Monday, March 4, 2013

Long Live the Beautiful Anarchist Revolution and Its Living Theater. This is Just the Beginning

“When I walk down the stairs into the Living Theater  I feel like I’m walking through the wardrobe into  another world,” I explained to Judith Malina last week, the Friday before the final performances at the Living Theater’s run on Clinton Street

“There is no other world, just this world,” Malina replied, insisting that there could be no separation between art and life.  We talked about her newest play, in which all the actors, the spectators, the crowd – everyone laces their own shoes – connecting everyday life with art and revolution.  Art and life are intricately tied.  We are all a part of the living theater she explained.  It is everywhere.  Every policeman, actor, student, activist, anarchist, every school teacher, and homeless person, we are all part of it – all contributing to the beautiful anarchist revolution she has imagined and supported for decades.

This is all part of the story of a theater dating back to June 1947.  On the 4th day of that year Judith Malina wrote in her diary that:  “While waiting for Julian to return from his Sierra adventure last summer, it was to Lola that I confided the earliest plans for the Living Theater, the most important work of my life, for which I am now preparing.”  The story finds expression in page after page of The Diaries of Judith Malina 1947-1957, John Tytell’s The Living Theater, and countless other volumes, performances, stories, and memories of those who have been touched by what it meant to participate.

The mission of the theater has always been:
To call into question
who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater,
to undo the knots
that lead to misery,
to spread ourselves
across the public's table
like platters at a banquet,
to set ourselves in motion
like a vortex that pulls the
spectator into action,
to fire the body's secret engines,
to pass through the prism
and come out a rainbow,
to insist that what happens in the jails matters,
to cry "Not in my name!"
at the hour of execution,
to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the
This is what The Living Theatre does today.
It is what it has always done
- Julian Beck

I first started attending shows there when Monica was performing there over the last six years.   The first show I saw there was  Maudie and Jane, starring Monica and Judith.  I was taken by Malina’s tenderness and openness performing with Hunken. 

Malina and Hunken in Maudie and Jane. 

Over the next few years, I saw Monica perform Blondie of Arabia, her story inspired from her adventures travelling through the middle east by bicycle.  She had first told it to all of us as we sat in Odessa, looking out of Tompkins Square Park, eating after a cold winter bike ride.  The living theater extents from our bike routes into the parks and the cafes and dinners - everywhere people share their stories. 

The living theater begins where the bike lane ends.
Photo: Libor Von Schonau

Other shows I attended included: Korach, The History of the World, the Wild Finish, and Here We Are

Top: scene from Korach, middle poster for Korach, bottom: Poster for Here We Are. 

In recent years, Times Up, the organizing group I work with, held valentines parties in which we danced into the night, enjoyed burlesque, and performed there.

Top Times Up! Valentines Party 2012, photo by Brennan Cavanaugh.
Bottom, the author at the 2013 party by JC Augustin.

On other nights, marching bands cascaded through the room or benefits for earth quake relief in Haiti.  The Living Theater was always there for everyone.

Here, like minded dreamers who've dropped into the Village from parts unknown for years, have met, schemed, dreamed, and narrated a different kind of space, a performance in living which challenged hierarchies, embraced the eros of anarchism, and the pleasure of the revolution of everyday life.  
Some of my fondest memories the last few years have taken place in and out of that theater on Clinton Street, down the street from my old apartment in the Lower East Side.  This was a space where we celebrated, fought, imagined, hoped, dreamed, and reveled in a bit of an in between space in the Village.  Here the past meets in a dialog with the present, as activist practices and legacies of street action clash, seduce, tremble, bodies shake, and we are a little more honest with ourselves.  Its a space where dreams and art, activism and drama met in a place which seemed outside the present moment.  Here, we were invited to dance and remember, to perform and encourage, bringing a very special part of ourselves and our memories to bear on the present moment.  

Monday night, Times Up rode to the theater after our planning meeting in Williamsberg. Josh was there.  Monica was just leaving after the show.  The bands were over she explained.  So, we walked next door to the salt bar for a drink and hearty time.   We hung out with some of Monica’s theater buddies till closing time.  Brennan would later write:  Laughing hard into the night with friends… was just the elixer i needed…. Good, hard and shining laughter. Thanks to good friends.  These are the moments afforded by the living theater of activism, the comrades we share, and spaces we enjoy, for brief moments, and hopefully for a lifetime.

Tuesday, I promised myself to join Monica and company for the last night of the Hot, Cheap Living Performance Festival.  “WE. LIVE. HERE. NOW” read flyers for the event.  “Eight days of performance in the last weeks of the famous LIVING THEATER.  The end of living? Screw that, we’re still here!” 

