a company, and she wanted to do some early Grotowski work. And Phil, who was a plumber, was rehearsing in the attic as well, and when we were not rehearsing, we would sit in on his rehearsals and when we weren’t sitting in on the rehearsals, Elizabeth and I were babysitting Zachary and Juliet, Phil and JoAnne’s kids. And we would go to gatherings, I remember JoAnne would always have us for Thanksgiving. So we were starting to get organically initiated in the downtown scene, mainly because we were down there at the Performing Garage.

Rail: Can you talk a little about those early collaborations?

Gray: The really early stuff, for me it was not a collaboration until later. What it was for me was crossover. Because what finally happened was that we founded a bunch of experimental theaters in 1973-74. Peter Gregory was managing them for us so it was an umbrella. Richard Foreman, Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project Company, and Meredith Monk were there, as was a group called Section 10, which never became quite as popular. And so was Mabou Mines, and the Living Theater tried to come in at one point when Julian Beck finally said we all are swimming in dirty water, we are ready to take some grant money, and so there was an enormous amount of crossover then. It was 1970-76, and it was the great downtown experimental theater scene, so you had about eight or nine companies all doing work which would influence each other but also was very individual.

Rail: Can you talk about this? I know you want to talk about the Buddhism, but I need this as background, to show relationships.

Gray: Okay, let me talk about what happened. Elizabeth LeCompte and I saw Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69. We were transformed, in the way that people talk about drug experiences being transformative. It was the most intensely engaging interactive theater we had ever seen. We were going up to the highest scaffolding we could get on, so we wouldn’t be drawn into the action, because he would deconstruct the play and try and have Dionysus turn the room into an orgy, where he would drag members of the audience not out of their seats, because there were no seats, we were just perched around environmentally within the stage and we had never dreamed of anything like this. I never recuperated from it and I would keep walking back and forth by the Performing Garage, the way a kid would walk by a candy store, a porn shop. I was stunned, and I would peek in the door and see them sitting in circles on big carpets preparing their next environmental production of the Scottish guy, Makbeth, and I sent in a picture and resume to Richard Schechner because I was just a professional and I thought that is how it was done, but what a joke. One of the people dropped out, he had a huge fight and he dropped out with four days notice from the role of Malcolm in the environmental production of Makbeth. Richard found my picture and called me and asked if I could do this role in four days. I said, “Sure, I do summer stock, it is nothing new to me.” Well, it was a cut down version of Macbeth, it wasn’t a whole other story, but the company was in such rebellion that they would not come in and rehearse with me because they saw me as a mercenary. So Richard Schechner came into the Performing Garage and played every role in that play in which I had to interact with him. And in one case he wanted to change the whole theatrical metaphor and have the actual event in the room. If the king was at a banquet, you had to eat something because he did not want to mime food or have food. So the man who was playing the king in Makbeth simply lifted his shirt, and they were wearing jump suits and boxing shoes. And everyone would suck on him. And they sucked on his chest and his belly. The man playing the King had hickeys up and down. You know this was the eating scene, the banquet scene. So here is Richard Schechner lying on this platform with his hairy belly and his sweatshirt up and I am sucking on his stomach and he is yelling “harder, harder,” and there are no witnesses in the room and I am thinking, yes, I will do anything for a role. It’s all for experimental theater but it is a very weird situation.

Rail: But you nevertheless stayed with the Performing Garage.

Gray:  I went into that company and that was the watershed event for me because suddenly we were in our own space, setting our own rules and working from our own place. Richard Schechner said, “I don’t want to know about your character yet, I want to know who you are.” So he had all these Grotowski exercises, in which we would do extreme body exercises and then he would pass a tape recorder around when we were in these altered states and we would then just begin talking, free subject, about what was on our mind, and gosh it was the real seed for me in terms of diving into the autobiographical self, of public confession. I mean, I have been influenced, certainly, by Ginsberg and Robert Lowell as a confessionalist poet but here this was playing right into it. It was not aimed toward trying to find out how to do a role for yourself. This shift, a watershed event for me, happened in 1970.

