In the last few years, Spalding Gray's explicitly autobiographical work has placed him in the forefront of contemporary experimental theater -- though he is little known, and rarely performs, outside New York. India & After (America), which Gray will present Saturday, March 15, at the Boston Film/Video Foundation, is one of a series of monologues called 3 x Gray -- the others are Sex and Death to the Age 14 and Booze, Cars, and College girls -- which simply recount incidents from various stages of his life, a life unusual only in its having been so thoroughly examined. These monologues grew out of a trilogy of more elaborate but equally personal theater pieces called Three Places in Rhode Island, created over a period of four years in collaboration with director Elizabeth LeCompte and a company of actors who, like Gray and LeCompte, are veterans of Richard Schechner's Performance Group. Like 3 x Gray, Three Places surveys Gray's childhood, adolescence, and maturity, focusing on vivid and often comic details, both mundane and profound -- the most profound being those relating to his mother's suicide in 1967. In each of these pieces, Gray serves as both the actor and the material, dealing directly and overtly with the kind of autobiographical concerns that even related avant-garde artists like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, and Richard Foreman feel compelled to disguise or make oblique. "This is as big and important a current in the art of acting as was the development of motivational technique, and the notion of the Brechtian or 'epic' performance," Lee Breuer, director of the experimental theater troupe Mabou Mines, has declared. "In other words, this is the third new idea about acting in this century."

Gray acknowledges that the impulse for his personal theater came from his work with Schechner. Schechner propounded a theory of acting in which the performer remains himself or herself at all times, while doing  series of actions associated with a character -- instead of becoming the character. Schechner's equal emphasis on text and actor made him unpopular with playwrights and critics, but many actors, including Gray, found the approach liberating. Ironically, this freedom led Gray to question the idea of playing a role -- a fictional character -- at all. Stepping away from the Performance Group, he began experimenting with a process of free association, using props and improvising with other actors, which led to the creation of Sakonnet Point, an almost wordless evocation of his childhood, which became the first section of Three Places in Rhode Island. Gray found that by incorporating the reactions of the other actors, and by allowing LeCompte to edit the work and provide a visual framework for it, he was able to transform personal material into art without descending into self-indulgent confessionalism. The Gray-LeCompte trilogy began as an experiment. But its careful exploration of volatile emotional issues (suicide, madness, religion, family, art) and its imaginative use of film, dance, music, child actors, and non-linear texts made it one of the most impressive and innovative theater events of the '70s.

Just as Gray left Schechner's Performance Group because he felt uncomfortable playing roles, he switched from collaborating to performing solo in an effort to be "more expressive" -- though this step didn't present itself automatically. "When I was in Santa Cruz teaching at the University of California in the summer of 1978," said Gray when I spoke to him recently at the Soho loft he shares with LeCompte, "I took a course in the philosophy of emotions with a woman from Princeton. We became very close and took long walks and talked often about my work. I'd done these very personal pieces, and I didn't know where to go next; plus I had this chronic feeling of impending nuclear destruction. She suggested the way to deal with my doomsday feelings was to remember that the most creative people who were still operating when Rome was going under were the chroniclers. That rang a lot of bells in me. I wanted to chronicle what I deeply felt was the decline of the white middle-class world as we'd know it. To write it down would be presuming there was a history that would survive on the printed page, so I wanted to do something immediate. I thought I'd take a period of my life and recount it as simply as possible before an audience. That's how Sex and Death to the Age 14 began.

"I began to realize," Gray continued, "that I was questioning the whole reason for metaphor in my life. We worked so heavily on metaphor in Three Places to somehow uplift the work and take it beyond the self-indulgent state, to make it into Art. But what would happen if I simply reported a series of events that I remembered? So I sat down and did this thing, and it was about 45 minutes long. Each night new material would come to me through memory, through my imaginative film of the past, through free association -- this was, of course, the psychoanalytic process. I'd been interested in psychoanalysis for years, in the idea that one is simply reconstructing the puzzle of one's life in front of another person, and that person gives one permission to verbally recreate a whole new world and to accept that world. But I trusted the performance process more because I had a community of people -- anywhere from 30 to 150 -- to share the experience rather than one psychoanalyst. Actually, it was reverse psychoanalysis: the audience would be my witness and pay."

