Questioning, Searching

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After various odysseys, taking him to Poland, the Sahara, and Tibet, as well as other, nongeographical precincts, Gregory teamed up with friend and playwright Wallace Shawn and director Louis Malle to make My Dinner With Andre - an intriguing and sensitive full-length film that is almost entirely a conversation between Gregory and Shawn at a New York restaurant. Because so many thoughtful new-old questions about life in the modern era are raised during the course of the conversation, the movie, like so much of Gregory's art, is considered a brilliant breakthrough in imaginative communication. It has been influential from one end of the United States to the other. Home Forum staff member Robert Marquand, Jr. recently spoke with Gregory - a friendly, open man with a finely featured, storybook face - as they sat on the floor of the spacious front room of his sunny Manhattan apartment.

Questioning the theater is one of your consistent themes. In Poland, for example, you wanted to work only with actors who were questioning the theater. What does questioning mean to you? And what does ''theater''?

The word theater means a place of seeingm. The real meaning of the word acting is not pretending - it's action. What is unique about the theater is that you see the human being alive. The job of the theater is to be able to constantly perceive reality as it is, which is a very hard thing in this world, because reality now changes so fast, and for the actor to embody the reality of the human being in this period of time in a play which reflects the period we live in demands every insight and prayer.

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A danger in the theater, as with all art, is that art can very often start being only about art. The theater's about life. I've had to leave the theater because this hasn't been clear enough. I went on a prolonged search. Then I came back. Since then, I've done many things - coached a French rock star; danced for Twyla Tharp. Now I've made a movie.

So often to really make theater you have to leave the theater to come back reinformed.

You've written about ''My Dinner With Andre'' that when the idea was presented ''it immediately struck [you] that the most necessary and appropriate piece one could possibly do at this particular moment in history would be a piece about two friends sitting and talking to each other.'' Why necessary and appropriate? Why at this particular point?

One of the initial impulses for the movie is that Wally and I were struck by the fact that we found nobody talked about anything anymore that came from the heart, that was felt. We sensed that most conversation had become automatic, that people were simply living out their personam publicly. And that there was no real communication going on. As a result we were collectively going into a kind of psychological ice age - becoming so blocked that positive action was becoming impossible. Because in order to have positive action you have to communicate: you have to think and feel.

When social intercourse becomes deadly and boring and unlife-enhancing - as it is becoming - then what happens is that humanity starts to become atrophied.

With rare exceptions, theater hasn't asked itself the question, How are we affecting, unconsciously or consciously, the psyche of the human being? Today, when there is so much fear in the world - fear of economic collapse, global destruction, war - if you're contributing unconsciously to the panic, the fear, or the violence, or, if you're doing something that is completely arbitrary, you are then creating a kind of psychic pollution which makes people more desperate, confused, and lonely than they are already.

In other words, if the society is troubled or uncertain, and all you're doing is mirroring society, you're just reinforcing negativity? Is that the current trend?

Exactly. Take a movie like Pink Floydm or any of the Brian DePalma movies. An outrageous movie for me was Pennies From Heavenm. I really wanted to scream, because just everything was wrong. And take television, for example. I had a big disagreement with one of the heads of ABC News. I asked him if he didn't have any awareness of what the evening news was dumping into the collective thought before it went to sleep at night.

He said that's easy for you to say because you live at a nice address. This is reality; this is the world, he said. I said I justm don't agree with you. Yes, there are assaults and rapes but what about the person who saves the child - it never gets reported.

Reminds me of something Malcolm Muggeridge once said. Muggeridge felt that if he were a reporter at the time of Jesus' birth he was certain he would have been covering the big stories in the Roman Court, or interviewing the leaders of the Sanhedrin and would have completely missed out on the one story that has endured - the birth at Bethlehem!

In a way, that's a funny thing, because our movie certainly tells you about pain, despair, and even madness and yet at the same time, it tells you about the beautiful garden community at Findhorn. It tells you about the little Bethlehems that may be around. It's spreading some good news, as well as the other stuff. But even more, dealing with these issues - transforming them into life and light. I think that if there's one major task of art today, I think it's healing. I think that is the major, major task, to heal.

