Interviewing the Audience

Spalding Gray

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, June 12-14

By Justin Hayford

Seventeen years ago, when the Kitchen commissioned Spalding Gray’s Interviewing the Audience, the piece probably had an electric effect. The New York performance scene was revving up for its last great gasp, and Gray had carved himself an impressive niche as a confessional monologuist. In the days before Oprah and her flock had bludgeoned the national psyche with trivialities masquerading as pressing issues, turning the microphone on the audience may well have seemed radical, even liberating. Without the intimidating celebrity aura that now envelops Gray, it’s easy to imagine that the audience members he invited onstage for “nonagenda talking” felt relatively at ease–or at least as though they were talking to someone not unlike themselves.

But almost two decades later Gray is a star, everyone and his or her cousin has been on Ricki Lake, and the once-gutsy performance-art world has been domesticated by a few hundred confessional monologuists riding on Gray’s coattails. Interviewing a handful of audience members these days seems about as daring as an astronaut blasting off in the space shuttle. There are real risks, to be sure, but media saturation has made them seem banal. And anyway, won’t people do just about anything these days for their 15 minutes of fame? Why should Gray encourage them? And why should the rest of us watch?

Gray is a smart enough artist to prevent Interviewing the Audience from turning into a mad dash for ersatz celebrityhood. He joins the milling crowd in the lobby before the show, asking various people if they’d be willing to join him onstage. While his preshow appearance is practical, it also does much to knock him off his celebrity pedestal; you can’t mistake that he’s balding, a bit stooped, awkward on his feet, uncomfortable in his skin. If you were his mother you’d send him a year’s supply of chicken soup and tell him to get out in the sun more often.

And based on the interviewees he chose the night I saw the show, he goes out of his way to find people who are grounded, centered, and fundamentally self-content–not the type with stars in their eyes. During the four interviews he conducted over two hours, I never sensed in the interviewees a need to be onstage or even to draw attention to themselves. They were doing Gray a favor, it seemed. And while initially cowed by the size of the theater (and perhaps by Gray’s celebrity, since all of them admitted they were fans), within minutes they seemed at ease, engaged in genuine conversation rather than showing off.

In press materials, Gray describes how he intends Interviewing the Audience to work: the audience members get a chance “to tell their story,” and he gets a chance “to be genuinely curious in a public space.” And the show is at its most appealing when he manages to adhere to this plan. Without resorting to manipulation or sensationalism, he has a knack for getting people to disclose precise, telling details about themselves: each interview comes across like the opening chapter of a novel. The first woman he interviewed told us that she last took LSD in 1969 and last had a massage after working two 14-hour days serving Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter. In two minutes we knew her quite well–or at least we knew a version of her quite well.

Gray spends little time with formulaic questions (“What do you do for a living?” “What do you do for fun?”), instead encouraging the interviewees to create intimate portraits of themselves out of seemingly pedestrian details. An older gentleman told us he hasn’t sworn at another person in seven years and that he’s already arranged his own cremation because “it’s the sensible thing to do.” A young woman who peppered her speech with the words “golly,” “gee,” and “swell” told us she just quit her job as a circus clown, had lunch with her mother in Indiana, and thinks it would be “neat” to fall in love. These people become charming literary adaptations of themselves.

But too often Gray uses his interviews to turn the focus back on himself. In fact, the first person interviewed spent almost her entire time onstage listening to him recount stories about his own life. He admitted that he was using her “as an editor,” a role he said he sensed she didn’t mind.

Of course Gray is a mesmerizing storyteller, with a genius for stringing tangents together into hypnotic bundles. And certainly most of us would feel cheated if we didn’t get several chances to watch him ply his craft during the evening. But at the end of two hours it seemed that his self-described “nonagenda talking” had a clear agenda: to elucidate his trademark neuroses. The centeredness of his guests too often became a springboard for him to expand upon his own lack of centeredness, as he played the shadow of those he interviewed: unconnected, unclear, at odds with himself. He marveled at them so that we could be entertained by his unmarvelousness; he seemed “genuinely curious” about them insofar as they reminded him of what he lacks. They became the spotlights illuminating his darker side. While he says that he hopes the audience will realize “they’re the topic” of Interviewing the Audience, the topic rarely wandered far from Gray himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Spaulding Gray on stage photo by David Kamba.