The way Gray vacillates between professorial earnestness and deadpan humor is charming, and charm is an incalculably valuable dynamic in his performance. In Sex and Death and Booze, etc., for example, Gray sits down behind a small desk and begins to spin out a series of off-handed anecdotes, skipping from one to the next without regard for chronology or coherence. His manner is composed and friendly; he knows what might be funny but doesn't lean on one-liners or overplay big scenes. His unfaltering matter-of-factness makes him an expert raconteur; the individual stories may seem roundabout and unrelated, but when he's done, Gray has mapped out, with surprisingly clarity, an entire personal landscape. His reminiscences of funerals for pets and his mother's method of scrubbing his infant foreskin or his tales of borderline-alcoholic antics make these pieces memorable and frequently uproarious, almost too uproarious to suit Gray. "A funny thing happened after a while, which I am still conflicted about. The performer in me took over and began to edit and play these pieces. I felt I was pandering to the audience; I'd learned to manipulate their responses. At this point I'd rather print them up and publish them rather than do them over and over."

India & After (America) is quite different from the other two monologues in form, content, and relationship to the audience. It deals not with the halcyon days of youth but with the period during which Gray traveled to India with the Performance Group, stayed on to study with a guru, returned to the States, and suffered a nervous breakdown partly induced by a previously-undiagnosed hypoglycemia. Most intriguingly, Gray's recollections are structured from the outside; an actress named Meghan Ellenberger sits nearby, picks words at random out of a dictionary, and gives Gray a time limit within which to free associate. "I found with Sex and Death that, because of the distance on that age, the memory came in cut-up time. But I couldn't figure out how to get India & After into that form. When I first did it, it was one long boring travelogue -- boring for me -- with all these psychological bridges: 'I did this because that; in case you didn't know what this is, it's that.' Too many footnotes. I knew I had to break it up somehow, and when I tried the dictionary thing, it became this huge puzzle finally put together by dovetailing of time and place and story. One story would be cut off by the time limitation, and the audience would go, 'Ohhh' -- it'd be like a cliffhanger. As the time went on, the pieces would begin to come together in the audience's head...That's the most interesting piece for me now because of the chance element. I don't know what's going to come out each time, so I can play it over and over. It's like throwing the I Ching."

For the foreseeable future, Gray (who is 38) plans to continue his public autobiography. One upcoming project, called A Personal History of the American Theater, is a running commentary on all the plays Gray has been in since he graduated from Emerson College; they range hilariously from the Open Theater's Terminal to a summer stock Under the Yum Yum Tree. Some reviewers have speculated that such intensely personal work may damage Gray by making it impossible for him to relate intimately except with a crowd. I mentioned this to him and jokingly imagined an audience hovering over his loft to watch him eat dinner or make love. "That's an idea for another piece that I haven't gotten to yet," he said quite seriously, gesturing to indicate a tentative arrangement. "I would have 20 people at this end, and I would go through what I do in the course of a morning, juxtaposed with some tapes of my father talking about what he does." What, I wondered, would this mean? "What energizes my life and my performance," he explained, "is that certain memories need to be told over and over until they don't need to be told anymore. If I'm out in New York City in the course of a day, I've got to find somebody -- Liz or someone -- to come back and report certain incidents to. If I don't report them, I feel stifled and claustrophobic and neurotic. Beyond that, I don't analyze it. The need is to tell a story. The audience perceives that need."

Exposing one's life so relentlessly in the theater might be assumed to reflect a monstrous egotism, but Gray seems more self-effacing than self-obsessed. "I don't have a strong concept of self," he admitted. "I do feel myself to be an onion. I keep peeling and peeling. One thing I realized is that I was an actor before I chose to be an actor. I was always circling around the outside, and that kind of 'I alone have escaped to tell you' became my signature as an actor. I think it comes out of my terrific fear of death. I'm trying to create my own world in which I am dying all the time and returning from the dead for the Last Judgment. All Christians have this fantasy that the supreme moment will be that last judgment with God. When I gave up the idea of religion, I had to make my audience God, and the last judgment becomes all the time."

Boston Phoenix, March 1980