According to the festival website:  

There is still hot radical wild culture in NYC
We're making it affordable cuz you deserve it!
Every night of the festival we will have one or two performances of theater, puppetry, dance and more and then close out the night with a hot live band and the cheapest bar in downtown Manhattan!
What is Hot Cheap Living?
The end of the world arrived and left without ceremony. We're still here. Now what? We go on.
Every day we build a culture on change in a city where favorite neighborhood block fixtures are gone overnight, where one hot minute might be all you get.
Priced out. Kicked out. Blown over.
Here super storms put us in the dark and under water.

Go to Portland? Invade Detroit?
Nope. We’re still here. Not down.

This is the NYC Hot Cheap Living Festival.
We’re crowded on top of each other and we embrace the collapse of space. There is a living to be made here.
Hot cheap living speaks for itself.
Eight days of autonomous performance in the last weeks of the famous Living Theatre on Clinton Street.

Hot Cheap Living Brass
Hot Cheap Living Theatre
Hot Cheap Living Dance
Hot Cheap Living Art
The end of the Living?
Screw that, we’re still here.

Over the previous week countless friends, artisans, and comrades met for what felt like a 24 / 7 confab with buddies dancing late into the night after most every show.  The police had already raided the place once.  Keegan danced till four am.  Michele played a final gig with her band.  Monica put on Blondie of Arabia in its first home. And the festival was winding down. 

Tuesday, Gay Panic! was performing, along with:
Eric Wallach- Julian Beck reading
Dane Terry-pianist/ singer
Cheetahs on the Loose- female rap duo
Red Durrit- comedian
the Rumble- the hottest queer greaser dance party
Gay Panic- queer punk rock

 I dropped by around 8:45. Listening to stand up, hanging out.  Monica wore a brunette wig in honor of Judith Malina.  Red Durrit was performing.  The  intimate crowd seemed to enjoy the show, laughing at Durrit’s southern with with tranny taste of irony and fun, comedy like only a queer burlesque can offer.  
Gay Panic followed, inviting us into a Bowie like, Bauhaus moment of punk meeting glam, as we all danced along.

And Patrick, from Occupy the Pipeline, initiated the Rumble… leading dancing into the night.
Shirts came off.

The Rumble. By Monica Hunken
Emphemera from the last days of the theater. 

After the show, we hung out, ran to Barmundi, and watched the night ease into the day.

Later that night I chimed in on facebook. Thank you for a great night of dancing and art at the Living Theater... Long Live the Living Theater of our minds, stories, streets, and the blurry space between the sidewalk and the cavernous theater. Thank you for reminding me, showing me every day that all the world really is a stage here.

Barbara later chimed in: “What will I do at night once living theater closes. It's been an amazing wk of performers followed by good times at barmundi for after show drinks. We need more not less spaces like the living theater!

Wednesday would be the final night. 

Playbill for the last night. Peter joined me. 

Walking in John Clancy, of the New York Fringe festival, was reading from his one person show.  The subtext of the evicted artist, the theater losing its space, bubbled beneath his and every other performance of the evening. Clancey tallied the costs of the theater, night by night, month by month, year by year, month, minute by minute.  And asked if it was worth it, confessing that it seemed like a strange way to make a living, doing theater.  Still, writing stories which he writes, reads or he entices others to read, this was the only thing he knew how to do, tearing up.  Clancy finished his show burning a twenty dollar bill, while challenging the whole logic of capital and the ways it grips our lives.  

Penny Arcade performed with a purpose.

As she wrote on facebook:

This Wednesday at 9pm Feb 27th I do a special benefit performance for Judith Malina and The Living Theatre to whom i owe a great deal and so do YOU. She is being evicted from her apartment and theatre...driven OUT OF NEW YORK
The benefit is so she can have money for car services to drive in from New Jersey to work on her next play. Drag your ass out! $20 or pay what you can!

Arcade opened her show by pointing out that Malina was not at all retiring.  She still had plays to write, stories to tell.  She would probably die with her arm in the air giving stage directions. Reflecting on her life and career, as well as 60th birthday, Arcade turned her eye on the abundance of emerging artist grants.  All through history there have been beginning artists, those in the middle of their lives, and those getting older.  When did they become emerging artists?  “What the fuck is an emerging artist?... an entry level position for an arts career?” The training for this career of course was paid for by $250,000.00 for school.  And what of established artists, such as Malina?  Why was she getting the boot?

It is all part of a suburbanizing trend in New York, in which people no longer come to get lost in or rise up to the challenge of the city.  Instead people come and try to make it feel more like the city they left behind.
Yet, not everyone is so consumed.

