StageStruck: Swimming the Undercurrents

Seven years ago this month, Spalding Gray, who revolutionized the monologue form with Swimming to Cambodia and other intensely personal performance pieces, and who had suffered from depression all his life, stepped off the Staten Island ferry into the waters of New York Harbor—swimming, so to speak, to eternity.

Four years ago this summer, Lian Amaris, a 2002 graduate of the UMass Theater Department and up-and-coming New York performance artist, began work on a piece that would parallel Gray’s signature work. Swimming to Spalding, which she performs at her alma mater this weekend, is a personal statement of her own as well as an homage to an artist she revered. As her director, Richard Schechner, has said, the piece reveals “undercurrents” that connect the two artists.

As Gray’s monologue reflected, in part, on the consequences of the Vietnam War and the destruction of Cambodia by American bombers and Khmer Rouge thugs, Amaris wanted to address the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Swimming to Cambodia was premised on Gray’s experience as a bit player in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, Amaris retraced his journey through Thailand, where the film was shot, reliving some of his experiences and seeking, as he did, a “perfect moment.”

Like Gray, who performed his witty/ironic monologues seated at a table with a glass of water and a notebook, in Swimming to Spalding Amaris sits at a table with water glass and notebook, though she also jumps up on the table and at one point drenches herself with the water. And the “swimming” connections come full circle in Schechner, who directed several of Gray’s monologues.

Amaris traces the roots of this performance back to her time at UMass. Her Theater Department advisor, Julian Olf, had been a student of Schechner’s, and she was introduced to Gray’s work there. As she recounts in her piece, “When I was 18, a freshman theater major at UMass-Amherst, several friends and I were doing a project on ‘performance art’ for our Introduction to Theater course. As part of our research we all sat around a tiny dorm room … and watched Swimming to Cambodia. A few days later we found out that the man in the movie was coming to our town to do one of his monologues at the [Jones] library.”

She recalls that she was “amazed by the simplicity of the work: one man sitting at a table, telling a story. That image was burned into me” and helped shape her own one-person artistry. Amaris’s past work has been inspired by Gray’s minimalism, but expressed in quite different ways. Her previous show, Fashionably Late for the Relationship, was a performance-art installation in which she spent three days living in a Victorian boudoir on a traffic island in New York’s Union Square.

As Spalding Gray used his extended soliloquies to examine the world around him through the lens of his own experience, Lian Amaris explores the human stories she encountered on her pilgrimage in Spalding’s steps, including those of three soldiers involved in America’s current conflicts. “What started out as an experiment with storytelling,” she says, “turned into a self-conscious critique of the human effects of war.”

Swimming to Spalding: Jan. 29-30, Curtain Theater, Fine Arts Center, UMass-Amherst, (413) 545-2511, 800-999-UMAS or

Author: Chris Rohmann

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