andre gregory and the manhattan project

A young Andre Gregory.

“Andre’s greatest accomplishments are really in the realm of human insight and psychological truth – and truth is notoriously hard to define.”

– Wallace Shawn

Andre Gregory, famed actor and director, has been and remains a phenomenal presence in the culture of American theatre.

Born in Paris in 1934, to Russian Jewish parents, Gregory came to the United States at the age of five, on the cusp of World War II. After completion of his studies at Harvard University, Gregory began his immersion in the theatrical world with a job at the Brussels World’s Fair, in 1958.

From this point onward, Gregory’s résumé spirals wildly. He has worked with the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Actors Studio, and the Berliner Ensemble. Through the ’60s and ’70s, Gregory grounded his work in regional theatres, forming his own company, the Manhattan Project, with several NYU students. After ten years or so of this, Gregory left both the theatre and the country for a time, in pursuit of a spiritual life. His return to the United States in 1981 prompted the creation of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre He has since directed a variety of notable productions, including Uncle VanyaThe Designated Mourner, and The Master Builder.

Arguably, Gregory’s most influential contribution to American theatre remains the Manhattan Project’s 1970 production of Alice in Wonderlandderived from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The play was formed through an improvisation period lasting many months. The end result was a theatrical marvel: the actors, prompted to create the world of Wonderland as though they were “[…] a group of children limited to a padded cell,” performed impressive physical feats, forming the caterpillar and his mushroom from their bodies, creating towers from stacks of chairs, and inflating and shrinking themselves considerably.

Gregory became known for his unusual methods of directing, which he utilized during Alice‘s formation: he would sit in silence during rehearsals for hours at a time, allowing the actors to play uninterrupted.

“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. […] 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 following images, borrowed from The Richard Avedon Foundation, depict the actors of the Manhattan Project performing scenes of Alice in Wonderland. Some are the original photos that he took; others are scanned pages from Alice in Wonderland: The Forming of a Company and the Making of a Play. 

Screenshot 2015-02-03 at 8.38.04 PM


To read more about Andre Gregory and his life, you can visit both his Wikipedia page and the Theatre Communication Group’s wonderful and extensive article, “Andre Gregory Sees the Light.”





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