Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theatre, June 4, 1926 – April 10, 2015

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“Tremble: your whole life is a rehearsal for the moment you are in now”~Judith Malina

Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theatre, died this morning at age 88.

From her obituary in the New York Times:

For movie and television buffs, especially those not old enough to remember beatniks, Lenny Bruce, Vietnam War protests or other symbols of remonstration against Eisenhower-era complacency, Ms. Malina was best known as a character actress. She appeared on “The Sopranos” (as Aunt Dottie, a dying nun who reveals to the gangster known as Paulie Walnuts that she is actually his mother) and in films including “The Addams Family,” Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and, perhaps most memorably, “Dog Day Afternoon,” as the anguished and frantic mother of Sonny Wortzik, the misguided bank robber played by Al Pacino.

But she 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.

Appreciation of a theatrical trailblazer by Charles McNulty in the L.A. Times

Had Judith Malina never existed, the 1960s would surely have had to invent her. Yet it was Malina, a diminutive, German-born, American theater provocateur of immense boldness, recklessness, commitment and courage, who actually helped crystallize our notions of 1960s aesthetic and political radicalism with the Living Theatre, the company she founded with husband Julian Beck in 1948.

Malina and Julian Beck began the Living Theatre in the 1940s, which for the last several decades has been called “legendary,” though many attached angrier adjectives at the beginning.

From an interview with her in 2014:

Born in Kiel, Germany, in 1926, Malina says that her early life experiences, which included fleeing Germany with her parents, shaped her political vision. (Her father was an outspoken critic of the Nazis and feared their rise was inevitable.) But she also believes that her future as an actress was something that was preordained.

LivingTheaterJudithMalina“My mother had been an actress,” she says, “but my father was a rabbi, so she had to quit. This was the 1920s. A rabbi couldn’t be married to an actress. Although, today, you can be a rabbi and an actress. See how far we’ve come?”

Her parents, she adds, “didn’t just want a daughter, they wanted an actress to take my mother’s place.” And as soon as the family moved to New York, when Malina was 3 years old, she was immediately introduced to performing.

“When we first got to New York,” she recalls, “my father was trying to make people aware of what was going on in Germany, and he later worked to get German Jews out of concentration camps. And I was out there, reciting poetry to get the American public to pay attention. I would read these sad poems and my mother would be standing there, counting the handkerchiefs. If there weren’t enough handkerchiefs, I got scolded.”

Malina met Beck in 1943, when she was just 17,

In later years, as both a writer and actress, Malina soon embraced… revolution …

“I would like to get rid of poverty, ban money and national boundaries, and get rid of prisons, cops and violence,” she says.

“Because if we keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to destroy the planet.”

My last review of a show at the Living Theatre, in 2013:

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At the start of the hugely engaging “Here We Are,” the final production of the Living Theatre at its current home, I am greeted by a performer named Jay Dobkin, a member of the influential avant-garde political theater company that Julian Beck and Judith Malina founded in 1947. Dobkin helps me put away my coat and bag: “We’ll be exploring the whole of human history tonight; we don’t want your stuff to be toppled by the Roman Army,” he jokes. He then spends the entire 75 minutes of “Here We Are” guiding me through what feels like an arts-and-crafts workshop at a summer camp. He traces my feet onto pieces of plastic and then helps me make sandals out of it; he hands me a blindfold to put on briefly while the cast chants, “We are the prisoners”; he gives me a “ballot” and instructs me to put it in a ballot box and tell everybody what I would like most to see happen in the world; he encourages me to dance with some of the other performers. In-between his ministrations to me, he joins the rest of the ensemble, backed by a live band, to chant, sing, and dance while waving banners; portray citizens of France, Spain, and the Ukraine; and present a gleeful finale involving freeform dancing and a song whose lyric consists of the repeated refrain “the beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution.”

Dobkin, who describes himself as an anarchist, a pacifist, and an atheist, has been a member of the Living Theatre since 1997. Most of the rest of the company in “Here We Are” looks as if they were in kindergarten then. Young, attractive, and welcoming, each is assigned to a different member of the audience, their aim to make us feel connected. This is not a theater that establishes its experimental credentials by confrontation.

Some would find it easy to spoof what the Living Theater does. Dressed all in black, moving gracefully while chanting about revolution, the 15 lithe performers seem the living embodiment of those long-ago Jules Feiffer cartoons in the Village Voice about bohemian New Yorkers titled “A Dance to…” But, using the language of the avant-garde, “Here We Are” has some substantive things to say. Its writer and director, the 86-year-old Malina—who sits unobtrusively in the corner during the performance—presents an argument that the next step in civilization is self-rule by what she calls “anarchist consensus.” We are presented with scenes from three anarchist collectives in history—the Paris Commune in 1871, the Ukraine in 1918, and Barcelona in 1936—that she says functioned well, until the authorities toppled them.

Forced from the theater it has occupied for six years (and still searching for someplace more affordable), the Living Theatre, rightly labeled legendary but still fresh, is worth catching even if you find its values or approach foreign. Would you decline the chance to see Sarah Bernhardt just because you didn’t speak French?

Presented by and at the Living Theatre, 21 Clinton St., NYC. Jan. 23–Feb. 23, 2013

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“To stand up on the stage is to say to many people: Look at me. How can you do that without speaking the only truth you know? There is no such thing as an uncommitted actor.”~Judith Malina

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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