We started making our own pieces, but also we were going and seeing other people’s work. Now Elizabeth LeCompte who was a visual artist at Skidmore was much more conceptual and more deconstructivist in her nature. Of course we didn’t know that at the time, but when we got back from India, I went over there with all sorts of grandiose ideas that I was going to become enlightened and do the Baba Ram Dass trip. We took Brecht’s Mother Courage to India in 1976; we were the first American company to tour India.

Rail:  Which company did this?

Gray:  The Performance Group, Richard Schechner’s performance group. We got a John D. Rockefeller III travel grant to go to India in 1976, and when I got back from there, I was in very bad shape. I was in a cultural shock coming back to America. I had a kind of narcolepsy, I could not stay awake, which is a whole other kind of story. But the thing is that once I started to wake up, realizing that I was depressed, too—it was summertime, my mother killed herself in the summer, I was in Mexico, she was 52, I wasn’t there, I was 26. Every damn July that came around until I was 52 was filled with that angst. So I had gone out and gathered all this stuff 10 years after the suicide, really, tape, recordings, slides, and I just kind of dumped it in Elizabeth LeCompte’s lap and we started our own company because Richard had not gotten back from India yet. Now this company, which became the Wooster Group, still exists, and it really came together around that piece about an exploration of my mother’s suicide, and all of the work was influenced not by Richard Schechner, but by Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, and to some extent Richard Foreman, but it was all a deconstructivist non-narrative event.

Rail:  Will you explain what you mean when you say it was influenced by them?

Gray:  Well, Meredith Monk did a piece about the education of a girl-child that still stays in my memory. She did it in the loft next to the Performing Garage. It was a timeline, an autobiographical timeline but abstracted, of her going from an old woman to a child on a little trail of paper. It was pretty Japanese in that way, Japanese rice paper on the floor, and that was the timeline, that she was moving backwards, and of course she was never speaking a text, she was doing sounds. It was all much closer to music and dance. The same with Robert Wilson. So our pieces were very much involved with mixed media and not traditional acting. We were all going to Philip Glass’s works in progress, we were understanding the whole thing of work in progress by coming into spaces downtown where stuff was never really finished, it was always evolving. I mean we witnessed the Music in 12 Parts in the Bleecker Street Loft, every Sunday he would play a different part—it was a community, we were immersed in it. Our work, Elizabeth LeCompte’s and mine, in the Wooster Group grew out of all of those influences, it was all very organic and you know, let’s put John Cage in it. One of the first influential books that I read when I came to New York in 1967 was A Year from Monday. And I still credit that book. Those little short autobiographical pieces, they were sketches of slices of life. He wasn’t trying to make a coherent narrative there that was trying to tell you a lesson, he was just carving the details of life. That in itself was a sense of worship.

Rail:  I know you said he wasn’t giving you an explanation or anything, but is there any way that you can explain what it is that you read and why it had such an effect?

Gray:  Reading John Cage’s A Year from Monday for me was a yes experience. Oh yeah, ohhh, I think this way, I feel this way, I relate this way. I used to call them “perfect moments;” I don’t like to do so anymore because that is not Buddhist, it is not integrated, and it also is not deconstructivist.

Rail:  Why do you say the idea of a perfect moment isn’t Buddhist?

Gray:  Because my interpretation—and I have to tell you that I am more a fan of Zen than I am of Tibetan Buddhism, and a lot of it has to do with contrasting two books that I have recently revisited. One is Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, as opposed to—and I hate to get binary, again—The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which I think is a hellfire and brimstone approach, not unlike James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, a description of Catholic Hell. I mean it clearly says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that if you think you are disoriented now, just wait until you are dying without a proper master to guide you. Whoa, malarkey. None of that can be found in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. It is the most generous, peaceful, non-alarming book. Now I am spinning off, but I am telling you why I favor Zen in my mind. 

