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Swimming to Spalding: From Concept to Stage

Department of Theater alumna Lián Amaris writes about the process of conceiving and producing her acclaimed 70-minute monologue inspired by Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia.

Swimming to Spalding: From Concept to Stage — page contents

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  1. Creating Swimming to Spalding
  2. Slideshow: The journey
  3. About Lián Amaris
  4. For more information— links

Creating Swimming to Spalding

In the summer of 2007, I spent 72 hours living and performing in a Victorian boudoir I designed and installed on a traffic island in Union Square. Fashionably Late for the Relationship was a collaboration with video artist R. Luke Dubois and earned us considerable press as it was covered extensively by the New York Times and other media. A few days after closing Fash (as we called it), I had coffee with world-famous director (and my former NYU professor) Richard Schechner and he told me that the next project had to be something completely different than Fash. He explained that everyone would be wanting another long-form, visually stunning, extreme performance art installation, and he warned against trying to do something similar a second time. A few days later, I approached Richard with my next idea: a monologue. A simple monologue in the style of Spalding Gray. I knew that Richard had directed Gray in six productions in the 60s and 70s and I asked him to direct me in this next project.

I trace this project back to my time at the UMass Department of Theater for several reasons. Professor Julian Olf, my mentor and advisor, was the person who directed me toward the Performance Studies Department at NYU, where I would eventually meet Richard, who was Julian’s former professor, For some reason I stood out to Richard when I took his directing course, and we maintained a close relationship throughout my career. Over the years, Richard attended four different shows of mine in New York City.

Additionally, it was in Julian’s Theater 120 class that I first learned of Spalding Gray:  

When I was 18, a freshman theater major at UMass Amherst, several friends and I were doing aproject on “performance art” for our introduction to theater course.  As part of our research we all sat around a tiny dorm room plastered with posters of Clockwork  Orange and Trainspotting and together we watched [Spalding Gray’s] 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 public library.  (excerpt from Swimming to Spalding)

I went to see Spalding at the Jones Library in the center of Amherst and was amazed by the simplicity of the work: one man sitting at a table, telling a story.  That image was burned into me from the very moment Gray began to speak.  When Richard suggested that my next project be something completely different than anything I had done before, I knew I had to return to Spalding.

The premise behind Swimming to Cambodia was Spalding’s role in the movie, The Killing Fields, which he used to talk about U.S. occupation and the war in Cambodia.  Interspersed throughout his script were Spalding’s commentaries on conversations he had with strangers, neighbors and other actors working on the film with him and his continuous search for the “perfect moment.”  I knew that I wanted to find a way to update the political poignancy of Spalding’s history lesson on U.S. occupation by addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I would follow the same dramaturgical arc as Spalding did.  So, nearly a year after I first pitched the idea to Richard, I went to Thailand, accompanied by my friend and collaborator Erin Wood, and I followed Spalding’s path through Bangkok and Phuket.  I had no idea what would happen; I just knew I would go where Spalding went and I would see what I could make from it.           

After my return, I noticed themes that began in Thailand were reverberating and echoing; different voices were telling converging stories.  As I wrote, I found that my script for Swimming to Spalding was often making contact with Swimming to Cambodia in ways I didn’t expect. Structurally, I use a similar dramaturgical arc, beginning with smoking a “Thai Stick,” winding my way toward my “perfect moment,” and ending with a loop back to where I began.  The political consciousness of the play developed clearly as I recounted the stories of three soldiers I met over the course of the year and a half I was working on the script.  What started out as an experiment with storytelling turned into a self-conscious critique of the human effects of war.  By the time the script was done, Richard and I were ready to begin our three-month rehearsal period (September 2009-November 2009). 

Rehearsals were difficult — three hours a night, often just me, Richard, and Joy Brooke Fairfield, the assistant director.  We painstakingly crafted a physical language for the script: recurring hand gestures, simple body positions to denote character shifts, foot placement, when to take a sip of water.  I struggled with memorization and Richard’s constantly changing stage directions.  But by December 3rd, we had a fully crafted world of which we were extremely proud.  The show ran for three weeks at HERE Arts Center in New York City, and by the end of the run we had the accolades of The New York Times, Backstage, and dozens of artists and scholars who knew Spalding Gray’s work intimately.   Swimming to Spalding has already been invited to several colleges, universities and cultural institutions, both national and international. 

I recognize the exceptional nature of my experience at UMass Theater.  As a tired student, I begrudged my shop hours and Theater 110 requirements, but I know now that I am exceedingly more useful to my designers having had those experiences.  The dramaturgy requirements not only made me an informed theater artist, but also gave me a larger historical context for the cultural zeitgeist of the time.  The large groups of auditions and call-backs meant that if you were cast in a show, you were really something.  The school-wide general education requirements continue to inform my artwork — from women’s studies to political science to microbiology to entomology.  The individual support of my professors, like Julian, Harley Erdman, and Priscilla Page meant that though I was in a large department, I never felt like a number—if anything, it meant that recognition was well earned.  And of course, the network of gifted UMass alumni means that I will always be able to find someone to work with, most notably my long-time collaborators Erin Wood and Thomas Naughton, Justin McClintock (electrician for Swimming to Spalding) and Melissa Mizell (lighting designer for Swimming to Spalding).

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Slideshow: The Journey

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Publicity and rehearsal photos for Swimming to Spalding. Courtesy of Lián Amaris.

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About Lián Amaris

Lián Amaris has performed at a number of internationally recognized spaces for experimental theater including Performance Space 122, HERE Arts Center and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Her 2007 72-hour performance art event with R. Luke DuBois, Fashionably Late for the Relationship (covered by The New York Times, The New York Post, Reuters, Allure Magazine, and The Denver Post), has been presented in film and installation form at the San Jose Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, and several national festivals. Amaris has Master's degrees from New York University in Performance Studies and Interactive Telecommunications, and a BA in theater from UMass at Amherst.  She has published four research articles in peer-reviewed, top-ranked academic journals, has published several articles for edited books and has presented research papers at nine international conferences.  Recent favorite directing credits include Ellen McLaughlin's The Trojan Women, Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis and Kafka's Shortest Works, a staging of 10 stories by Franz Kafka. Amaris is the Artistic Director of Vector Art Ensemble, with co-founder Thomas Naughton.

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For more information: links

Find out more about both of my theater pieces by checking out The New York Times article about Fashionably Late to the Relationship and their review of Swimming to Spalding. Backstage also reviewed Swimming to Spalding.

You can also visit my personal website and the Swimming to Spalding website for information about these and other exciting projects.

The film of the previous project alluded to in Lián 's story, Fashionably Late to the Relationship is also available online, as is a radio interview with Lián about the making of Swimming to Spalding and her thoughts about storytelling.

You can also watch an excerpt of the film that started it all, Swimming to Cambodia with Spalding Gray, online here.

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