Ruth Maleczech, 74, a founder of avant-garde troupe

Ruth Maleczech in a photo posted on the Mabou Mines Facebook page.
Ruth Maleczech in a photo posted on the Mabou Mines Facebook page.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Ruth Maleczech, a co-founder of Mabou Mines, the renowned experimental theater group based in the P.S. 122 arts complex in the East Village, and a leading performer in the company, died peacefully in her sleep on Sept. 30. She was 74.

She had stage-four breast cancer and had moved a few weeks ago from her longtime home on Bank St. in the West Village to a ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn to be near her son, Lute Breuer, according to her daughter, Clove Galilee.

“Ruth was our mentor and our mother,” Galilee said. “She was an uncompromising artist who devoted over 50 years of her life to the theater as a performer, director and mentor.”

Together with her partner, Lee Breuer, the director Joanne Akalaitis, the composer Philip Glass and the actor David Warrilow, Maleczech was a founding member in 1970 of the avant-garde theater troupe that took its name from a site in Nova Scotia that Glass was thinking of buying. The name appealed to the founders because “it sounded like a band.”

Maleczech, who at the time of her death was working with her daughter on “Imagining the Imaginary Invalid,” a new version of Moliere’s “Imaginary Invalid,” directed more than a dozen Mabou Mines productions, including “Imagination Dead Imagine” by Samuel Beckett in 1984 and “A Song for New York” in 2007, a response to the World Trade Center attack.

Mabou Mines productions are mounted on various Off and Off Off Broadway stages, but the company’s home base since the early 1980s has been in the city-owned P.S. 122 complex on First Ave. at E. Ninth St. The city is currently renovating the former school building.

The company’s first permanent stage was at La MaMa E.T.C. on E. Fourth St. after Ellen Stewart, La MaMa’s artistic director, saw Mabou Mines’ four-hour-long “The Red Horse Animation.” Later, Joe Papp invited the company to play at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Maleczech performed in more than 20 Mabou Mines productions between 1970 and 2009, many directed by her partner and co-founder Lee Breuer. In 2007 she played Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, in a play directed by Sharon Fogarty, artistic co-director of Mabou Mines. Maleczech also created roles in many other Off Broadway and regional theaters.

Fogarty, who was artistic director of the Daedelus Theater Company in residence at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Suffolk St. on the Lower East Side, also worked on Mabou Mines productions in the 1990s.

“At one point, Ruth said, ‘You know business, right?’ The next thing I knew, I was company manager,” Fogarty recalled. “That’s the kind of company it was. You could find yourself doing things you didn’t think you could.”

However, Fogarty found that  managing the Mabou Mines company and directing the Daedelus Company at the same time became unsustainable, and Maleczech and Breuer invited her to direct all her projects at Mabou Mines.

“Ruth turned to me and said, ‘So what do you want to make?’ It was an intimidating question, but I’d just read a biography of Nora Joyce, James Joyce’s wife, so I suggested a piece about Lucia, their daughter. They went for it because of the Beckett connection. Lucia was in love with Beckett,” Forgarty recalled. Since the mid-1980s, Beckett has been a Mabou Mines favorite.

Shakespeare is another challenge that the company and Maleczech have taken on. “Lear,” a female version of “King Lear,” was developed in the late 1980s with the men’s roles played by women and the women’s roles played by men. Maleczech played a matriarchal Lear in mid-20th-century American South. The finished production in 1990 received unfavorable notices by mainstream media. But the late Ross Wetzsteon, the Village Voice theater critic, hailed the production, and Maleczech’s performance in particular, as a cultural landmark.

Maleczech remained faithful to the avant-garde vision and took bad notices with pride. She preferred to consider herself a performer and theater-maker rather than an actor. She joined Actors’ Equity in 1989 only in order to play in Jean Genet’s “The Screens” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

In a written tribute, her daughter and son said, “Despite her success and renown in the world of experimental theater, Ruth remained an approachable artist who deeply appreciated the work of others. She made herself accessible, encouraging, mentoring and guiding countless theater artists in the ways of Downtown theater, helping them navigate and carve out a place in the New York scene.”

Her daughter, a director and choreographer, recalled growing up on Avenue A and later on St. Mark’s Place where the family lived before moving to Bank St.

Ruth Sophia Reinprecht was born in Cleveland, the daughter of Yugoslav immigrants, and was raised in Phoenix, Ariz., where her father, a steelworker, had moved the family because of his health. Ruth changed her name in 1969 to a variant of her mother’s maiden name. Ruth took her first steps on stage in a school play at the age of eight. When she was 16 she went to Los Angeles where she enrolled in the theater department at U.C.L.A. She then went to San Francisco, an important new theater center, where she studied with Herbert Blau at the Actor’s Workshop, and then with Ronnie Davis at what became the renowned San Francisco Mime Troupe. There she met the troupe’s founding director, Lee Breuer, and became his partner.

The couple went to Paris where for about six years they earned a living dubbing films. More importantly for Maleczech, they met Jerzy Grotowsky, the Polish director and theorist whose ideas greatly influenced her. Maleczech also went to East Berlin to observe rehearsals and attend performances of Berthold Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble.

Mabou Mines hopes next year to mount “Imagining the Imaginary Invalid,” which Maleczech and her daughter had been developing. A memorial for Ruth Maleczech is planned for a date to be announced.