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Spalding Gray's life as told by…Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.

Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.

The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.

The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.

The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage.  Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage. Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

Scholar explores vaudeville circuits and regional architecture

By Paula Lupkin

Paula Lupkin, a professor in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, recently spent time as a fellow working in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection at the Ransom Center. Her research yielded some surprises and insights into the regional vaudeville circuits in the Southwest, which she shares here.

When I arrived at the Ransom Center to take up the Mayer Filmscript Fellowship, my intention was simple: to learn as much as possible about the design and use of the fabulous vaudeville theaters designed by architect John Eberson for the Interstate Amusement Company in Texas. These theaters are an important component in my study of regional architecture in the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many of them are no longer extant, and it was essential to find period photography and documentation of the buildings themselves. The Center is home to the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection, which has the most complete photographic record of the theaters, as well as accounts of their planning, construction, programming, and management. Right away I found wonderful pictures, theater programs, and company records that suggested how and why the buildings looked as they did. Through these materials I learned a great deal about these fantastical structures, which included themed interiors, starlit skies, luxurious lounges, and even child care centers.

To an architectural historian, these archival sources were rich indeed, but they were not the greatest treasure I found during my fellowship month. After about a week, I came across something that transformed and enriched the way I think about those theaters: a 1912 program for Interstate’s southwestern vaudeville circuit.

Of course I knew about circuits before I saw this pamphlet. From the first day in the archives, the company’s business records made it clear that the theater buildings were only one part of Interstate’s system of delivering talent to the public in a profitable and efficient way. The company assembled talent into programs of entertainment, known as “bills,” and then sent the acts on a railroad journey from theater to theater. Some were the elaborate venues designed by Eberson, but equally important were the smaller towns and more modest opera houses that allowed performers to travel profitably the long distances between places in this region, with regularly spaced “jumps” between gigs. The circuit was an experience designed from a business perspective to make efficient use of the existing rail lines to offer as many shows as possible on consecutive nights.

With this basic knowledge of the vaudeville circuit, I began to see that Interstate’s theaters were more than a regional group of buildings linked by a common architect and ownership; they served as a series of nodes within an entertainment transportation system. Interstate’s building activity was not restricted to theaters; the company was constructing patterns and systems of movement along the Illinois Central, the Frisco, the KATY, and the Missouri Pacific Railroads.

The 1912 pamphlet I found crystallized and confirmed this rereading of the history of theatrical architecture. This clever piece of ephemera presented Interstate and its southwestern vaudeville circuit in the guise of a railroad system. The red cover introduced “The Interstate Line” as “the Route of Superior Attractions.” As was typical in railway literature of the time, the name of the president and local agents of both the national and local officials of the company are listed in the brochure. The “railway” president was the company president, Karl Hoblitzelle. The “traffic manager” is listed as Cecilia Bloom, the company’s booking agent. For each city on the circuit, the local theater manager is listed as the “city passenger agent.” The week’s entertainment bill is presented as a special train, “The Interstate Flyer,” which leaves from Chicago and runs in seven sections (acts) to Fort Worth, and then on to the rest of the cities on the circuit.

With this pamphlet in hand, as it became clear to me that the Interstate Company envisioned itself not as a series of theaters, but an infrastructural system and a space-time experience that united performers and audiences across the southwest. Actors traversed the territory in a series of rail cars, dressing rooms, hotels, and restaurants, playing to urban audiences in theaters in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, and Birmingham. The performers and audiences were linked together, defining a regional entertainment landscape.

My newfound understanding of the theaters as part of the railroad-based geography of the vaudeville circuit fits very well into my developing project, “The Great Southwest: Trade, Territory, and Regional Architecture.” Most studies of regional architecture focus on formal and material similarities between buildings in a particular location. My project moves away from style and suggests instead that regional architectural patterns are formed by banking, commerce, and transportation networks. Looking at the triangular strip of land between St. Louis and Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I map financial and architectural connections between buildings and sites along the conduits of the railway lines.

