Andre Gregory Sees the Light
At 70, he's hitching his lifelong quest for insight and illumination to theatre for the few
by Todd London
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 mid-life 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. He was instrumental in the founding of three of the earliest regional theatres and was fired from all of them quicker than you can say "board relations." His Alice in Wonderland-begun in 1968 with the Manhattan Project, a company he started with a group of students from New York University, and first performed more than two years later-remains one of the seminal works of the era, right up there with Peter Brook's Marat/Sade and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Open Theatre's The Serpent and the work of Gregory's mentor, Jerzy Grotowski. In the late '70s, around the time Grotowski stopped making productions and began his so-called paratheatrical events, Gregory, too, for a combination of personal, spiritual and professional reasons, left the theatre and, literally, went into the woods (and desert and numerous spiritual communities). When he returned and made My Dinner with Andre, the theatre pioneer became a pioneer of independent film and then, inexplicably, a successful character actor in Hollywood, playing in films by Peter Weir, Woody Allen, Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese.
It's harder to place the work he's been doing since returning to the theatre in the early '90s, mounting tiny-scale productions for audiences of 12 or 30 or at most 40. They are meticulously spontaneous, painstakingly intimate things, often and forever in-process. His Master Builder, translated by and starring Wallace Shawn as Solness the Master Builder, has been seven years in the making. These creations don't dazzle, the way the daring physical virtuosity of the Manhattan Project's Alice did. They don't incite scandals, the way Gregory's early regional productions did. The work is almost filmic, but never seems canned, glossed or anything but live. What happens in these small spaces are great human reckonings: What happens is simply Chekhov or Ibsen or Shawn, simply life, under a psychic microscope, life at its most complex and, well, simple.
Gregory's childhood is a well of the dramatic, and the unconscious fount of all his theatre work to date. He was born in Paris, 1934, the year Hitler became Führer of Germany. His Russian Jewish parents, a wealthy international businessman and a captivating society hostess-he refers to them as "Macbeth and Lady Macbeth"-were conspicuously absent during his otherwise privileged early childhood. He suspects that they were occupied "trying to set up an escape with a cushion" in order to stay ahead of the horrific events on the march in Europe.
"My father got out of Russia a year before Stalin came to power, went to Berlin," Gregory explains. "Left Berlin the year Hitler came to power, went to Paris. Three weeks before the Germans invaded Poland we left for England. As a little kid I was outfitted for a gas mask. We came over to the States on one of two sister ships. I watched the other ship torpedoed and people drowning. We picked up survivors." He was five at the time.
If Gregory's childhood home was a place to wrestle demons, it also provided a window to a stunning, wide world. "My mother had always been surrounded by people like Horowitz, Rostropovich, Laurel and Hardy, Dietrich, Garbo, Basil Rathbone, Charles Boyer-these were the people that I grew up with. When Horowitz was having his nervous breakdown and couldn't perform, we would go over every week to his home and before dinner there would be gin rummy and after dinner he would play for us for hours. My childhood was quite amazing-like Treplev's," he adds, citing the young artist who shoots himself at the end of Chekhov's The Seagull.
A brew of petty tyranny at home and martial tyranny outside instilled in Gregory a twin fascination with evil and power that drives his engagement with work and the world. "In my background power was an extremely malevolent force, so sometimes in my life I've had trouble differentiating between power and strength, the positive aspects of power." His Master Builder is all about power; his Vanya was about a man embracing powerlessness. In his latest stab at Endgame, Beckett's eerie-comic dance of power and dependency between master and servant, Gregory has let evil into their sealed room.
Gregory's new Endgame, begun after, and as a result of, the World Trade Center attacks, takes place in a shelter, an environment designed by longtime collaborator Eugene Lee. "It's the kind of place John Ashcroft would like to see us all in," as Gregory (who thinks President Bush is the "anti-Christ, this religious maniac coming with Christ's word") told an audience in Provincetown. And Beckett's end-of-the-world landscape has a bunkered feel, a world of duct tape and homeland insecurity. Each night of these open rehearsals is clearly an improvisation, in which the two actors (the play's other two characters, Nell and Nagg, who live in ash cans, are created, garbage-puppet-like, by Clov, who mimics their voices) try radically new tacks in hopes of finding moments that work. One thing is already clear: In this dark haven, Clov's clowning is far from the rough vaudeville of the first Endgame Gregory directed in Philadelphia in 1965 and remounted shortly after to open Robert Brustein's theatre at Yale School of Drama. Today Clov clowns like a guy posing for photos at Abu Ghraib.