Rail:  Tell us about your other intellectual pursuits at the moment. 

Gray:  I’m reading The Life of Heidegger right now. But I bounce. I bounce around. I go back to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and open it at random places. I’m constantly doing cross-readings, Becker’s Denial of Death is still an all-time favorite book of mine. But the influences of Buddhism for me are always there, it is just that I have always felt we can’t be one. I am still trying to still be a New Englander, that is why I moved out here, I am trying to get close to my Puritan roots and that is not an easy route because I have real problems with Christianity, particularly George W. Bush’s Christianity. Anyone who has a concept that there is a better world somewhere else is not going to live very well in this one, you know, in Shangri-La or certainly here. I mean I always jokingly said after going to India I would never again fly on an airplane where the pilots believed in reincarnation. I have never seen such a laissez-faire kind of life that I saw in India, I mean it was the most haphazard kind of living I have ever seen, I mean, oh my God, what a trip.

Rail:  How did Zen Buddhism influence your theatrical work?

Gray: I started to focus on reflection. My monologues became talking about thinking. A lot of them are very interior. They are not only covering events, but they are covering events about my inner thought processes about those events, which are reflexive. And the other thing I think I was very influenced by was yoga, and I do it every morning, 20 minutes of my own stuff because I have to get into my own body in the morning, but I will tell you about the sitting that I did do in ’74. I was reading Thomas Merton then and very interested in silence. I liked him the way I liked the Dalai Lama because he was one of the few people who was trying to mix his religion well, and I think that the Dalai Lama does that fantastically. But has sitting influenced my work specifically?  I realized that sitting still at a table was a way of centering and taking time away from the performance. So when I do the monologue it is this timeless event in which the audience can enter into the story, and creating time by moving around on the floor, like a standup comedian. I’m sitting in a chair, still. And then I am almost levitated out of the chair, with this enormous energy in my spine for an hour and 40 minutes. There is no other performer, because it is my signature, and I have incorporated it. And, if nothing else, it is an influence from my sitting.

Rail: Can we go back to your discussion of the downtown scene, specifically in terms of the amount of crossover in it?

Gray: There were lots of mixed medias and mixing dance, people saying look, let’s go get rid of this idea of “college categories” and we are not going to allow the critics to name it. We are going to a new territory and so Elizabeth LeCompte and I were going to see the Grand Union, and being as turned on by that, Lee Breuer’s work with Mabou Mines, the trilogy where he is working with the animal personas, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham at BAM, I would go see them. 

Rail: Any particularly memorable performances you saw?

Gray: What I remember most of all is John sitting up, David Tudor in one balcony right next to the stage and John in one corner reading and Merce dancing in silence and the way that they would do, back to binary here, parallel lines, where the dance would be one thing, just simply against the reading, and they may or may not touch each other or synchronize or be synchronistic, but they are synchronistic while our own minds are making a narrative or making a hitch up with it. I will tell you how the chance thing influenced my mind and my work on another level. I forgot to tell you about this. I had always felt a little old fashioned and conservative in relation to John Cage. John was always finding ways to put chance into the structure. And the chanciest piece I ever did was at the Performance Garage, and it was my third or fourth monologue, and it has never been published. That, from that rough time in India—and it was even rougher afterwards—and it was so fragmented in my memory I could not structure it as a narrative, so what I did was have a woman friend of mine sit at a desk table with a bell and a dictionary. I sat beside her in a chair, not behind her in a folding theater chair, and asked her to open the dictionary and choose a word and then give a time. She would say “albatross—one minute and 15 seconds” and the image that albatross would provoke in me, the association within that time structure because I was supposed to bring myself back to the experience of India (because it is called India) and after that my experience of America, and whatever would happen would be ended by the bell. I would try to keep that ending in my mind so if I came back to that story I would start and continue. So it became like a parlor game in which we were creating time in the room. The audience would have to hold the history of where the stories had ended. Rail: I went to one of those.

