May 5, 2007 New York Times
Underground Veteran Resurfaces in a Basement
By MELENA RYZIK
“I’ve always felt I belonged on the Lower East Side,” the 80-year-old avant-garde theater doyenne Judith Malina said recently as she sat on the terrace of her new apartment on Clinton Street. Several floors below, a half-dozen volunteers were putting the finishing touches on the 100-seat basement space that is the newest incarnation of her baby, the Living Theater. The opening night of “The Brig,” the first show there, was just hours away, but Ms. Malina made time to reminisce.
“The only time I lived down here,” she said, “was when I spent 30 days in the Women’s House of Detention.” That incarceration, for refusing to take shelter during an air-raid drill in 1957, was the second of many in a career that made her a pillar of the leftist cultural movement. Now, she said, “I really feel, finally, I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
And it took only a half-century. In 1947 Ms. Malina and her husband, the painter Julian Beck (she still refers to him by his full name, guru-like, though they were married for nearly 40 years), founded the Living Theater, an ensemble dedicated to challenging artistic and political conventions. For two decades they performed avant-garde and activist classics (Gertrude Stein, Lorca, Brecht) and naturalistic quasi-happenings. Audience interaction was the point, and confrontations, nudity, onstage and offstage sex and frequent police intervention were as much the marks of a good show as an ovation. (Ms. Malina, trained as an actress, did much of her best work with her arresting officers, she said.)
But the company was plagued with administrative and logistical problems. In 1963 its 14th Street theater was closed mid-run for tax evasion. Though the charge was eventually dropped, the couple’s antics at the trial, which they treated as an opportunity for anarchist performance, earned them a jail sentence for contempt of court.
The hoopla made them a cause célèbre but was not enough to keep them in New York. They continued to perform and teach, in various rented and public spaces in the United States and in Europe, but the theater has not had a dedicated building in New York for nearly 15 years.
The cheerful, modernist new Living Theater (the building was originally meant to be a hip restaurant, complete with two-story waterfall) seems at home among the neighborhood’s boutiques and bistros. And so, in a way, does its owner.
With witchy dyed black hair (she played the grandmother in the first “Addams Family” movie), ’60s-heavy eyeliner, a flowy black and orange pantsuit, black sneakers and big jewelry, Ms. Malina looks younger than her age. Her partner, Hanon Reznikov, 56, brought her a cup of coffee, though she hardly needed it. Sitting with one leg tucked under her, she frequently seemed moved enough by her own passion to nearly rock right out of her lawn chair.
“I just need to find sources for all the energy I get from what I see and hear around me,” she said. “I’m very inspired by the younger generation today. They understand, for instance, the balance between art and politics in a way that we had to struggle to understand it. I think it’s a good time for political theater.”
And does she still consider herself an anarchist or a pacifist or …?
“Still?” Ms. Malina said. “I’m just beginning! Still!?” She harrumphed and continued: “Each day starts with, ‘How much can I do today to get toward that B.N.V.A.R.’? You know what a B.N.V.A.R. is? It’s the beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution. That’s what we work for every day.”
The focus of the Living Theater has changed little since the days when B.N.V.A.R. might have been a household phrase. “As long as you hear the outcry of the needy, how can you not respond?” Ms. Malina asked. “If I was a shoemaker, I’d try to figure out how everybody could have shoes, but I’m an artist and I want to convey hope in a difficult situation.”
Her method today is the same as it was then: “The Brig,” Kenneth H. Brown’s stark drama about a military prison, was one of the Living Theater’s most successful works when it was first staged in 1963. Given the play’s resonance with news about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, it seemed a natural choice for the inaugural production in the new space, said Ms. Malina, who directed.
“I thought it would be one of the plays that we should do because it would encourage revolution,” she said. “It’s tragic that 30 years later it’s still valid. It shouldn’t be anymore.”
Four years ago she decided to realize her lifelong dream of having a theater with a living space above it. She sold the eight-room West End Avenue apartment where she had lived with Mr. Beck, who died in 1985, and their two children, and put the money into the Clinton Street space, where she has a 20-year lease but no other financing.
The reception from the theatrical world has been warm. “Tony Kushner promised us a new play,” Mr. Reznikov said. “Jim Rado, who wrote ‘Hair,’ just gave us a new play.” And Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, who has been promoting “The Brig” there, sent a bouquet of flowers, with a black card signed, “In socialist solidarity.”
But it remains to be seen whether socialist solidarity will fill seats. The opening-night crowd was mostly the couple’s gray-haired (and ponytailed) friends, and it had the air of a leftist reunion.
Still, Ms. Malina’s drive remains undimmed. She and Mr. Reznikov were elated to find a building with an elevator to ferry her between the apartment and the theater — “so she can direct until she’s 105,” Mr. Reznikov said.
She still begins her day by writing in a diary. Two collections of her entries — one spanning 1947 to 1957, and the other, “The Enormous Despair,” a memoir of her American homecoming in 1968 — have been published so far. In their three-room apartment, still sparsely furnished, save for dozens of boxes with labels like “thesis + texts,” Ms. Malina sits at a small wooden desk with a green-shaded lamp, editing poetry and working on a book about the director Erwin Piscator, a progenitor of Brecht’s. (She began it in 1945, when she studied with Piscator.)
With the help of one employee, she runs the theater alongside Mr. Reznikov, who took over where Mr. Beck left off, personally and professionally. Among her other projects is preparing for the Living Theater’s next show, a two-woman play based on a Doris Lessing novel. Ms. Malina expects to star.
What does she like to do for fun?
“I like to make love,” Ms. Malina said. “Study. I don’t do much else except study, make love and run the theater.”
“I mean,” she added, “we’re big love bugs. We think that’s the answer: Make love, not war.”