How does the artist become a healer?

If it gets into the question of healing, I should say that I don't really believe that great works are created by great geniuses. I cannot really believe that Wally and I alone created My Dinner With Andrem. I think of the healing artist more as somebody who's got an antenna which is his own self. And his job is to constantly tinker with this antenna, to make sure that it's in the best possible shape. You have to keep it clean, polish it, make sure that the little wheels are oiled. Then you just pray that the light is going to come, that from somewhere in this cosmos a message will be received. When I say praym - pray that the light will come - what does prayer mean? For me, prayer is actively waiting. That's what being an artist is for me. I used to think it was just me as a creator, but I don't anymore.

When I see a movie like our movie, reaching farmers, coal miners, blue collar workers, blacks, playing in small villages all across the country, I cannot believe that that is just Andre Gregory and Wally Shawn.

The imagination plays an important role here, doesn't it?

Yes, and particularly when you begin talking about audience response. In our movie, instead of the camera showing you the Sahara, the Montauk burial scene, the forest in Poland, or Tibet, you have to imagine them. If you can't, or won't , then you have to leave. It would just be too boring. This film is not a conversation. It's an activization of the ability to imagine. There are actually two hundred and eighty four characters in the movie. It's larger than Redsm or Dr. Zhivagom! You see, you imagine the forty people in the Polish forest, you imagine Grotowski the director, and the Buddhist monk. You imagine them in a way that is more marvelous than the camera could ever show you, because you'rem doing it. If the camera showed you the Japanese monk, that's just one Japanese. But yourm Japanese monk is going to be something very special.

In activating the imagination, the purpose is actually to bring the viewer to life. In that sense, it heals too.

It unfreezes something that is already there?

Right. Unfreezing feeling takes you into the unknown. Richard Baker Rochi says that in Buddhism there are five fears - all of which have to do with going into the unknown. When you start the imaginative process, you are going into the unknown if you really let yourself go with it. You don't know where you're going to be next. That's what's fun about it. A lot of people have forgotten that it's fun.

Your career as an artist has been extremely diverse and always very fresh. On occasion you have attributed this to the ''White Rabbit'' in you. What is this White Rabbit?

That's an interesting question, because I see myself as both the White Rabbit andm Alice at the beginning of Alice in Wonderlandm, in the sense that if Alice sees a white rabbit saying, ''Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!'' and going down a hole, she will, almost without thinking, impetuously follow and go with it.

I think part of the reason I've been controversial in the theater as an artist is that nobody ever knows what to expect from me next. Generally whatever I do next seems to have no relationship to what I did last. There are theater directors, like Richard Foreman or Robert Wilson or Joe Chapin, who are wonderful directors and you could walk into a performance of theirs without knowing who directed these productions and yet know it was their work, just as you always know a Fellini or a Bergman or an Antonnini movie.

Then there are directors like Louis Malle. You would never know the same man who did Pretty Babym, also did La Calme du Sien, Murmur of the Heart, My Dinner With Andrem and Atlantic Citym.

How or where do you find the point at which Alice and the White Rabbit find each other? How do you know when to go down the rabbit hole?

It's like fishing. You put this little piece of bait on the hook and you throw it out and you wait. Maybe nothing bites, or maybe you get a little fish, but it's not really a little fish for eating, so you throw the fish back in the water, and you wait some more. If you wait long enough . . . and the tides are right . . . and the bait is correct . . . and you're a good fisherman . . . suddenly you'll hook the big one.

Patience, then, is one of the most necessary qualities of a good fisherman . . . or artist.

That's right. Patience, and staying alert. There's something that I do which is kind of odd. I just go with wherever my instinct takes me. I'm not sure how many artists do this. I didn't always do it myself. The reason I didn't do it was because I always had my own companies, so that meant going to rehearsals every single day. Now I don't lead that kind of life.

For example, I suddenly thought, about four years ago, that it would be interesting to work with my voice, because I noticed that whenever I worked with actors, the one area I didn't deal with was the voice. So I got a very unusual voice teacher and I studied voice for four years. I actually use five voices in My Dinner With Andrem, though most in the audience don't know it. Right now I'm playing the piano. I just started taking piano lessons. I don't know why I'm taking piano lessons, except that I love it! That may make some sense in five years, even though it doesn't now.

