Judith Malina, Living Theater Founder, Dies at 88

Posted on: April 13th, 2015 at 5:15 am by
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Judith Malina, co-founder of the groundbreaking Living Theater, died on Friday morning in her Englewood, New Jersey home. Cause of death was attributed to lung cancer from years of smoking. She was 88.

The New York Times has a robust obituary on Malina, but we’ll republish a few tidbits here…

But [Malina] steered a far more emphatic and influential course with the troupe sometimes known simply as the Living, which occupied the leading edge of stage experimentation in the 1950s and 1960s and both fed and fed on the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. It was perhaps the most prominent and persistent advocate for a “new theater,” one that sought to dissolve the accepted artifice of stage presentations, to conjoin art and political protest, and to shrink, if not eliminate, the divide between performers and the audience.

Idealistic and fervent, [Malina and husband Julian Beck] began planning a new kind of theater company in 1947, when she was 21 and he a year older. The troupe’s first public production, Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” was staged in 1951 at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village.

The period of Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina’s greatest impact and notoriety began in the late 1950s with productions that included groundbreaking dramas like “The Connection” (1959), Jack Gelber’s harrowing depiction of a den of heroin addicts, and “The Brig” (1963), Kenneth H. Brown’s portrayal of a harsh day in the life of a Marine prison. (Both were made into films.) It was during the run of “The Brig” that the Living was shut down by the Internal Revenue Service — an event that led to demonstrations outside the company’s home at West 14th Street and Avenue of the Americas, with placards bearing slogans like “Art Before Taxes.”

Mr. Beck and Ms. Malina represented themselves at their trial, arguing that it was both wrong and unreasonable for the government to take away their theater without making a good-faith effort to help them save it, and that their nonviolent civil disobedience was a reaction against the unfair administration of the law. But they also turned the trial into a loopy spectacle that included rambling speechifying, outbursts of protest and Ms. Malina’s recitation of her poems.

Mr. Malina and Mr. Beck were fined and given brief jail sentences, though pending an appeal they were allowed to leave for Europe, where the Living had bookings, and they and the company went into self-imposed exile.

The Living Theater location on the Lower East Side sputtered to its conclusion in 2013 when the experimental troupe was evicted from the premises. Despite a grassroots effort to crowdfund for its survival. Apparently the crew will continue to produce content, but under the tutelage of Brad Burgess, Tom Walker and Garrick Beck, who will share directorial duties.

Meanwhile, the theater at Clinton Street is now creative refuge for the COW Theater (“Celebration of Whimsy”).

Read the full Times obit here.

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