Spalding Gray – The Evacuation of Phnom Penh

Content Warning: The video above features descriptions of genocide*

For most performers, water is simply a utilitarian device to keep one's throat from drying out. They often sip from a branded bottle at an opportune interval within the performance. No more thought isgiven by the audience or the performer about its significance. The glass of water that sits on Spalding Gray's desk for the entirety of each of his monologues is different. It is his temple bell.

In the monastic traditions of Zen Buddhism, the temple bell is not just a signal for the monks and meditiators to transist from one activity to the next. It is also a reminder to let go of thoughts of past and future and exist simply within the moment. Gray's glass of water sits at the desk as an emblem of purity before he has entered the stage and taken his seat.

Gray begins his performance by taking a sip of the water. Everyone knows what it is like to stop what you are doing for a moment and take a sip of water. It washes away the remnants of whatever morsels have passed through through the mouth in previous hours. It relieves a feeling of dryness or rawness of throat. It is a simple relief and kindness that we allow ourselves. It is as atomic in lifegiving necessity as the act of taking breath. It is a powerful and pure reminder for us to wake up and occupy the moment.

There's also a monastic austerity to Spalding Gray's stage setup. All of his raw, funny confessonal monologues are united by his standard stage layout. A desk and chair with a cheap notepad and the aforementioned glass of water.

The table and chair help to reign in Gray's frenetic energy during the performance. Despite being from a Christian Science background, Gray was often misidentified as being Jewish becase of the intensely comic evocations of neuroticism and anxiety. Telling tales of compulsions to learn how to ski, exploring complimentary medicine to avoid eye surgery or examining the suicide of his mother – you cold easily imagine an actor of Gray's calibre leaping about the stage at the most animated moments. This is why it is so effective for him to remain seated. This brings intensity and focus to these passages.

Swimming to Cambodia, Gray's most well known monologue, retells his experiences of playing a role in Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields (1984). During this particular interval, Gray shifts from comic anecdotes to a retelling of the events that the film was based on. Not visiting these events would render the monologue self indulgent and shallow. It is necessary for Gray to take a step back from the comedy and take a sip from his glass of water.

The film was recorded at The Performing Garage, a small theatrical venue in Soho, NY where Gray performed as part of its famous resident theatrical troop, The Wooster Group. It also became Gray's venue of choice when, through repeated performances, he gradually developed his one man shows from 45-minute concept pieces to 90-minute finished products. The film of the performance is directed by Jonathan Demme and soundtracked by Laurie Anderson.

Gray uses three other props for this segment – a map, a retractable pointer and a folded up letter. When he leans back from his desk, using the pointer to indicate sections of the map of Cambodia, his speech becomes more factual and dispassionate. However, as he leans forward towards his audience from the map, he becomes more emotional and vivid with his descriptions.

His voice rermains calm throughout this segment, when he mentions the distressing details of the Khmer Rouge's genocide, there is a sadness and synmpathy that underlies his tone. Similalry, the timbre of his voice becomes serene as he unfolds a piece of paper and reads from it – reciting the words of Prince Sirik Matak to the US government that have just abandoned him, his colleagues and millions of his people to their deaths. Gray's voice only adopts a severe, staccato quality when voicing the commands of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as they enter the city.

This subtle modulation of Gray's voice and body when using the props mirrors how our moral attitudes to world events shift with the scope of our focus. The map reflects the wide view – the familiar image of generals moving figurines across its markings with little recourse to the facts of human suffering that accompany them. The letter refelcts the opposite, a subjective missive from one soul to another that we have come to rely on for the emotional and human truths of war and terror.

This shift of focus and moral standpoint finds voice at the end of the segment when Gray recalls a discussion with Joffe about the importance of the film:

And Roland Joffe came to me and said, "Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a moiveable feast."
I get dizzy – cause I see it moving all the time.

Ask today's Spoken Word artists to think of innovation and they may point to mixed media and cross-artform collaboration. At the same time, with all this fancy wrapping, very little innovation happens with the speech act at the centre of it.

Spalding Gray demonstrated that real innovation can occur when the performance is stripped down to its essentials – a handwritten letter, a map and pointer. A chair and a desk. A glass of water.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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