Ruth Maleczech, Founder of Mabou Mines, Seminal Downtown Theatre Group, Dies at 74

News   Ruth Maleczech, Founder of Mabou Mines, Seminal Downtown Theatre Group, Dies at 74
Ruth Maleczech, who co-founded the influential and sui generis experimental theatre troupe Mabou Mines and helped shepherd it through four decades of productions, becoming arguably its most visible member, died in her sleep Sept. 30 at her home. She was 74.

Ruth Maleczech
Ruth Maleczech

As co-creator of Mabou Mines, Ms. Maleczech directed and/or appeared in many of the company's productions. A regular presence in the downtown theatre scene in the 1970s and 1980s, she became something of an earth mother figure not only to her own outfit, but to the New York avant garde theatre community in general—a role only buttressed by her warm, matronly aura.

Ms. Maleczech and Lee Breuer, who met while studying theatre at UCLA in the late 1950s, founded Mabou Mines in New York in 1970, encouraged to do so by composer Philip Glass and director Joanne Akalaitis, who were then married. At the time, the couple were performing in Paris, having moved to Europe a few years earlier. The name was drawn from a property in Dunvegan, Nova Scotia, that Glass and Rudy Wurlitzer were then negotiating to buy. According to the theatre's website, it was chosen because "it sounded like a band, or the title of an album."

Early members—along with Maleczech, Breuer, Glass and Akalaitis—included actors David Warrilow, Frederick Neumann, Bill Raymond and Terry O'Reilly. The company's aesthetic and administrative process was radically collaborative, in the manner of a commune, with members sharing in all artistic decisions. Specific credits were initially not detailed in programs. Mabou Mines productions emphasized elements of music, dance, art, puppetry and movement as much as traditional theatrical tropes. Indeed, in its early years, the company was as closely tied with the art world as it was with the theatre.

Ellen Stewart, artistic director of La MaMa ETC, saw Mabou Mines' first production, a four-hour work called The Red Horse Animation, and invited the company to take up a residency at La MaMa. Soon after, Joe Papp of the Public Theater lent some assistance, giving the troupe the old prop shop at the Public in which to hold performances. Notable successes during the company's first decade included Dressed Like an Egg and Dead End Kids, a free-form work about the specter of nuclear holocaust.

In time, the company became closely associated with the work of Samuel Beckett, performing a total of eight pieces by the author, some of which were texts not originally written for the theatre. It also frequently invited figures from the music world, like Bob Telson and David Byrne, to collaborate on productions. Mabou Mines was awarded on Obie Award in 1974 for "General Excellence" and one for "Sustained Achievement" in 1986. Several other Obies followed throughout the '70s and '80s, for direction, music and acting. Ms. Maleczech shared an Obie with Julie Archer in 1980 for her design of Vanishing Pictures, and received others, in 1983 and '84, for her performances in Hajj—a "performance poem" written by Breuer in which the actress' image was reflected and televised many times—and Through the Leaves, Franz Xaver Kroetz's unflinchingly grim play about a woman butcher and her abusive lover.

A late triumph for the actress came in 1990 with a gender-bending King Lear, in which the male roles were played by women and vice versa. The story was set in the American South in the 1950s, and the actors spoke softly, directly into microphones. Ms. Maleczech played the title role, for which she won another Obie Award. The production was not particularly well-reviewed, but nonetheless has endured as a sort of cultural landmark.

Shortly thereafter, Akalaitis, Raymond and a few others left the fold. (Glass had already departed.) Ms. Maleczech and Breuer soldiered on, but productions became less frequent, and—with the city's downtown theatre scene becoming more business-oriented and less artistically adventuresome—the company's halcyon days as an artistic force diminished. There were, however, still occasional flagship successes. Their 1996 production of Peter and Wendy became a popular favorite, produced at many theatres throughout the U.S. In 2003, it enjoyed a critical triumph with its adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, in which all the men cast were under five feet tall. The production subsequently toured throughout the world.

Ruth Sophia Reinprecht was born Jan. 8, 1939, in Cleveland, OH, to Yugoslavian immigrants, and raised in Arizona. (Maleczech was an adaptation of her mother's maiden name, Maletic.) She first began performing in plays in high school. She attended UCLA, where she met Lee Breuer. In San Francisco, she worked with the Actors Workshop and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where she was first exposed to nontraditional dramatic forms. Upon moving to Europe, she further encountered a variety of avant-garde theatre techniques, including those of "Poor Theatre" theorist Jerzy Grotowski and the Berliner Ensemble. While there, she supported herself and her art by dubbing actor's voices in foreign films, including Catherine Deneuve. Breuer and Maleczech married in 1978. They later separated but continued to work together.

Ms. Maleczech occasionally acted outside the confines of Mabou Mines—though, even then, she typically worked with her associates from the company. She and Breuer co-directed a production of The Tempest in Central Park in 1981. Akalaitis directed her as Mistress Quickley in a 1990 staging of Henry IV and in a 1992 mounting of Woyzeck during her short tenure as artistic director of the Public. More recently, she acted in Charles Mee's First Love at New York Theatre Workshop (2001), and Martha Clarke's production of Belle Epoque at Lincoln Center Theater (2004).

Still, even as New York theatre became more commercial and codified, Ms. Maleczech—like director Richard Foreman and La MaMa's Ellen Stewart—remained a rare theatre figure who was largely committed to a single entity and artistic vision. Critic Robert Brustein notes the she was one of the few performers he could think of who, having never joined Actors' Equity, "actually choose to be [a] freelance Off-Broadway [actor]."

Robert Brustein, for his part, in Letters to a Young Actor, discussed the tensions between a calling and a profession and said, "I know of few people, Ruth Maleczech of Mabou Mines, having steadfastly refused to join Equity," -- the professional actor's union -- "is one exception, who actually choose to be freelance Off-Broadway actors." As a company, Mabou Mines always struggled to make ends meet financially, prompting Lee Breuer to once comment, “We're not upper middle class like everybody else in the avant-garde. Maybe Mabou Mines is the only truly lower-class theatre."

Ms. Maleczech agreed. "Mabou Mines is part of the working class," she said. "We work just like a carpenter or an electrician or anyone else."

She is survived by Mr. Breuer, and their two children, Clove and Lute.

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