The Living Theatre: Not Dead Yet

By Robert Simonson
05 Mar 2013

The Living Theatre may live up to its name yet.



Last week, the theatre pages and websites were full of the news that The Living Theatre, the oldest experimental stage troupe in New York City (and perhaps the nation), was folding its tent with the retirement of its longtime leader Judith Malina.

This week, however, executive producer Brad Burgess has said that plans for a funeral are premature.

"We are definitely continuing," he told the New York Times. The company closed its production of Here We Are this past Saturday at its erstwhile home on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side. "Our plan is to present an extension of Here We Are at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, which is just around the corner from us, and we are discussing plans for an extended residency at the Clemente." The added performances of Here We Are will run from March 26-29.

Burgess told Playbill.com that The Daily News, which broke the story of the company closing its a doors, had misinterpreted the situation. "The Daily News ran a sensationally titled article," he said. "The writer was apologetic about it. I think he spoke to Judith and maybe her attitude about losing the theatre space gave him the wrong impression."

Malina, who used to live above the Clinton Street space, last week moved to an apartment in the Lillian Booth Actors' Home in Englewood, NJ. Burgess said that, contrary to previous reports, Malina is not retiring. "She is writing a new piece for us as well," Mr. Burgess said, "and she is writing a piece for the actors who are living at the Lillian Booth home, which they are buzzing about." Furthermore, she will remain artistic director. Malina is 86.

Burgess said Malina would commute back and forth between New Jersey and the Lower East Side.

Jan Hanvik, the executive director of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, confirmed to the Times that the center wished to work with The Living Theatre. "We are interested in a long-term relationship," he said by e-mail. "It fits our mission, which is to nurture emerging arts, and the arts are always emerging."

Of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, Burgess told Playbill.com, "We've been aware of each other for some time and been mutual admirers. We really wanted to stay on the Lower East Side."

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Once an influential force in New York's avant-garde theatre scene, The Living Theater has suffered a series of knocks in recent years, including the death of company member and co-director Hanon Reznikov in 2008, and battles with its landlord over back rent.

The Living Theatre was one of the first experimental theatre groups to crop up in New York in the years following World War II and was one of the most long-surviving. Most of the troupes and theatre spaces that challenged theatregoers alongside it—the Open Theatre, Theatre Genesis, Caffe Cino, Judson Poets Theatre—haver long since ceased to exist.

The company was founded in 1947 by Malina, the German-born student of Erwin Piscator, and abstract expressionistic painter and poet Julian Beck. Inspired by Antonin Artaud and his anarchist aesthetic of Theatre of Cruelty, the company endeavored to shake American theatre audiences out of their complacent docility, engaging spectators directly.

In the 1950s, the Living Theatre produced more work by artists known as poets, than ones known as playwrights—not surprising, given Beck's interests. Authors included Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth and Jean Cocteau. The theatre's greatest, and most notorious, successes, however, were yet to come, with Jack Gelber's jazz-oriented look at drug use, The Connection, in 1959; and Kenneth H. Brown's The Brig, a 1963 look at conditions in a Marine prison during a typical day. (Brown, a former Marine, had spent a month in the brig for going AWOL.)

The Living Theatre has always struggled to survive. Early productions were often closed down because of a lack of cash. The authorities, also, paid close attention to the company's productions and frequently shut them down. The Buildings Department shuttered its home on Broadway and 100th Street in 1956, and did the same with another residence on Third Street in 1993. Following the opening of The Brig, the IRS closed down the theatre, and Beck and Malina were imprisoned for contempt of court. Actors who disrobed as part of the play Paradise Now were arrested for indecent exposure multiple times.

Not surprisingly, given this track record, the Living Theatre turned to Europe in the 1970s, touring from city to city, playing in various non-traditional spaces. Even on the road, though, things could be tough. When The Brig played Brazil in 1971, the cast was arrested on drug charges. Actor Steve ben Israel managed to escape to New York. There, he enlisted the help of famous artists to get the actors freed from jail. The experience resulted in another Living Theatre work, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism.

The Clinton Street theater was the company’s first permanent home since the closing of The Living Theatre on Third Street at Avenue C in 1993. But, the revival was short-lived. Shortly after it opened, Reznikov suddenly died.

Matters grew bleak last year when the company was suddenly faced with having to gather tens of thousands of dollars together in order to stop city marshals from evicting them. Donations were called for through a local crowd-funding site called Lucky Ant. Just hours before its deadline, it met its goal of raising $24,000.