The End Of The Living Theater

Post Urban Culture

The following article on the demise of yet another New York institution appeared in the New York Daily News today.  It seems the Living Theater on Clinton Street, just south of Houston in my adopted home neighborhood of the Lower East Side is closing.  The cutting edge theater simply couldn’t afford to pay its rent anymore.

(From the New York Daily News)

A lower East Side theater that championed anarchism, Utopian experimentalism for 66 years will close for good this week — and its fiery founder will spend her remaining days in an unhappy retirement.

Judith Malina will move Thursday to the Lillian Booth home for retired artists in New Jersey after losing her lease on Clinton Street’s Living Theatre, where she produced cutting-edge theater for six decades.

“I’m in the theater because I’m a revolutionary and I’m very unhappy about having to give this place up,” Malina told The News.

Malina had put $800,000 of her own money into the basement performance space — the profits from the sale of her late husband’s art collection — but had fallen four months behind on the rent.

Even donations from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono couldn’t save the theater, which started out producing stage works by Gertrude Stein,. William Carlos Williams and the Europeans Jean Cocteau and Bertolt Brecht.

“It might’ve been easier if we had taken all the money we had six years ago and gone to Bushwick, but Judith in her 80s didn’t want to live in Bushwick,” said Tom Walker, who has been with the theater for 40 years.

The diminutive actress, who appeared in major motion pictures as “The Addams Family” and “Enemies: A Love Story,” lived in a modest apartment above the theater — a cost-cutting measure after living in a sprawling upper West Side apartment for 50 years.

“If this was France or Japan or almost anywhere else in the world, Judith would be considered a national treasure and she’d be supported,” said Penny Arcade, the veteran lower East Side performance artist who is doing a benefit for Malina Wednesday.

The theater group has performed on five continents, often at non-traditional venues such as prisons and steel mills. Two of the Living Theatre’s best known productions, “The Connection” and “The Brig,” marked the start of the Off-Broadway movement in the late 1950s.

But like American jazz artists who sometimes find it easier getting gigs in Europe than they do at home, the Living Theatre has struggled in New York. The company’s leftist politics likely curtailed grants from government and corporations.

But to the end, The Living Theatre stayed true to itself. The final production,

“Here We Are,” featured audience participation, with ticketholders learning how to make sandals and then dancing with the actors on stage. A narrator recited Utopian verse.

And Malina’s feistiness has not faded, mocking the Lillian Booth facility as “a f—— old age home.”

“It’s a nice place. It’s beautiful,” she softened. “But I don’t want a nice place that’s beautiful.”

In fact, she’s already plotting her next production.

“I’m definitely going to continue creating plays,” she said. “I’m thinking about doing a play about old age there called ‘The Triumph of Time.’”

I read this article and flashed on a drive I was making from Detroit to Ann Arbor one warm early summer night in 1990.  Mitch Ryder was on the radio discussing his career.  He mentioned his years in New York and how he never would have had a success if not for his years of failure in New York.  This is a point the Daily News article hints at but fails to fully explore.

Artists, much like athletes, need to fail many times over in order to learn how to succeed.  That failure will generally alienate many folks in the ‘mainstream’ of the country.  But that’s one of the things First Amendment guarantees, a freedom to alienate, to fail but to say the things the artist (or anyone for that matter) feels need to be said.  The punters may not like it, Main Street may not like it but in a few years, the art or opinion or book or musical form or whatever might actually be wildly successful.  (See Husker Du to Nirvana 1987-1991.)

Perhaps Judith should have moved to Hoboken and re-branded.  Maybe not.  Maybe she did the right thing.  In reality, the Living Theater was caught between the Politically Correct Health Fascists on the Left who love to tell you what to eat say and do and their chief ally Hizzooner Michael Bloomberg who pushes their agenda yet is a Corprotist Blue Suit who secretly governs from the right.

The sad truth is New York has become the shinning jewel of the end of the First Amendment.  If they can’t shut you up, they’ll jack your rent and financially force you out.  This from the the city that gave us the Beats, The Velvet Underground, the Fluxus School, Punk Rock, Modernism and Post Modernism.

In short the only lesson to take from the end of the Living Theater is keep your mouth shut and head down.  If your ass gets out of line, they’ll run you the fuck out of town.

(Hat Tip: Tifanie McQueen)






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