Gray: Yes, well it was so influenced by John Cage and it was so wonderful because at the end of it, after probably an hour and a half she would read all the words. And these chance words would flow in that wonderfully synchronistic way, thematically. It just gets back to that old deconstructivist theater thing that existence proceeds essence. We are always working to create meaning. And the most creative people are doing it most creatively. And I think of all that wonderful downtown soup, when it came it could not have been a better time. I am a product of that. I would have otherwise been some lone, alcoholic, regional theater actor hoping for Chekhov, or who knows?  I would have been drawn into the city. It was just a really vital time. And that is why the piece that we met at [Alison Knowles was reminiscent, it was just a tiny hole in the wall of what was going on because in the early ’70s, late ’60s, you would be rushing to the next event and stopping at Food to eat. You have been in SoHo since ’70 and boy, have I seen the change, I don’t even want to walk down West Broadway on the weekend. So I just hit a very fertile time and it allowed me to find my way of working because people were into process…I recently was cast to do a cameo role in a film called How High. No one knows who the director is, he is very young, and it is being produced by Danny DeVito, and it stars Red and Method Man, two well-known rappers. What happens in this movie is that they smoke such strong dope that they are able to remember a dead friend from the past who gives them the answers to a test to get into Harvard. Two rappers at Harvard, and I play a Harvard black studies professor who is so guilty at being white that I really want these guys to walk all over me. No one seems to know the director. He arrives at my trailer, he is about 29, roly poly, and he says I am so proud to have you on my film for one day because you are involved with process and I always wanted that, you are a process man, no news about process anymore, and that his dad taught him about process. I said what does your dad do, he says, he is your same age, he is a musician, guitar, he is Bob Dylan—the director is Jesse Dylan, I didn’t even know Bob Dylan had another son. I just about fell out of the trailer, but that was such an honor, a full circle about process, which no one even understands anymore. And we were given permission to do it then because we were on a war economy, a fairly strong economy until the oil embargo came. 

Rail: And did you feel the oil embargo put a damper on it?

Gray: Definitely. That was a time that subsidies in the arts started going down. It was about 1976 or ’77, and Carter was telling us to turn our thermostats down to 68 degrees, and my grandmother started doing it, and I loved her for it, and we should all start doing it now. People in theater companies then were getting older and having families and looking around to be movie actors and we just lost it. There are a few surviving groups downtown, and I can’t speak to that. I went to a piece at the Ohio Theater that I thought was a very interesting experimental work, Lipstick Traces:A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, and the Wooster Group’s work is still great. These are downtown experimental theater groups that are still working from non-narrative, from abstraction. I always said that Elizabeth LeCompte was like Wallace Stevens to my Robert Lowell, and we finally split around this, and also around her falling in love with Willem Dafoe, around those two things, I don’t know which came first. I mean we were really going in opposite directions, where I wanted to become more confessional and autobiographical, and she wanted to be deconstructivist and abstract, and we both became great and went into different paths.

Rail: What happened next?