What I found in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection helped me understand that these buildings are regional not on the basis of their appearance, but as elements of a regional entertainment system: like beads strung along a necklace. The “Interstate Line” brochure encapsulated that in a series of images, confirming that my own way of understanding the theaters was shared by the company itself, and no doubt by the vaudeville performers themselves, whose lives and experiences were defined by movement from theater to theater on the spine of the railroad system.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Remembering P. T. Barnum’s pre-circus career on his birthday

By Lisa Pulsifer

July 5, 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of P. T. (Phineas Taylor) Barnum, famed circus showman, museum proprietor, lecturer, author, and one-time mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Barnum loved that his birthday followed the July 4 holiday, and in his first autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1855), he wrote, “Independence Day had gone by, the cannons had ceased to thunder forth their remembrances of our National Anniversary, the smoke had all cleared away, the drums had finished their rattle, and when peace and quiet were restored, I made my début.” Such theatrical prose was typical of the man who entertained the American public for nearly 80 years.

While many associate P. T. Barnum with the circus, a unique framed composite grouping of 42 cabinet cards from the Albert Davis collection of theater memorabilia showcases Barnum’s American Museum. Collector Albert Davis (1865–1942) compiled the piece in the early twentieth century.

Barnum opened his American Museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann streets in New York City in 1841. Over the course of 24 years, he amassed a collection of more than 850,000 items, only to see his vision burned to the ground. The engraving in the center of Davis’s composite shows Barnum’s museum engulfed in flames on July 13, 1865. Undeterred, Barnum reopened at a new location on Broadway and Canal streets just eight weeks later with a new collection of 100,000 items. When his second location burned to the ground in 1868, he moved away from his museum career to a new calling with the circus.

Barnum offered many of the same exhibitions in the circus as he did in his museums, including displays of wax figures, animals (both dead and alive), and human platform performers, referred to at the time as “freaks.”

Platform performers typically lived on the top floor of the museum and performed, on average, 10 to 15 times per day. Their salaries ranged between $25 and $500 per week, depending on their talents, but they also had an opportunity to make an additional income selling souvenirs such as the cabinet cards seen in this composite, though the profits were split between the museum and the performer.

Curiously, given the central image of the museum, only a few of the performers seen in these cabinet cards were actually associated with Barnum’s American Museum. Most notably we see the picture of Zip the Original What Is It? directly above the engraving of the museum, and the photograph of Tom Thumb’s Carriage in the right column. Both Zip and Tom Thumb were among Barnum’s most famous exhibitions.

Others performers that Davis identified in the group, including Lallo (actually Lalloo), Francis Letini, Farini’s Earth Men, Myrtle Corbin, the Original Pin Cushion Man, the Pedal Musician, and the Oriental Twins, did not work at Barnum’s museum. In fact, some of these performers were not even born when the museums were open. Davis’s composite, though somewhat misleading, is an apt tribute to the history of popular entertainment and a reminder of the importance of Barnum’s Museum as a predecessor to the circus.

A small case of materials from this collection is on display outside the reading room on the second floor of the Ransom Center this month.

Learn more about the performing arts collection at the Ransom Center.

 

Click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Playwright Terrence McNally's connections

By Alicia Dietrich

Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally is a frequent focus of theater news these days. This summer he completed a workshop production of his new drama, Unusual Acts of Devotion, at the La Jolla Playhouse, that starred Richard Thomas and Doris Roberts. His latest musical—a stage version of Catch Me If You Can, originally a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—just closed in a workshop production in Seattle and will move to Broadway sometime in 2010. McNally will also be represented on Broadway this season by revivals of his musical Ragtime and his dramedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In March, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is mounting a mini-festival of his work titled “Three Nights at the Opera with Terrence McNally” that will include productions of his The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, and will feature a newly commissioned play focused on the opening night performance of Bellini’s I Puritani that will be titled The Golden Age.

McNally has thus far made three gifts of his papers to the Ransom Center, and researcher Raymond-Jean Frontain recently wrote an article about his work with the Ransom Center’s McNally papers. Frontain is a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas, where he focuses on seventeenth-century literature.

So how does a specialist in seventeenth-century devotional literature find his way from the religious lyrics of John Donne to the work of contemporary playwright McNally?

“In 1993, I caught the Broadway production of A Perfect Ganesh with Frances Sternhagen, which was one of the most luminous performances that I had experienced in a long while,” Frontain explains. “The actor led me to the play. I’ve been exploring the religious bases of McNally’s drama ever since.”

Read Frontain’s article “Terrence McNally’s Connections,” in which he explores McNally’s relationship with John Steinbeck, Angela Lansbury, and others.