Gregory's father hated the thought of him in the theatre and fought with him about it until the end of his life. One night, though, the older Gregory lost quite a bit of money to a regular poker partner, Jean Dalrymple, the prominent New York producer. "He said to her, 'Listen, you cleaned me out. Can't you give my son a job?'" Dalrymple did just that, taking Gregory with her to the Brussels World's Fair in 1958-where she oversaw theatrical production-as her assistant and sometime stage manager. Once there, he met his future wife, Chiquita, who was working as a fair guide, a perfect job for a half-German, half-Argentine woman fluent in six languages. At the encouragement of a teacher he'd had at Harvard, Gregory made the easy passage from Brussels to Berlin.
"I'd never heard of the Berliner Ensemble. I'd never even heard of Brecht. So I went for three days. The poster outside the theatre said: Das Leben von Galilei. I knew so little that I thought that was the Good Fisherman of Galilee. Galileo lasted about four hours with one intermission. It was all talk. I was absolutely staggered, because I could understand almost every single moment on the stage, because every single moment was so clear. So I stayed for a year."
Gregory was one of a couple of hundred people observing each rehearsal run by Brecht's widow, Helene Weigel, in these years immediately after Brecht's death. (Grotowski was another, though he and Gregory didn't meet for another decade.) "It was an amazing experience. I saw Arturo Ui rehearse, and then I saw it 20 or 30 times. I saw Galileo 20 or 30 times. That was absolutely the defining moment of my creation as a director. People think I'm sort of a disciple of Jerzy's. You couldn't really learn anything from him. Because it was Michaelangelo. With the Berliner Ensemble, you could really learn what the art of directing was. Lee Strasberg once said that a director in the dress rehearsals should be able to put ear plugs in and be able to understand what's going on on the stage. But I've never seen that done except with Brecht and Grotowski."
Strasberg, in whose private acting class Gregory studied, was another great, lasting influence, if one embraced less vivaciously. The lesson of Brecht's productions at the Berliner Ensemble was, Gregory says, "clarity, simplicity, and telling the story-Brecht had a sign over his desk saying, 'Simpler, and with more laughter.'" Strasberg, by contrast, taught him the "the value of the actor's contribution, and that as a director you are simply there to give the actor a little courage to go a little further in the direction the actor's already going." Strasberg's other lesson: "logic logic logic."
Even as he was being inspired and shaped as a director, Gregory couldn't see himself doing anything creative and thought he'd follow the family business line and become a producer. Encouragement came in a hush from Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, who taught movement at the Neighborhood Playhouse. "I was incredibly awkward and overweight and embarrassed to be in leotards and trying to do these Graham movements. And one day she came and she whispered into my ear, 'You know darling, you have no talent, but you have such a big heart. One day you'll be a great artist.'"
In 1965, Gregory told a Tulane Drama Review theatre conference, "I'm scared that the regional theatre, by the time it is mature, will have bored the shit out of millions of people all over the country." This was after he'd been fired from the third regional theatre he'd helped found.
According to his 70-year-old self, this firebrand 31-year-old former artistic director "is arrogant. He's saying there will be no regional theatre. He's an angry son of a bitch. Because he never chooses to be part of the establishment. Even though it's his own choice, he must be angry about this. Because the establishment for him represents those primal people who had power-the parents."
But angry and arrogant or not, by most accounts this young director represented a hope for the new resident theatre movement that few could match. Gregory has always been interested in finding structures for theatre appropriate to the times, and the early regional theatre was just that, with subscription bases and spaces that created a strong foundation for the work. Or so he thought. He turned quickly from pioneer to outcast.
His 1963 production of Max Frisch's The Firebugs opened Seattle Repertory Theatre, where he was associate director, with a bang of critical acclaim, though he was fired from a second production by artistic director Stuart Vaughan (some have said because he was too avant-garde; others claim that Vaughan was threatened by Gregory's talent), who was in turn fired shortly thereafter. He then founded Philadelphia's Theatre of the Living Arts and quickly made it one of the most vital, watched and controversial of the theatres springing up across America.
