BY ALBERT AMATEAU | The Living Theatre did not die on April 10 with the passing of Judith Malina, the Living’s founder and guiding genius, say her friends and colleagues who shared their memories of her with The Villager last week.
Bob Fass, talk show host of many years on WBAI, recalled the first time he met Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, the theater troupe’s co-founder.
“I was in the Army at the time, 1959 or ’60, and I heard they were putting on Pirandello’s ‘Tonight We Improvise.’ I studied improvisation with Sanford Meisner, so I went to the theater on 14th St. to see it. After the show, I went backstage and told Judith that I had gone AWOL to see the performance. She told me not to go back and to stay and work with the company — I wasn’t willing to do that,” Fass said.
“I was friends with a lot of people in the Living Theatre,” Fass said. “Steve Ben Israel was one of them. He went with them to Brazil sometime in the ’70s where they held workshops with kids in a village and developed a play from the dreams the kids told. The company was arrested after one performance. At least one of them, Jim Anderson, was tortured. But Steve escaped and turned up at my house in New York. He started a campaign that drew outraged responses from all over the world. They finally let the company go after four months,” Fass said.
Fass recalled how Living Theatre’s convention-shattering methods broke down the barrier between audience and actors.
“I was in the audience at one of their shows — I think it was ‘Paradise Now,’ in the 1980s at Brooklyn Academy of Music — and took off my clothes along with a few others in the audience,” he recalled.
“I was in ‘Poland 1931,’ a play by Jerome Rothenberg that the Living Theatre did on the Lower East Side in the ’80s. It was about some intellectual Jews who leave the shtetl and get caught up in a Nazi-inspired pogrom. I played Judith’s husband,” Fass said.
“She was very courageous,” Fass said. “In her 80s she got naked playing a homeless woman befriended by a model. They were both naked in a bathtub — giving each other a bath.”
Joanie Fritz Zosike also recalled acting in “Poland 1931.” A singer and musician, she eventually supervised music for the Living’s productions.
“I was kind of scared of her,” she said of Malina. “She was very exacting. Judith and I did solo pieces together a few years later,” said Zosike, who served as the Living’s managing director from 1990 to 1993. “In 1990 we all went to Bergamo, Italy, and then to Augsburg, Germany, Bertolt Brecht’s birthplace,” Zosike recalled.
For a time, the company found a home for its productions on E. Third St. between Avenues C and D.
“Judith had been a singing waitress early on at a West Village cafe run by Valeska Gert,” Zosike said. “I know that was a big influence on her — along with Erwin Piscator at The New School.
“Judith could be diplomatic or blunt, direct and simple. She was forceful but she was nervous driving a car, and nervous when the telephone rang — she hated being on the telephone,” Zosike recalled.
Joanee Freedom recalled meeting Malina and Beck in 1983 in Europe when she was dating their son, Garrick Beck.
“Garrick and I were a couple at the time,” she said. “The Living Theatre was in Nantes and I came up from Paris to become a costume apprentice to Julian. He was a painter and designer. I spent my first day sitting next to Judith and rolling joints for her while she was blocking the play that was in rehearsal at the time,” Freedom said.
When the company returned from Europe, Freedom designed Living Theatre shows at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea and Theater for the New City in the East Village.
Julian Beck died in 1985. Hanon Reznikov, who wrote several works for the Living Theatre and subsequently married Malina, died in 2008.
So, what about the future of the Living Theatre?
It is alive and thriving, said Garrick Beck, who makes his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but frequently visits New York.
Although true to the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution ethos of Judith and Julian, the Living Theatre is now a little more structured than before. Garrick Beck is president and board chairperson, Brad Burgess is artistic director, and Tom Walker, the most senior member of the Living Theatre, is chief archivist.
“Until I was about 14, I thought everybody was an artist — a painter, an actor, a dancer. They might have jobs, but their life was pursuing their art,” said Garrick, who was born on the Upper West Side in 1949. “Julian was a painter and his friends were painters — Expressionists.”
What was it like in such a household?
“Well, they let me stay up as late as I liked,” he recalled. “The first productions were in our living room.”
He went to college out West and returned to New York for several years, living at Avenue B and Sixth St.
“I got involved in the neighborhood, the Avenue B Garden, Children’s Liberation Preschool,” he said
Beck expects the Living Theatre to be a collaborative exercise.
In the near future, the Living Theatre will be in the street with three performances of “No Place to Hide” in front of the New Museum on Bowery at Stanton St. on Sat., May 30.
Members of the company will also take part in the Lower East Side Festival at Theater for the New City, at First Ave. at E. 10th St., on Fri., May 22. And in June, the Boo Hooray Gallery, at 265 Canal St., will present an exhibit of the Living Theatre and Judith Malina.
In the fall, at a time and place to be announced, there will be a memorial for Malina.