Astounding as it may seem, this year the Living Theatre, that crucible of counterculture and standard-bearer of youthful rebellion, will turn 60 years old. Co-founder Judith Malina will be 80.
Unlike some companies that stay afloat by playing it safe, the Living Theatre has survived by notoriously doing the opposite. Inspired largely by the writings of radical French theorist Antonin Artaud, the company’s productions have influenced many, and shocked and alienated many more. Their 1959 production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection featured real junkies. Their much ballyhooed 1968 return to the United States following a European “exile” unveiled a repertoire of controversial works incorporating moments that might be described as orgiastic. “Le Living” (as the company came to be known during their Paris sojourn) has seemed during their various American incarnations to be less a company on the move than on the lam, having had each of their past spaces closed for violations by one government authority or another. On April 12, these prodigal sons and daughters will return, with a brand-new theater space on the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street.
“We thought it was time to get back in the belly of the beast,” says director Hanon Reznikov, who has been with the company since 1968. “Since the buildings department shut down our last New York space in ’93, we have worked mostly in Italy, where they gave us this beautiful palazzo to work in. We love it, but this is the time we should be working here. We’re excited by a fresh burst of energy in the protest movement on the part of young people.”
Malina concurs: “There was a great surge of activity in ’68 through ’70, then there was a retreat. Somehow we weren’t ready for it. The vision and the energy was there, but not the knowledge of how to put it together. People got discouraged. They stopped being involved, and they told their kids, ‘You can’t do that today.’ But now there’s a new generation—the grandkids. They don’t give a shit about what happened in ’68. It’s a completely new movement. The kids we’ve been working with are astonishingly perceptive and come to us with a political know-how we never had back in the ’60s.”
“There’s this emerging global consciousness,” Resnikov adds. “We’re starting to see, for the first time in a long while, a commitment to the possibility of eliminating poverty and the military option.”
Speaking out against the latter seems highest on the company’s agenda at the moment. They will launch the new space with a revival of Kenneth Brown’s
The Brig, an uncompromising exposé of the brutality of military discipline in a Marine barracks. The selection of the show seems provocative; the Living Theatre’s original production in 1963 was shut down when the IRS closed their 14th Street location for nonpayment of taxes.
“The play shows how it’s possible for nice young people from Wisconsin to commit atrocities,” Malina explains. “They receive all this obedience training and do all this drilling, and it becomes irresistible for them to obey rather than think or feel.”
“Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib,” Reznikov says, “show how relevant the play still is.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the degree of business savvy the theater world’s most famous living anarchists are bringing to this enterprise. The new space, which they own, has been professionally designed by Italian artist Marco Nereo Rotelli, and will contain a café and a store selling T-shirts, souvenir photos, and DVDs-—a far cry from Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre.”
“For years we’ve had to go to Europe to make a living,” Malina says. “But right now we are determined to make this new space work. If you’ll allow me a bit of hubris, Italy loves us-—but America needs us.”