"I took Alan Schneider to lunch," he recalls, describing an encounter with the early regional theatre's leading director. "And I said, 'Mr. Schneider, I'd like to direct. How do I do that?' And he said, 'Well, if I were you, I'd start your own theatre.' And I said, 'How do I do that?' and he said, 'Oh, I don't know; that's your job.' There were very few theatres then, so I bought a map of America and started putting flags in cities-black flags for cities that already had a theatre, red flags for cities that didn't have a theatre but were kind of shitty cities, and a gold flag was no theatre, interesting city. Philadelphia was one of them. I got a letter of introduction to an interior designer in Philadelphia and asked if he could help me create it. I said, 'If you could get three friends to throw three parties, I would come and talk about my vision. And over two years I talked at, I think, 432 dinners, luncheons, breakfasts, cocktail parties. Out of that, literally one-to-one, I got 10,000 subscribers and I started my theatre. You can only do that when you're young."
Robert Brustein called Gregory's first Endgame "profoundly original." The play, he wrote, "has never been funnier or, in my opinion, more powerful." Regional theatre historian Joseph Wesley Zeigler claimed his talent was "too large and too vaulting to be absorbed and served by a theatre just born." Critic Julius Novick, though repulsed by much of Rochelle Owens's Beclch, a play of violence and Artaudian cruelty set in an "Africa of the mind," felt that Gregory's wild, overgrown, environmental production had an uncommon sense of urgency, as well as "an authority and amplitude not often encountered in the regional theatre…. It is clear that any theatre [Gregory] runs is going to be an exciting theatre." As the Los Angeles Board of Education found out when they hired him to run the Inner City Cultural Center, bringing classic theatre to urban high schools-he served up a black Gentleman Caller to Laura in Glass Menagerie and a naked, bathing Tartuffe, provoking the censure of the Catholic Church-some theatres run by Andre Gregory were the wrong kind of exciting.
"If he were a European," Wallace Shawn says of Gregory, "I think that he would probably have a huge institution at his disposal, money from the state and groveling worshippers at his feet doing his bidding, which is what you see when you go to Germany, for example. Andre is a gigantic talent and artist and innovator. But the reality, which is comical in a way, is that not only does he not have those things, but I feel that 98 percent of the theatre people either don't know of him or consider him an amusing eccentric of some kind. I mean, they're not awestruck by him, which they ought to be."
Then Andre Gregory discovered two small things that changed his life: a theatre in the Caribbean and a book. "A friend who was the head of the Rockefeller Foundation sent me down to Trinidad, either to get me out of the country or because he thought I was having a nervous breakdown after being fired from all these places, to do a report on this unknown writer and director, Derek Walcott. When I got there, I saw amateur actors, who had jobs during the day, working all night for no money and taking rum breaks instead of coffee breaks and creating this wonderful work. And I thought, 'Oh, you don't need a theatre, you don't need a board, you don't need a subscription audience, you don't need a lot of money. All you need is a room with some people from the same planet that you're from.'"
The book was Jerzy Grotowski's Towards a Poor Theatre. "The Grotowski question-'What can the theatre do without?'-and its answer-that all it needs is basically one actor and one audience member-was a radical thought, which has changed my theatre life to this day, because the size of my audience is defined by the work itself, the space is defined by the work itself. The question is always to find out what is essential to the theatre."
Small is big. The notion has guided him ever since. In 1968, Gregory had just directed one of those legendary Broadway failures, a comedy about bestiality called Leda Had a Little Swan, whose producer closed it the night before opening. His reputation, as some kind of enfant terrible with a string of firings and failings behind him, preceded him. He taught at NYU for six weeks and then assembled a group of five students-a sixth ensemble member would push her way in later-to start a company to do something, but nobody knew what.
The Manhattan Project started by making its way through the psycho-physical exercises in Grotowski's book. They noodled around with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and kept working, albeit desultorily, when Gregory left for Paris to study with Grotowski in person. Shortly after his return, they bumbled onto Alice in Wonderland.
If there ever is an Andre Gregory exhibit in a theatre museum, surely the walls of one room will be covered with the hundred photographs Richard Avedon took of Alice in 12 studio sittings in 1970 and '71. They comprise, inarguably, the finest collection of photos of a single production in the history of the American theatre. They capture everything that exploded through that room of doors Eugene Lee constructed for the play: the momentum, wildness, joy, acrobatic daring, ensemble verve and edgy emotional volatility-the great delinquent lunacy of it all. Lewis Carroll blows Alice up into a parade balloon. The caterpillar smokes his hookah on the backs of four actors who form a mushroom. Humpty Dumpty, an egg smashed on his face, falls from a tower of chairs. And a crazy-ass tea party happens over, under and all around a ravaged wooden table.