I'm letting ''it'' take me. Everybody tells me that what I should be doing now is making hay while the sun shines. I'm a star, my name's all over, so I should be doing projects. They keep saying, What are you going to do next?

You're waiting for the right fish?

Yes.

It must take a certain amount of courage to avoid doing what everyone else thinks you should do. Do you feel a good deal of pressure from ''the world''?

Oh, it's awful. Especially in our society. People say to me, ''What are you doing now?'' I say ''nothing.''

You are deliberately ''staying at home'' for a while . . . .

And that's going to make me the worst thing in our sophisticated society: a housewife, or in my case, a househusband! Our purveyors of modern thought and fashion think nothing could be more contemptible than one who simply stays at home - a mother, for example. Well, I don't believe that - nor do you! Oh, no! I hope women in our society can always say, ''I'm a mother'' with the same kind of pride that a physicist could say, ''I'm a physicist.'' For heaven's sake, you're dealing with the birth and care of human beings.

But if you say, ''I'm a housewife,'' especially in New York City, or, ''I'm a mother,'' people think, ''Too bad! Poor woman!''

What about your own folks?

My parents were Russian. My father had a great nose for trouble, because he left the Soviet Union in '32, as Stalin was reaching his peak, and moved to Berlin. He left Berlin in '34 as Hitler was coming to power and went to Paris. He left Paris in '39 when the Germans invaded Poland. He went to London in 1939 and left in 1940 just before the blitz, and he came to the United States.

So you grew up in America?

I came over here when I was six. I went to Harvard. I studied English and history. I studied as an actor for ten years. When I tried to become an actor I was a total failure, which is interesting, because I've studied probably longer than almost any actor in the American theater.

I became a director out of desperation, because I said if I didn't succeed in the theater by thirty I would become a lawyer. So at twenty-nine I directed a play. It worked. I kept on directing plays, until 1975. I almost always had a group. My best-known group was the Manhattan Project. We did Wallace Shawn's first play. We did Alice in Wonderlandm and End Gamem.

Weren't you working in the tradition of ''great theater''?

Yes. Like the Moscow Art Theater, the Group Theater in America, or Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, we generally took two years to rehearse a play.

Why?

It's really the difference between whether you accept the theater as art or business. If you accept it as business, then you accept falsely or arbitrarily imposed economic limits which say that you must rehearse a play in six weeks. If we said that about a painting or a novel, we would get . . .

You'd get Dostoyevsky writing a novel every twenty-six days. . .That's right. Which is pretty absurd. In the process of working over a period of time, what happens is, you explore every single possibility of every moment of the play until you reach the place where the entire company feels they can say what they want to say at that moment. Then you move on to the next moment.

The theater is a collective art form. When you've found the right note and created the scene - and because that note was found with such difficulty and with such searching and with such love and finally with such clarity - you can play that scene every night in a different way, depending on the mood of the actors. So then it becomes more like playing the piano or the violin as part of a symphony orchestra. One night it may be von Karajan and another night it may be Toscanini.

One night it may be pop and vogue music, another night it might be darker. But each night is in essence a live improvisation.

Which allows for the different life experiences of each member of the cast up to that point that night . . .

. . . to be present. And yet, every night you see the play because the notes are the same. The great pianists I know are like that. They sit down at the piano. They've got the notes. They've practiced the heck out of it. And yet they play it with whatever is in them that night. In that way, it stays alive.

Some visionaries have said that we have art in order to see, exemplify, and bring out diviner tones in our lives, and that at some point, as we better understand those tones, art and life will necessarily merge - there will be no need for ''art,'' per se.

I would agree with this. It is certainly impossible to tell where art and life leave off in our movie. In fact, we didn't intend the main experience to be in the movie theater, but between people after the movie was over.

I often can't tell the difference where art and life leave off in my own life. I still don't know. My struggle during the five years discussed in the movie, and in preparing the role as a character, was the question of how to be authentic. Isn't this a big question in the world today? How to really be authentic, and embody your authenticity? To be who you are . . .?

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