Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Living Theatre Is Dead...?

Save the Living Theatre! from Lucky Ant on Vimeo.

The Clinton Street home of the Living Theatre in Manhattan for the last five years or so has become too expensive for Judith Malina and the remnants and disciples of the theatre company she founded with Julian Beck in 1947 to maintain.

Of course, there have been many closings for the Living Theatre in the past. Their cutting edge work, which was -- and still is -- well beyond any American Establishment notion of "what the theatre should be and is supposed to be", never made them many of the Right Kind of Friends in the perfected power structures of the 1950's and 1960's and that kept them homeless and on the run more often than not.

That was OK back in the day, as the vitality of The Living Theatre didn't depend on having a permanent performance site. But New York being New York, they were subject to constant official harassment and eviction even from some of their temporary sites. They didn't -- couldn't -- fit the format of The Theatre as it was supposed to be.

It's hard for me to express just how much influence The Living Theatre had on my formative notions of what kind of theater I wanted to do if I ever had a chance to do it as I wanted to. I never saw a live performance by The Living Theatre in all my years in the field, though there were some films of their performances circulating back in the day. It was primarily a book that inspired me, however.


It would be wrong to claim that nothing like that had been done before; after all there was an enormous amount of creative ferment on the fringes of the theatre throughout the 1950's and 1960's, much of it done by The Living Theatre itself, and I would see as I learned and did more, that this ferment stretched all the way back to the turn of the century and work done in Europe and Russia to free the theatre from the shackles of convention. While all kinds of experimentation in the theater had been going on for generations, there had never been, to my highly imperfect knowledge, so much confrontational involvement with an audience in America as there was in "Paradise Now," nor had there been so much nudity on stage, so much open pot use, and so much integration between the "stage" and the "audience." It was a revelation to me that these sorts of things could even be contemplated let alone done.

Freeing the theater from the shackles of convention seemed to be complete with the Living Theatre's production of "Paradise Now" -- and yet looking backward, it seems that the conventions and shackles of today are much stronger than they were then, and the idea of doing something like "Paradise Now" as a political statement, inveterate social criticism, performance art, and integrative theatre today would be even more difficult than it was then. It's not that it couldn't be done at all... it could be (I suppose), but only in such a rarefied atmosphere and location that it couldn't/wouldn't be seen by more than a handful.

The first Living Theatre production I recall seeing (on film) was "The Brig" which must have been in 1966 or 1967 at the Midnight Movies down the street from my home at the time. By the standards of the day, I suppose it was a fairly radical production, though it would be considered rather tame and conventional now. The topic, however, of violence and inhumanity in the military and particularly in Marine Corps brigs, is quite contemporary given the Bradley Manning Thing and the vague, dawning realization that the United States has become a prison society operating gulags domestically and all over the world, in which millions upon millions of human beings are incarcerated, tormented, to live if they can, and in too many cases to die.

The Living Theatre has been very influential over the decades, but even so, its European and Russian progenitors like Artaud and Meyerhold have a much higher profile in the American theater than do Julian Beck and Judith Malina. Why that is could be the subject of another essay, but maybe not.

After all, we closed our theater almost 20 years ago now (gee, has it really been that long?)  What we managed to accomplish has inspired more than a few people and organizations to carry on the work we pioneered. While we took many risks and opened eyes and minds to what could be, we were never in a position to entirely break through the conventions which then and now hidebind the theater.

That was and is for something like The Living Theatre.

So, all hail. And what will come after? Something tells me The Living Theatre will live on...
The Beautiful Nonviolent Anarchist Revolution from Earl Dax on Vimeo.

A Continuation of Sorts: I've been reading an issue of Tulane Drama Review (available to read online, free with signup to JSTOR -- I know, I know. Don't know whether the link will work...) from 1964 about the 1963 bankruptcy and closure of the Living Theatre in New York. It was something I vaguely recalled hearing about back in the day, but it was well after the event when I heard about it, and all the details brought out in this issue of TDR escaped my notice at the time. I am made physically ill by some of the commentary by various theatre leading lights of the time -- such as Peter Zeisler as one contemptible example. I came to know him sometime later in connection with another theater in crisis and I found him to be singularly unhelpful (to say the least), and yes, the theater in question did close as a result of his and his colleagues' ministrations. But his attitude then was little different from his attitude toward the financial difficulties of the Living Theatre years before. It was simply that if the theater couldn't or didn't attract a substantial audience consistently, it didn't "deserve" to survive, period, end of discussion. Bye. Bye. No matter what "creative" (ptooie) leaps were undertaken.

I encountered this attitude widely, consistently -- and disturbingly -- in the nonprofit theater field, and I see now where it came from. It was built in to the fabric of what became the non-profit regional theater from a time long before it became well-established nationwide. That "establishment" took place in large part thanks to the role of government funding through the NEA and the extensive network of Arts Commissions and Arts Councils that resulted from it.

The idea of any kind of "creativity" which wasn't necessarily immediately popular was simply anathema in the field. If one wanted to take risks, one did what everyone else was doing. In fact, when one did what the Moscow Art Theatre had done sixty years before, that was considered about as "creative" as anyone ever needed to be -- and radical, too.

Many of us struggled against that attitude through various subversive means and methods, but few of us were ever successful at it simply because funding the theaters relied on was largely dependent on toeing a rather narrow line.

In my view, the theater -- which once showed such promise and relevance thanks to such creative souls as the Becks and others in the 1950's and 1960's -- has ossified once again. There are still plenty of enthusiasts to be sure, but there isn't a whole lot of spirit anymore, in large part because of the necessity of toeing that line "in order to survive."

Yet another institutional failure...

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