The play was created through months of lengthy open-ended improvisations; Gregory would famously sit silently for hours at a time, while the actors played. "I like to think I'm being so democratic in allowing the actor to do whatever he wants, only very delicately and politely suggesting that this might be better than that," he said during the run of Alice. "But it may be the most egotistical way to be a director. I mean, everyone knows that directors like to play god. Well, there are small gods and big gods. The small gods have to show their power so they move people around a lot and lay down the rules. But what could be more egotistical and closer to the image of god than to be completely absent? That to me is the cruelest and most interesting god of all."
The Manhattan Project stayed together for close to 10 years, staging an Endgame, Shawn's Our Late Night-after they'd abandoned the idea of him adapting Peer Gynt-and a Seagull, full of the tensions of a company pulling apart. When The Seagull became his "first big public failure" and the company broke up-following his mother's death-Gregory, rather than imitating Treplev, took the metaphorical route out. He quit the theatre.
Everything Gregory describes to "Wally" in My Dinner with Andre is true: the all-night improvisations in the forests of Poland, the trek across the Sahara desert with a Buddhist monk in search of a way to do Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, the ritual burial-naked and alive-the years away from friends, the alienation, the beauty, the wreckage and the terror. He had fled New York and the theatre, fled his mother's death and that of his company, and started "asking those questions," as "Andre" explains in the movie, "that Stanislavsky said that the actor should constantly ask himself as a character-Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? and Where am I going?-but instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself."
But if the events were real, the "Andre" of film is a character Gregory invented partly out of self-indictment and partly because, once he and Shawn had spent two years writing the screenplay, he couldn't find the way to play it. "I stumbled upon four voices. One is Andre the spoiled rich kid. One is Andre the spiritual used-car salesman. One is Andre the Peter Brook. And the fourth is the voice of sincerity, which starts to appear a little bit at the end of the film."
My Dinner with Andre has the feel of a single conversation, a casual, and for Shawn, dreaded, encounter that keeps descending deeper, into the under-self, into the shaky foundations of that self, as they're challenged by the person across the table. If you aren't watching the cuts, it's easy to think the film's shot by two cameras in a single take. But Gregory and Shawn rehearsed for 14 months before Louis Malle filmed it, so the ease is hard-won. "The acting in My Dinner with Andre is as close to great Brechtian acting as you come, because you're given the illusion of utter simplicity and spontaneity," Gregory says. "But underneath is all the depth of the long rehearsal process."
In addition to helping catalyze a new generation of independent filmmaking, My Dinner with Andre kicked off a new career for Gregory, one that was all "about the fun of being in the movies and making quite a bit of money. Walking around the Warner Brothers lot, dressed as an Arab with a beard and shooting on the sound stage where they shot Casablanca, was just incredibly romantic."
Even in this make-believe world, life and art fused for Gregory, most oddly when he auditioned for and landed the role of John the Baptist in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. "Scorsese didn't know my work, and oddly he'd never seen My Dinner with Andre. He said to me, 'Do you know anything about shamans?' And I said, 'You're looking at one, Mr. Scorsese.' He smiled and said, 'Can you show me anything shaman-like?' And I said, 'If you can give me about 45 minutes to get into a trance state, sure.' So they came back 45 minutes later, and I was completely naked, chanting and dancing. I was in a trance, so I didn't see that he went out of the room to get a little movie camera. Afterwards, he said, 'I'm sending this to Hollywood, they've never seen an audition like this one.'"
"I think you're born a shaman," Gregory says. "The shaman goes down into the darkness for the tribe, to bring light and growth to the harvest. The difficulty in our culture is that, unlike the Native American culture and many others, it's not recognized and there's nobody to train you. So you're unconsciously a shaman for a long time, which often means you go down into the darkness and you don't know how to come back up."
When Chiquita became ill in the late 1980s, Gregory devoted himself to her care for three years. Andre the actor was soon forgotten by Hollywood, but, as he began work on Uncle Vanya [see sidebar], his first theatre directing in a decade, he felt "like a young man returning with all the enthusiasm and excitement of someone who'd never directed before." The shaman was coming back up.
