Photos by Janeen Megloranzo
Alice in Wonderland: The Forming of a Company and the Making of a Play by Richard Avedon and the text / edited by Doon Arbus from a series of taped conversations with each of the seven members of the Manhattan Project, recorded between January 11 and September 4, 1971. Designed by Ruth Ansel. New York: Merlin House, 1973
Once upon a time I happened upon a book in my college library within which everything I loved had converged. It was made up of photographs by Richard Avedon taken in 1971 during the remarkable process of the creation of a legendary theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland.
At that time I was working – stitching, painting, dyeing and constructing theatrical productions on campus and off. In school I was studying theatre, photography, literature, painting, printmaking and art history.
I immediately signed the book out and kept renewing it because I wanted it near me while I tried to learn all that I could about its secrets. I recently pulled the book off the shelf of ICP’s library and was impressed with how much more it has continued to disclose to me since.
The ideas within it about the art of theatre and about Lewis Carroll’s Alice were as revolutionary to me as the photographic images and the way the book was designed [by the legendary Ruth Ansel].
I had seen the 1977 Avedon show at the Met, but was less familiar with his books. This is a story book of a play. In the 1970s I had bought paperback books that fully documented one film each, but their design was terrible and the images were static film stills. Of course Broadway shows often sold souvenir programs, as well, but their images and design adhered to tired conventions of advertising brochures.
This book is something so wildly different, but I do not know why I rarely hear anyone in our library asking for it. Perhaps it is the dark green school library binding that surrounds it, a re-binding necessitated by too much love/handling it received earlier in this library.
In a sense, Avedon applied his own aesthetic to these images; all within a white studio void and the hyper-contrasty black and white…as well as breaking down what in theatre is called “the fourth wall.” Especially that!
The play was created by Gerry Bamman, Tom Costello, André Gregory, Saskia Noordhoek Hegt, Jerry Mayer, Angel Pietropinto, and Larry Pine, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It was developed during two years of rehearsals at the New York University School of the Arts and in subsequent performances throughout the world.
When I studied the book, I was delighted that Eugene and Franne Lee had designed the production, as they were the stars in my firmament when I was an aspiring production designer.
This week I read the review of the play by Clive Barnes in The New York Times that began “Fantastic! Indeed, add any other hooray words you like,” and also, “This caustic tale has a magic that leaves you grinning but speechless. It is the topsy-turvy logic of Alice, its gladiator battle with semantics and its perfectly horrifying fairy-tale realism, that gives this evening its strangely anarchic flavor.”
Barnes, Clive. “Stage: Savage ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” The New York Times, October 9, 1970.
35 years later…
“Andre Gregory’s Alice in Wonderland is one of those productions with a far aura, a show that those who saw it (usually numbering in the few years) treasure jealously in the memory, an event that over time accumulated adjectives like ‘seminal’ and ‘legendary.’”
“Descriptions of the Alice experience become footnotes, though, in the presence of Richard Avedon’s dazzling photographic account of the production. Shot in a dozen all-day studio sessions and collected in a long out-of-print 1973 volume, the great photographer’s 100 silvery black-and-white images comprise, [Todd] London suggests, ‘the finest collection of photos of a single production in the history of the American theatre.’”
O’Quinn, Jim. “Editor’s Note,” American Theatre March, 2005.
Delving deeper into this production, I made an appointment to view the recording at New York Public Library’s Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT), and the recorded version could not be more different in aesthetic from the book. The visual noise and low contrast of the black and white video recording [1975 technology] reminded me of how much more stable books are, in terms of preservation, but also how grateful I am for this endeavor that records important theatrical productions and captures the eloquence of cadence and gesture that are otherwise so inherently ephemeral.
It was also at the Library of the Performing Arts where I read some notes, memos and clippings about the production in the archives of the New York Shakespeare Festival, which was the place where the recording had been made.
In a 1968 text by Grotowski that may have been an influence on Gregory… Peter Brook’s introduction, consequently, draws a line between Alice and the ICP Library!
“He calls his theatre a laboratory. It is. It is a centre of research. It is perhaps the only avant-garde threatre whose poverty is not a drawback, where shortage of money is not an excuse for inadequate means which automatically undermine the experiments.”
Brook, Peter. “Preface.” Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerzy Grotowski. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002.
This resonates so profoundly with my work now to animate ICP’s own center for research the Library, Archives and Museum Collections [LAMs]!
I live in wonder of the books that continue to inform and inspire me in a ever-changing variety of ways over the decades!