“What was the last thing that made you go, wow?” asked Garrison Keillor, the smooth-voiced host of A Prairie Home Companion, of a group of 1,400 at The Moth at Town Hall last week during a celebration of stories and storytellers.
Over the course of the night, Keillor and the event’s five other performers proceeded to answer that question. Naturally, some responses weren’t suitable for publication—particularly Keillor’s—but Elna Baker’s moment came when a friend suggested she look at porn on the Internet. Her first thought was, “Oh wow, you can find it there!” And Tina McElroy Ansa felt a wonderful wave of surprise the day she lay back on her hotel bed and saw a star motif on her ceiling (her story for the evening involved a star).
As Keillor, Baker, Ansa, Mike Birbiglia and Jonathan Ames took to the stage, I found myself contemplating my last “Wow!” moment.
As it happened, it had occurred just a few weeks ago at The Public Theatre on Lafayette, where I was seeing Mike Daisey’s new one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” played at a heart-popping level as the audience shuffled into the small theater. As I made my way to my seat, I passed the small stage with its two props: a glass of water and a desk. Those two everyday items, in that context, were what prompted my “Wow.”
Those were the favored props my stepfather, Spalding Gray, used when he performed. When I was growing up, my family and I spent countless hours watching him rehearse, tech and perform his monologues, until what had seemed to us at the time to be trivial moments in a day were spun into a beautiful story of humor, heartbreak and love.
Seven years have passed since Spalding died, though his influence on Downtown theater and performers remains powerful. At the Moth event, my mother was presented with the 2011 Moth Award, granted posthumously to Spalding for his “life and work.” Ames, who was influenced by him and has known our family for a few years, told a series of recollections about his encounters with my stepfather: meeting him at a party, hoping he would see Ames’ show at P.S. 122.
Ames ended with a story I found touching, a memory from when he was acting in a play of Spalding’s work that my mom co-directed with Lucy Sexton. The piece closed with video footage of Spalding dancing across the stage during his monologue “Morning, Noon and Night,” and Ames said the play’s cast was in tears every time it played.
As time has passed, Spalding’s absence has grown less visceral for me, but there are still times I am walloped by a familiar scent, an object or just a glass of water on a stage. That’s when my memories of him are more palpable. That night at The Public, I was reminded of how he would quietly walk on stage, take a sip of water, purse his lips and only then launch into his story, for an audience of tens or hundreds or thousands. Each gesture is cataloged in my brain.
My “Wow” moment at The Public and the Moth event left me more convinced than ever that there are still countless Spalding stories to be told. Now, however, it’s those who loved and knew him who must do the telling.
Last week, photographer Scot Surbeck caught volunteers charging batteries to supply electrical power for the kitchen and media tent at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. Surbeck’s work can be found on his website, cityclickr.net.
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