During this period, first in rented lofts and later in his own living room, Gregory has fashioned something "like my own version of the Actors Studio, but on a much smaller scale. It's kind of a gym for actors, where whenever they're not out making money, they come and work with me." These comings and goings make for great logistical complications, but they allow Gregory to rehearse several projects at once-as with Vanya, Shawn's The Designated Mourner, and, most recently, Ibsen's The Master Builder. "I've been rehearsing The Master Builder for seven years, and I've only had all the actors in the same room once," he says.
Gregory views Master Builder as a culmination, his finest work, even though no audiences have seen it. He's aiming for something akin to what he found across the table from Shawn in My Dinner with Andre-iceberg acting, where you only see the tip but the layered experience of a lifetime comes with it. You feel the depth, but the actor needn't reveal it, needn't play it. Gregory is forging a hybrid style: the intimacy of film acting and the fullness and ambiguity of the living human moment. Vanya was theatre recorded on film; Master Builder, utilizing many of the same actors, started as a theatre project and became a screenplay and film-ready staging in search of a filmmaker.
"Working with Andre as an actor," Shawn explains, "year one, year two, year three goes by on the same role and you're understanding possibilities and truths in the script that you could never possibly have guessed at at the beginning of the process. But you are also bringing forth things out of yourself that nobody has ever seen before, including you.
"As actors, from the first minute we encounter the text, we are interpreting it through the filter of our own brains, which are mainly a heap of clichés. With Andre you learn to peel those clichés away-crawl out from under them-and let the vast possibilities of a text come out."
When at the end of Vanya, Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine) begs a kiss from Yelena (Julianne Moore) before she leaves forever, despite months of buried passion, he simply and respectfully kisses her cheek. When she kisses him goodbye, throwing a life's caution to the winds, she lands on his lips, but only fleetingly, with all the ambivalence and non-commitment she's brought to the rest of her encounters. Similarly, when Astrov says goodbye to a Vanya whom we know to be devastated and at the end of his rope, the doctor's serious farewell provokes only a flippy finger wave from Vanya, determined, one suspects, not to "go there."
It's clear from watching an open rehearsal of Endgame that Gregory's process is that of trying everything and keeping only what's profoundly right. It's a process, for Gregory, of discovering the parts that fit the whole: "If you look at a De Kooning painting, you know that if you take out one single line of it the fabric of it will disintegrate. And there are thousands of lines or strokes or gestures in a painting. Where that comes from god only knows, that one particular brushstroke. Why it has to be there, we don't know. But when we look at it we know it's right. So I'm not sure we're talking about truth. Strasberg would find it truthful as long as it was emotional. Brecht would find it truthful as long as it was clear. I guess with me, I just feel that brush stroke in this moment from that actor today is part of the tapestry.
"The best example is Busby Berkeley," he adds gleefully. "Busby Berkeley said that a woman in the chorus line can't just be beautiful. Each one has to fit next to the other like a series of pearls on a necklace. That's it. You're looking for a series of truths that fit together."
Andre Gregory has taken up painting. This may be his new artistic project, as he spends more time in Truro on Cape Cod with his new wife, Cindy, where, like Prospero, he jokes, only every third thought shall be of the grave. He's traveled far from his John the Baptist self: "What I can't love, I attack...God demands anger." His personal god now demands joy.
Gregory's project has always been "a spiritual confrontation with the darkness." He has always surrounded that darkness, cushioned it in light and laughter to make it easier to take in. (When I called his house after the elections, on his answering machine he was singing "Springtime for Hitler.") His heart has always been trained on illumination: his own, the play's, the audience's. "If one person is illuminated, it's a miracle. I'm after that one person. It's lighting a flame of life in someone."
Late last year, he tried to paint a wintry scene—a tree without leaves, the last green grass, stormy clouds, dead leaves. He showed it to Cindy. She was deeply moved. She saw springtime on the canvas, early spring. "Even if I try," Gregory marvels with his dancing eyes and wild, Cheshire Cat grin, "I don't seem to be able to create the dark."
Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, won the George Jean Nathan Award for his writing in American Theatre. He is the author of a novel, The World's Room.
