Despite the titular disclaimer, this is a memoir, albeit an episodic one. Gregory was born in 1934 in Paris, the son of Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union for Germany, then fled the Nazis to France. They finally landed in New York, where André grew up unhappily. His parents were self-absorbed and unloving; he felt alienated at home and in school: “I was always looking for a teacher. I was always looking for a father.”
He found them among the trailblazers of the European avant-garde. The books of visionary designer-director Gordon Craig allowed Gregory to “imagine a theater that was extraordinary, a theater of marvels.” Observing the intense, physically daring rehearsals for “Arturo Ui” at the Berliner Ensemble, Gregory imbibed Bertolt Brecht’s legacy: “[Theater] is not a casual endeavor. It is Art . . . worth whatever it takes.” Grotowski was there, too, but it would be another 10 years before Gregory attended the Polish Laboratory workshop that grounded him in techniques he would employ to stage-shattering effect with the Manhattan Project in New York.
Before that, he got fired from three regional theaters for directing button-pushing productions featuring such provocations a “a Black dance troupe in rosary-bead penis sheathes and campaign button pasties” and a curtain literally going up in flames. Gregory acknowledges that his father’s money allowed him to pursue his muse while his wife Chiquita and two young children led a comfortable life he intermittently shared. Regret over his lack of engagement with Chiquita, who died of breast cancer in 1992, is a running theme, culminating in a painfully honest, surprisingly moving assessment of their 33-year marriage. A similar rueful candor informs Gregory’s recollections of tentative reconciliations with both parents toward the ends of their lives.
These intimate reckonings, which also include a warm portrait of Gregory’s second marriage to filmmaker Cindy Kleine, are intertwined with an account of his theatrical odyssey. “For me, work and life are inseparable,” he declares. You know that’s true when he describes his direction of the Manhattan Project’s legendary 1970 production of “Alice in Wonderland” as “using the madness of Alice to untangle my own family’s madness,” or remarks that over the 15 years he rehearsed “The Master Builder,” he evolved from viewing it as “a confessional play about my feelings of inadequacy as a family man” to understanding it as a play “about how you choose to die.” For all its exuberance, this is very much the work of a man in his 80s, aware that his remaining time is brief.
Yet Gregory powerfully conveys his joy in the theater. He pays eloquent tribute to the dark, confrontational plays of Wallace Shawn, who during their 45-year collaboration also wrote the script for “My Dinner With André” and played the title role in Gregory’s masterful 1990s workshop of “Uncle Vanya.” Gregory uses that workshop production’s development as an exemplar of the years-long rehearsal process he favors: “We think we know what the play is saying, but we don’t. There’s too much below the surface. Over time we break through this surface to reveal what’s underneath.” His words are borne out by the performance captured on film as “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which explores the full range of Chekhov’s humor and tragedy. Gregory gets those deep performances from actors by working with them as a fellow traveler: “I ask the actors simply to be where they are, in this day, in this moment. . . . They rarely play it the same way, just as our lives are rarely the same.” While it’s fun to read about the rather frantic experiments of his early career, his mature work has the quality he praises in a loving portrait of the great actress Ruth Nelson: “Careful, simple, and still.”
At 86, Gregory remains a seeker. He took up painting in his 70s and started rehearsing “Hedda Gabler” at 82 — given his working pace, he remarks, it “could be ready for an audience in time for my 100th birthday.” The zest for living and working he displays throughout this vibrant memoir is a good indication that he’ll be around to give the opening night speech.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
This Is Not My Memoir
By André Gregory and Todd London
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pp. $26