Gray: I left the Performing Garage to go out on my own in 1979. I went on a Greyhound bus, and you could go across the country and get out anywhere for only 60 dollars, and then get back on. I got off at Cheyenne, Wyoming, because I liked the name of the town, but as soon as I got out I didn’t like the town because I was bewildered. Now, a Romanian refugee picked me up with his son, he didn’t live around there but in Fort Collins. Here comes Ginsberg and Kerouac back on me. The image with the hitchhiking. It’s like a Kerouac story. We get to Fort Collins, I sleep at his place on a sleeping bag on the floor. In the morning, his son and he take me up to see the Rocky Mountains. So I am seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time in my life with a Romanian refugee who just came over as my guide. They finally drove me down to Boulder and I was going to stay with Paul Finnett, who was teaching at Naropa and who was from the Open Theater. I was walking down the esplanade and there was one of these poetry readings where people from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa, where Allen Ginsberg was teaching, were doing readings. And there was an open microphone and I got so charged up my heart was going and I thought, I have to get up at that microphone, and I got up and I just spoke as fast as I could everything I could remember about that bus trip from the time I left New York City until the time I was standing there, again, a year from Monday, whether it had a point or was constructive, and then I got down from there and I ran. And that was my first autobiographic monologue, now that I look back on it. It was not planned, it was the first public monologue I ever did on my own and it was in downtown Boulder. Finally the bus got me to San Francisco, and I hitchhiked down to Santa Cruz. This was the summer of ’79 and I had always been interested in philosophy. There I became familiar with Emily Rothe, who is Richard Rothe’s widow.

Rail: I don’t know who Richard Rothe is.

Gray:  He is an anti-philosophist. He is the end of the line of philosophy. There are no more philosophers, so he writes about it, he is the Post-Modern philosopher but he is quite famous, and his ex-wife Emily Rothe teaches philosophy at Harvard. And she was teaching a course called Philosophy of Emotions that summer. And I would go and sit in on that course and she knew I wasn’t registered, I was just hanging out. And I would ask a lot of naïve questions, and she liked that, I was an enthusiast. And we became friends, and we would go for walks in the redwoods. And I told her about how I was leaving the Wooster Group and how I felt that the world as we had known it was coming to an end because it was such an egocentric predicament, I thought it was the end of the world with me leaving the group. And she said, well you know, the last artists to equate America with Rome were the chroniclers, and that is when I thought I would chronicle my life and do it orally rather than write it down because it is not ending, it is making more product. And I came back and did my first autobiographic monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, sitting at The Performing Garage at a table in September of ’79. This is interesting because you are causing me to free-associate and think out loud, but there was the first monologue done in the heart of American Buddhist country. I didn’t even go to the school and I was influenced.

Rail: What do you think about that moment, can you talk about it? Gray: What I think about it is Allen [Ginsberg’s] wonderful statement, “first thought, best thought,” which he obviously took from his teacher, an amalgamation of Trungpa’s thinking and his. And I jokingly and dearly say now the best sixth thought, in this age of fear and litigation. We don’t think out loud anymore. I know that I can’t, not with a family living out here in Sag Harbor—I have to censor everything. Because I want to respect my children’s privacy. Allen was just out here and I miss him. I was never close to him. I had a chance, a few meals with him, he vaguely had a sense of who I was, I had a very big sense of who he was, we weren’t equals in any way, never could be. After he died, I had recurrent dreams about him that I write in my journal, the loss of him, very strong dreams in which he interacted with me in some way.

Rail: And what did you feel? What was the overall tenor of the dream?

Gray: Of the loss of him? I would have to go back and look at them, it was very complicated, homosexuality, and fathering, and art, mentoring was all built into it of him and me coming out of a line. I mean I still have a picture, a photograph of me in boarding school my senior year in high school wearing a trench coat reading Howl, that my roommate took.

Rail:  You know, Spalding, what you have done with your generous reminiscing is you have pinpointed this in time, where you know I have been talking about the electrons around the protons and neutron orbiting, you have given me a lot of insight into things I was not aware of in terms of the closeness of people’s interactions at the time.

Gray:  The way I am talking to you is the way I start to work when I try and formulate a monologue, and voice stuff. I need an audience to be indulgent with me because I think about it by voicing it, because I don’t sit down and write it out. But I think the main thing for me was living downtown, finally moving down there and having that space in the Performing Garage and finally being able to do freely what we wanted to do, and we weren’t dependent on others. Everyone else at that time was operating the same way. They either had their own space or they were renting one that was very flexible. It was its own world and it was far different from uptown, ideologically and otherwise.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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