Magazine article American Theatre

Andre Gregory Sees the Light: At 70, He's Hitching His Lifelong Quest for Insight and Illumination to Theatre for the Few

Magazine article American Theatre

Andre Gregory Sees the Light: At 70, He's Hitching His Lifelong Quest for Insight and Illumination to Theatre for the Few

Article excerpt

In winter when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight.
--Humpty Dumpty, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Walk through any museum. There's a retrospective for a major contemporary artist: Life and work spread out before your eyes, wall after wall, room after room. You can see the influences in the early painting, the way the style morphs from cubism to collage. You can see the moment the artist stumbles onto a subject that will define her career. You might locate a moment where the influences are suddenly submerged, where that artist's "voice" becomes his own. Then come the experiments of midlife and, just maybe, in late life, something wholly new.

Where is the museum for theatre artists? How do you display the ephemera of this art? How do you sum up periods in an artistic life, in a form where so little of the work remains? If I were the curator of such a museum, I would reserve, in a central spot, a series of small rooms for a major--and singularly marginal--director (sometimes actor, and recent playwright) whose work has defined for me the possibilities of an ideal theatre, whose commitment to process sets an unattainable standard for my own, whose productions have been seen at intervals of many years by only handfuls of people. The exhibit, celebrating an American master named Andre Gregory, would be called, after a book Gregory himself has never read, "Great Reckonings in Little Rooms."

"To describe Andre's contribution gets into something which is enormously intangible," suggests Wallace Shawn, the playwright and actor who has for more than 30 years served as Gregory's double, one half (hard to say which) of their Jekyll-and-Hyde team, their Laurel-and-Hardy act. "His genius lies in the area of psychological truth, which is intangible. Robert Wilson is another theatre genius of our time, for example. If anybody asks you what's so special about Robert Wilson, you can open a book and show three photographs of a stage that Bob Wilson has filled with the product of his imagination. Andre's greatest accomplishments are really in the realm of human insight and psychological truth--and truth is notoriously hard to define."

Life and work, a blurry distinction for most artists, is particularly murky for Gregory, whose spiritual searchings are the subject of My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 film he co-wrote and stars in with Shawn. He socializes mostly with his longtime collaborators, including actors Larry Pine and Gerry Bamman, with whom he is currently working on Endgame. Thirty years after they mounted a full production of this Beckett play, they are at it again; two years into rehearsal--including for audiences last October at Provincetown Repertory Theater in Massachusetts--they have what Gregory calls "a sketch." (They will bring it to the Chinati Foundation next month, a contemporary art museum in Marfa, Tex., founded by sculptor Donald Judd.) Louis Malle's 1994 movie, Vanya on 42nd Street, which documents Gregory's production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, captures the bleeding of life and art from the opening shot. Gregory and the actors walk, singly and together, along Manhattan's 42nd Street toward the theatre; they mill with the invited audience before two of the chatting actors, still in their street clothes, simply begin Scene 1, amid the very real ruins of a not-yet-renovated Victory Theatre. This month at Los Angeles's Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), Gregory will, in addition to screening Andre and Vanya, read from his play-in-progress, Bone Songs, which is, in its bones, a passionate conversation with his late wife, Chiquita, across two worlds: "afterwife" to afterlife.

While Gregory has never comfortably swum in the mainstream, he's witnessed and participated in all but a few of the major theatrical currents of the past half-century, in and just out of the theatre. He's left his mark everywhere he's gone. From his beginnings at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio, he discovered the Berliner Ensemble. …

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