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Grotowski eventually abandoned such open-ended exercises, finding that the lack of structure had its own limitations. And while it’s enticing to think we might be people other than the ones we normally think of as ourselves, even Gregory would admit that such a possibility is achieved only through hard work, if at all. But for actors the prospect of becoming someone else is the essence of what they do. As Shawn wrote in a 1996 essay titled “Myself and How I Got Into the Theater”: “Our daily pretense that we know who we are is abandoned by the actors, who… try out the possibility that what they think and feel is not limited by… the supposed outlines of their supposed biographies.” Most of us don’t wake up one day and decide to become someone else; actors, however, do it all the time.
As a director Gregory has become famous for long, open-ended rehearsals culminating in small productions held in nonconventional spaces. His version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” as adapted by David Mamet, took four years of practice at the abandoned Victory Theater on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and was never performed for the public. His 1999 production of Shawn’s play “The Designated Mourner” was held in an abandoned men’s club in Lower Manhattan for an audience of no more than 30 people at a time. In 2005 he directed Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” in an unfinished building in the middle of a Texas desert.
It might be Gregory’s aversion to theater as mere performance that inspires such unusual stagings; holding an event in an abandoned building automatically turns audience members into participants, rather than just spectators. But Gregory has also enlisted film as a medium to illustrate the porous boundaries of his work. While the possibilities of theatrical transformation might be experienced in the middle of a Polish forest, or witnessed in an unusual rehearsal space, filming a play allows him to portray both the fictional world of the work and its relationship with real-world surroundings. For those of us watching from home, it allows us to see the effect even when we can’t participate in it directly.
This dynamic is most evident in “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), directed by Malle and based on Gregory’s four-year “Uncle Vanya” rehearsal. At the beginning of the film we see Gregory, the actors and members of the audience approach the theater from the street, either alone or in small groups. Shawn leans against a building, waiting for the others and snacking on a knish. The venue is the New Amsterdam Theatre — another abandoned space on 42nd Street — and the audience is restricted to a few friends. Although the performance was being filmed, Gregory tells an audience member that it is actually just a rehearsal, albeit a complete run-through.
Once everyone is inside the building, the play starts without announcement. It’s difficult to tell at what point the actors become the characters in the play, although, given the presence of the camera, they are actually acting from the start. There are no costumes aside from the clothes they are already wearing, and barely any sets other than tables and chairs, a bottle, glasses and a few books. There is almost no effort to create the illusion of a fictional setting, and some of the props even have the opposite effect. At one point we see Shawn as Vanya, supposedly the manager of a large Russian estate, drinking out of an “I Love NY” paper cup.