Peter and I sat watching the show.  She’s  behind us, Peter commented, noting that Judith Malina was sitting one row behind us.  She looked tired, laying her head on the shoulder of a friend.

Penny spoke directly to Judith, on several occasions, complimenting her one handed joint rolling skills.  The crowd chimed in rolling with laughter and Malina demonstrated with a smile.

Everyone would like to see you Judith, someone chimed in.  

So she stood up to roaring applause. 

Penny’s show served as a pulsing homage to her friendship with Malina, their lives, stories, art, and the ways we all hope to continue to find a space for ourselves in a tough city, where many of us came for art and comradeship, not just high rents and long hours of work. In fact, work gets in the way of our sex lives, our whole lives, Penny reminded us.

Scenes from recent and historic Living Theater.  Paradise Now at  Yale, bottom. 

Throughout the evening, those in attendance, friends and supporters reveled in the ways the living theater helps them connect living, feeling, and participating. This was a theme of the film, Love and Politics, the film about both Malina’s career and the making of Korach, which followed Arcade’s performance.
The film showed both Malina in rehearsals, as well as historic footage of her performing, getting arrested, grieving, smoking a jay, laughing, persevering and writing more plays.

This is all part of the legendary story of the Living Theater.  As John Tytell writes in the living theater: art, exile and outrage:

In New York City, just after the end of the Second World War, two young theatrical aspirants named Judith Malina and Julian Beck dreamed of a theater that would challenge the moral complacencies of their audience and shake the world.  They called the theater they conceived the Living Theater….Their story is that of the formation of an avant-garde  in New York and a consequent counterculture in the 1960’s…. The company was also particularly flamboyant and daring, both onstage and off, attracting attention around the world and unleashing a backlash of attempted suppression and arrests… At the core of their engagement with theatre was notion espoused by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, that there could be no separation between art and life.  As pacifists and anarchists, they distrusted the system and the violence it engendered, both in the international cataclysms of war and everyday life….By [the 1960’s] the company had become a new kind of theatrical community, using hallucinogens like LSD, and sustaining an atmosphere of sexual openness… During the revolutionary  euphoria of 1968, the Living Theater returned to America for a national tour.  The overtly political  nature of plays like Paradise Now and the outrageousness of their communal life-styles in more conflicts with authority…  conservatives [saw] it as an unsettling bohemian disorder… (xi-iii). 

In Love and Politics, Al Pacino recalled seeing the Living Theater, Paradise Now, in New York in 1968.  He arrived with some friends thinking he was going to see some theater, not be the show.  Yet, the lessons of this experience were many.  “Theater is in the room,” he explained, talking about the Globe Theater, comparing it to the living theater. “When I saw Paradise Now, people were walking in and out….  People were leaving.  They are saying, ‘Ýou’re children.  I paid money for this.’ They said, ‘There is no such thing as money.’ ‘Oh yea right’” Pacino’s friends reply.  “So there we are and I’m sitting there with my girlfriend at the time.  And she for some reason wants to stay.  I want to stay but I’m scared. So I said to her, ‘I don’t know where this is going.’” Pacino goes outside for a smoke. “So I go outside and I’m pacing.  I don’t know what is happening in there.  So I have my cigarette and dare I go back in.  So I go back in and what do I see?  I guess it was the juxtaposition from being outside to being in.  I walk into something that was so alive it was like walking into somebody’s anatomy, with a heart breathing and everything about life. The room had changed from the moment I had gone out till the moment I had come back.  It was like an alive, living theater.  The people in the audience were now on the stage.  They were up screaming, pontificating, naked people. The atmosphere had changed and there was now a collective now going on.  The audience was the theater.  They were the event.  It was orchestrated, the whole thing.  And on the one side of the theater was Judith Malina and on the other side was Julian Beck.  And they were corralling us there.  They were controlling it on either side.  They were orchestrating it.  And it was literally the most exciting, vibrant thing…I can only describe it as changing my life…. What they were after, what they generated was a certain kind of theater…. Which is one of the things we say about the theater… when you go in… you don’t know what is going to happen… You don’t know how your life is going to change.”

Pacino’s animated recollections helped make the film, Peter mused after the show.

Watching the performers, several of whom I’ve come to know, walking into rehearsal and performing and the time that’s passed even since Korach was first staged in 2010, it felt like a lot of time had passed.  A lot of New York and our lives had changed. Relationships had come and gone, as had struggles and movements. Occupy was yet to come.  But we could see parts of the challenges it would face in the efforts to make Korach work, the struggle to come to consensus. It was hard to perform in Korach.  History of the World felt more intriguing to participate in.  After a show attended by several in Times Up!, a group of us ran to court to help do jail support for those arrested during Occupy, arrested for sitting on a park bench.  The living theater extends from the street to the square; the stage includes countless dramas and conflicts of our lives. And here we all were for a final night, one more night to participate in that beautiful anarchist revolution Malina had been conjuring up for over half a century.

