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October 18. 2004

UCSC to host only West Coast tribute to late actor, writer Spalding Gray

By Scott Rappaport

The late actor, writer, and comedic monologuist Spalding Gray was scheduled to appear at UCSC last March as part of the university’s 2003-04 Arts & Lectures performing arts season. But the show was canceled after Gray was reported missing in January.

Spalding Gray Photo courtesy Kathie Russo

Gray’s body was subsequently found in New York City’s East River on March 7. He had apparently committed suicide by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry as a result of a consuming depression brought on by a disabling car accident he experienced two years earlier while celebrating his 60th birthday in Ireland.

The head-on collision had fractured Gray’s skull and hip, resulting in a metal plate implanted in his head, and a torn sciatic nerve that impaired his ability to walk.

On Saturday, October 23, UCSC Arts & Lectures, the Rio Theater, and the Santa Cruz Film Festival will present a tribute to the man who wrote and starred in 20 original monologues (three of which were made into feature films), acted in 38 movies (including Beaches, The Killing Fields, Kate & Leopold), and appeared in several Broadway productions (the Tony Award-winning revival of Our Town and the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man).

The evening will include a series of film clips put together by the Santa Cruz Film Festival, appearances by a number of his friends and theater colleagues from the San Francisco Bay Area, staged excerpts from Gray’s monologues, as well as personal stories, photos, and audio clips provided by his wife, Kathie Russo.

“He was an American original,” Russo noted in a telephone interview from her home in Sag Harbor, New York. “He was able to take mundane, daily observations and turn them into something extraordinary. There are so many one-person shows now, and performers who used Spalding as their model of how to do that kind of work.”

One of Russo’s many contributions to the event is a compilation CD that was compiled by Gray’s friend for 30 years, New York City filmmaker Ken Kobland. Consisting of excerpts from different media interviews, as well as Gray speaking candidly about various subjects, the CD was previously played at an East Coast tribute held last May and attended by 500 people in Sag Harbor. A public memorial was also held in Gray’s honor last April at Lincoln Center, where the participants included singer Judy Collins, performance artist Laurie Anderson, actress Lee Grant, solo performer Eric Bogosian, actor Eric Stoltz, and composer Philip Glass.

Gray became well acquainted with the Santa Cruz area in the summer of 1978 when he participated in a performance group workshop on the UCSC campus. That experience was immortalized in a monologue titled “Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind A Desk” that the Christian Science Monitor described as “‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’--elevated to the realm of art.” During the next two decades, Gray would return to Santa Cruz often to perform his new monologues and hang out with friends.

“When we moved to Sag Harbor, he would always say, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful here, but we could be in Santa Cruz,” Russo said. “He really loved it there. And if I came to Santa Cruz, I would spread some of his ashes there, and someday I will.”

On the day Gray disappeared, there was a phone message from UCSC theater arts professor Jim Bierman on his answering machine. Bierman had called to say hello and make plans to spend some time with Gray after his upcoming performance at the campus.

“I think the work Spalding did was outrageously pioneering,” Bierman observed. “It’s amazing to me because I’m frequently referring my students to the work he did in his earlier days.” The professor went on to recall how he and Gray would often relax in the early 1990s by constructing trails along Laguna Canyon and the Coast Dairies property off the Pacific coast of central California.

“We used to cut trails that we used for hiking—many are still in use and one is now open to the public,” said Bierman. “Spalding loved to wield a machete and we gave him plenty of room. He referred to it as a therapeutic process and he called it ‘Dr. Machete.’ It eventually became part of a monologue he was developing where he talked about therapy.”

“Spalding’s visits to Santa Cruz were always a great wonder because he simply had the talent for attracting the adventures he described in his work,” Bierman added. “Eventually though, I became a little more careful what I told him, knowing it might show up later as dramatic material.”

The October 23 Tribute to Spalding Gray will begin at 8 p.m. and take place at the Rio Theater, located at 1205 Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz. Michelle Witt, director of UCSC Arts & Lectures, noted that a donation of $10 is suggested, and that all proceeds from the event will go to an educational fund for Gray’s three children.

“Arts & Lectures had a special relationship with Spalding Gray over the years; he has performed here many times,” said Witt. “This will be a beautiful way to acknowledge him and what an important role he played in American theater.”

For more information, contact the UCSC Ticket Office at (831) 459-2159.

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