André’s Inspiration

Jul 10, 2009

In the epic table talk à clef that is My Dinner with André, André, a theater director (played by theater director André Gregory), tells his old friend Wally (played by playwright and actor Wallace Shawn) about a long journey he took in search of enlightenment. A key figure for André in this quest was the Polish experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski, who in real life was the most important influence on not only Gregory’s Manhattan Project theater company but also Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group (which evolved into Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group), and the work of British director Peter Brook. On Grotowski and His Legacy, four programs of films documenting Grotowski’s work, will play at Walter Reade on July 11 and 12. The series includes James McTaggert’s Acropolis (1968), a film recording of the piece that brought Grotowski worldwide recognition, in which the actors, playing Auschwitz prisoners, build a crematorium wall around the audience. Just as important, if more roughly assembled from separately recorded picture and sound elements, is the reconstruction of Grotowski’s staging of The Constant Prince, in which Ryszard Cieslak gave one of the most riveting performances this former actor ever saw. The film has no subtitles, but my memory of the New York performance is that you didn’t need to understand a word that was said to be utterly transported by Cieslak’s presence. One of the touchstones of My Dinner with André is André’s infinitely patient wife, Mercedes (an unseen “Penelope,” based on Gregory’s real wife). Who knew that the actual Mercedes Gregory was a documentary producer and director in her own right? The series includes her Art as Vehicle (1989), a look at Grotowski’s Workcenter, and also the intimate documentary With Jerzy Grotowski, Nienadowka (1980), directed by Jill Godmilow and produced by Gregory, in which Grotowski travels to the village where he and his family were hidden during the Nazi occupation. —Amy Taubin