For Judith Malina, Place is a State of Mind
For Judith Malina, place has always been a state of mind. This tiny giant of the theatre world has epitomized the life of a nomad over her 66 years of work with the Living Theatre. Her peripatetic career has taken her company to five continents; she herself has gone from serving time in prison to performing in South American prisons, even to a self-imposed exile from the U.S.
Nonetheless, my first reaction was sadness when I read a report yesterday that she was losing her home above the Living Theatre’s basement performing space on the Lower East Side and moving to an elder care facility in New Jersey. Malina was a theatre legend before I knew what theatre was. She and her husband Julian Beck started challenging artistic and political conventions in 1946, staging plays by Gertrude Stein and Bertolt Brecht. Then they virtually created theatrical “happenings” in the 1960s, using confrontation, audience interaction, improvised music, nudity, and radically unconventional staging. A police presence at most of their events became the norm. The company espoused what they call “BANVR”—a Beautiful Anarchist Non-Violent Revolution.
I caught up with the company in the 1970s at a performance at the Round House in London. I thought of it as paying my respects, like visiting a museum or watching a living relic. Yes, there was music, dancing, nudity, untrained voices and bodies that expressed a kind of free-for-all approach to making an event, everything I had expected from reading about the group in my theatre history books.
But at one point, the performers hung small boxes around their necks and wandered out into the audience. With each actor addressing a small segment of the audience, he or she opened the boxes to reveal small stages and told stories illustrated by colorful puppets. Each story was different, each presentation personal. Then the actors rejoined and built the stories to a climax of music and movement that ended with the entire audience dancing with the performers onstage and off, until there was no difference between “onstage” and “offstage.” They had broken the audience apart, then joined us together. This, I thought, was what theatre could be, a Living Theatre.
Now this icon of anarchy is going to the Lillian Booth Actors Home run by the Actors Fund in Englewood, NJ. The fund exists to help everyone in entertainment who experiences need, and right now the woman known to most people as the original Granny in The Addams Family movie needs a home, a place to plan her next move.
"It's a nice place. It's beautiful," she told The Daily News. "But I don't want a nice place that's beautiful.” And she told The Forward, “We’ll keep going. If we have no place, we’ll do street theater. We can always work on the street and pass the hat.”
Reading those words, I felt my original sadness about Judith Malina turn to admiration. She’s had homes, she’s left homes; she’s lived without a home for so long that I can’t believe she won’t continue to live her work, to create an expression in the world that is free, that speaks to everyone, that breaks us apart and puts us back together.
“As long as you hear the outcry of the needy, how can you not respond?” Malina asked the New York Times in 2007. “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.”