One student’s search for Spalding Gray

By Josh Albrecht

When Rick Allan Fish looked at a list of possible final project topics for his Contemporary Theater course last semester, there was something about the word “monologist” that caught his attention.

Next to “monologist” was written the name Spalding Gray, a writer/actor famous for his witty monologues. Fish, despite having no idea who Spalding Gray was, jumped at the chance to have him as his topic.

“Something, I don’t know what it was, just clicked and I knew that’s what I would do it on,” said Fish, a senior theater major.

Little did Fish know that he would eventually be talking to Spalding Gray on the phone.

When it came time in his paper to answer two questions from the artist’s point of view, Fish was at a loss as to how to make the paper succeed. The questions were: “What is Spalding’s job according to himself?” and “What has been the fallout of his work? What’s the message that comes through for today? Have we solved the problems he described at the time?”

After typing two, single-spaced pages in an effort to answer the questions from the viewpoint of Gray, Fish wasn’t pleased with his made-up answers and proceeded to delete them.

“Who am I to answer these questions for Spalding Gray when he is alive? If he wasn’t alive, then I could take some license,” Fish said. “Then, in some automatic way, like a robot, I picked up the phone.”

Fish utilized AT&T ‘00′ (Double-O) Info option and asked for any listings of Gray, Spalding, in New York City.

Fish, who was just guessing that Gray lived in New York City, was given three numbers by the operator, one of which was listed as being on Wooster Avenue, and Fish recalled from his early research that Gray had worked at the Performing Garage, a theater on Wooster Avenue.

“On a whim, I called the number on Wooster Avenue,” Fish said.

Then a woman answered the phone.

“I said, ‘Hi, is Spalding there?'” Fish said. “At this point, I really was starting to be a little crafty.”

The woman muffled the phone, said something to someone else, and then asked who was calling.

“I said, ‘This is Rick Fish,’ with complete confidence. And I heard her say, ‘Rick Fish’ like I was someone important. Then he said, ‘Hello.'”

Fish said he knew it was Gray right away because of the writer/actor’s distinctive voice, and reality quickly set in.

“It floored me. I’m on the phone with Spalding Gray, and I said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you,'” Fish said.

And then Fish launched into a nervous, fast-paced tone which detailed the purpose of his call to Gray.

“I stated rambling and it was all chaotic,” Fish said.

But Gray agreed to answer Fish’s two questions, and Fish was able to get the responses for his project directly from the source.

“As soon as I got off the phone with him I called my professor in the same incoherent rambling and told the story as a message on his machine,” Fish said.

Fish added that he received a good grade on his report and presentation to the class.

“At the end [of the report] I told the story about calling him, which is exactly what the artist does,” Fish said.

Gray often writes and performs pieces that are stories of his own life. One of Gray’s more famous pieces is the work titled “Swimming to Cambodia,” which is Gray’s account of working on the film “The Killing Fields.”

A fitting piece, considering NIU’s recent production of “The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk,” a play about Cambodia.

Since Fish’s encounter with Gray, he also contacted the general manager of Second City, an improvisational group in Chicago.

“I’m building my list of things done, touching the coat tails of fame,” Fish said.