I have never felt so ready to take part in living theater event.  I had told Judith I would see her show.  I promised her I would see it.  Well, there is only one more show, she reminded me. She said Here We Are was the best show she had ever written.

Hanging out, we talked and waited for the show to start, taking in the moment and memories.

At midnight Brad, Judith’s assistant, welcomed everyone to the final performance of the Living Theater on Clinton Street.

And so the story began.  After a foot massage by one of the actors and a tour through conflicts over human social organization, we were invited to make sandals.  As always the audience was the show.  Art and everyday life are closer than most of us think, we were reminded over and over.

In between voting and writing poems, the beautiful anarchist revolution required dancing. 

We are all the holiest of holy.

Malina has always reminded us we could be the beautiful anarchist revolution.  And so we  followed each other, lead, flowed, let our bodies take charge as we imagined what a peaceful revolution could mean for all of us.

This show felt more joyous and connected than anything in which I had ever taken part at the Living Theater. 
As the revolution was realized, Brad lead the crowd over to Judith, who sat watching in the corner, gesturing to her, fist bumping with hands opening an explosion into the air.

"Judith, Judith, Judith!!!!"we all chanted finishing the performance at the Living Theater on Clinton.

Thank you Judith Malina Brad Burgess Penny Arcade Peter and  Monica Hunken for making it an amazing night. Riding back at two am…. I was feeling very grateful and appreciative. Long live the living theater.
Waking the next morning, I reveled in the feeling of the show… My daughter was due to perform that morning at school. "I am Boris the wale," she declared at the William Steig fair. 

I spent the day hoping to connect the elated feelings I was having with that afternoon’s labor meeting and the evenings bluestockings reading on Queering Anarchism: Dressing and Undressing Power in which I was scheduled to participate.  I was to read my essay on “Harm Reduction as Pleasure Activism,” featured in the book.  The show had helped me reflect on the ways the streets are powerful as to be cruel, creative and violent, fueling a passion to take things apart and put them back together.  Yet, they also occasion violence, as Monica pointed out in Love and Politics the night before.  She recalled a story of Malina creating a space in her shows for unfettered passion, which exploded and sometimes exploited.  Without a radical definition of consent including the presence of a ‘yes’ as opposed to the absence of a ‘no’ Malina was once raped at show, Hunken recalled.  The streets are powerful as to be cruel.

Friday afternoon, several activists who’d taken part in the Living Theater, including Penny Arcade and my friend Barbara Ross, participated in a speak out about homelessness in the cold.  

Judy and Barbara Ross. Photo by Raphael Ortega

Ross poignantly described  her former husband’s loss in these streets.  

My ex-husband, Jon Cook, froze to death on 12/28/2012 on the streets of NYC. He went to sleep under a pile of his belonging on a bitter cold night and never woke up the next morning. He was homeless and was living in a doorway of a vacant storefront in the wealthy neighborhood of the Upper West Side. He was intelligent, eager to work, loved playing music and taking care of rescued dogs. But he was also severely troubled emotionally. He was diagnosed bipolar and struggled most of his life battling this disease. Myself, family and friends all desperately tried to prevent his downward spiral over the past decade with no success. He needed good professional help, something often unattainable for someone with no job, no insurance and already so far gone they don't believe they have any problem. His conditioned continue to worsen, leaving him penniless, unable to keep a job, and self medicating to make it through the days. At least 1 out of 3 of the people on the streets are mentally ill. They send them to the mental hospitals and then release them back on to the streets with no plan or follow up to prevent them from being picked up again and released over and over again. We need people to take this issue seriously that affects everybody. Thank you for drawing attention to this issue by having this protest about homelessness today, 1/29/2013

Thank you for these sage like words Barbara Ross. 

Thank you for reminding us that the revolution begins when we remember those locked up Judith and Julian.  Thank you for insisting “that what happens in the jails matters…”

The line between art and life and never simple or smooth.
The city is a living theater… a space where tragedy overlaps with play, dreams, hopes, revolutionary theater, children growing up, community gardens, struggles over public space and hopes for something better. 

some of the local art on display in the Nothing Yet Community Garden!
photo by Lopi LaRoe
The living theater extends into the playgrounds, from the streets, back  into the parks and our lives. 

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