From Todd London’s interviews with Andre Gregory
I asked Wally [Shawn] if he would do Uncle Vanya, and he turned me down four times. He said, “I’m not an actor, I’m a comedian, I can’t play a role like Vanya.” I said to him, “I don’t even know if I can direct anymore. Why don’t we do it and never show it to people, just work on it for the pleasure of doing it?” He said, “Oh, if we don’t have to show it to anybody, definitely.”
Some months later, George Gaynes’s son, who was one of the great kayak champions, died in a freak accident in India. I saw George at the memorial, and I thought, Oh, my god, what a great Serebryakov he would be. Some months later I asked him if he would do it, and he said, “I just couldn’t perform after Matthew’s death.” I said, “We’re not going to perform,” and he said, “Oh, if we don’t have to perform, I’d love to do it.” Then I asked Julianne [Moore], and she said that she’d got fed up with theatre. I think she was going to leave it. I said, “We’re never going to perform it. Why don’t you do this as your goodbye to the theatre?” So she came on board.
When we went into rehearsal, soon after, Wally’s father died. Ruth Nelson [who played the nurse Marina] didn’t know it, but she was fighting cancer. We rehearsed it for three months one summer in a loft that I think we rented from [Robert] De Niro. At the end of the summer I asked them, “Would you ever like to do this again?” They’d been having a good time; we’d only gotten vaguely through Act 2. So they got out their books and found five days at Thanksgiving and four days at Easter. I asked them if they’d work the following summer, and they all said they were up for it, but that would have to be the end. It was too complicated getting together.
At the end of the summer, Eugene Lee called me. He said, “I’ve just seen this amazing space. You should come see it; it’s great.” And I got the idea of having 12 run-throughs for our loved ones to celebrate the end of our work. We’d just got vaguely to the end of the play. We would have a supper after every run-through. So every night we had an audience of 12, each person could invite a loved one.
Our loved ones said, “You can’t not show this; it’s beautiful,” which was a surprise to us. But we’d all made a deal, that we would never show this. So we decided we’d do it for six weeks, four times a week for friends, which is what increased the audience to 30. Then it became legendary, because nobody could get into it. Big Hollywood actors would call their agents: “I’m in town. I want to see Vanya.” They couldn’t get into it.
We asked Louis [Malle] if he would make a record of it, just a documentary record, and he said he couldn’t, because he was making two big movies. So that was the end of it.
Six weeks later Chiquita died. Wally and Brooke [Smith, who played Sonya] did the last speech at the funeral. I was all on my own, grieving. I’d never lived alone in my life. I had no work and I was in terrible pain. As we approached the next summer, I called everybody up and asked them if they would get together for one more summer, just for me. No audience. And towards the end of the summer, I called Louis again. He said that he could come for the last run-through, from Paris.
The night before the last run-through, Ruth Nelson had a stroke and went blind. A few weeks later she died. A month or so later, Louis had a quadruple by-pass, so Vanya again ended.
Two years later Wally and I were working on another project and Wally was saying how much he missed Vanya, and I said, “Let’s go see what Louis is up to.” Being a bit fragile, a small picture was just what Louis wanted. He said, “If you can raise $900,000 in three weeks, I’ll do it.”
I’d never raised money like that in my life. I’d heard—this sounds like a story right out of My Dinner with Andre—about an Indian guru in Germany. I’d read this little booklet of hers, and in the booklet she said, “When you come to mother—her—don’t ask for the big things like spiritual surrender, enlightenment. Come the way you’d come to your mother on Christmas morning and ask for what you want in your stocking.” So I went and I prayed for $900,000—it was an unconventional way of fundraising—a therapist for my daughter, who was going through a difficult period, and a hot Saturday night date, since there’d been no women since Chiquita.
I stopped off in Paris for two days on my way back. I was sitting in a café, and there was this very lovely woman sitting next to me, writing like crazy in a book. I wanted to start a conversation, but I didn’t really know how in another language. At one point she touched my arm and said, in French, “What do you think I’m doing in this book?” I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “I’m translating Wally Shawn’s last play into French.”
So I stayed in Paris for a week. And I went back to New York, and I raised so much money that we had to give $600,000 back. Louis died relatively soon after filming.
Ruth Nelson said something amazing when I went to visit her a few days before she died. I said to her, “Are you afraid, Ruth?” And she said, “No. Dying is like our work. You just go moment to moment, and you don’t think of the end.”