Theater In Conversation
JUDITH MALINA with Ellen Pearlman
In 1947, Judith Malina, along with her late husband Julian Beck, founded The Living Theatre, a radical and controversial ensemble. Judith, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish-German rabbi, had become involved with Beck at age 17 and attended Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School on a scholarship.
Part of the avant-garde movement of the early 1940s, which became more political during the McCarthy era, Malina and Beck were jailed for their non-violent political resistance. In 1959 they won an Obie for their production of Jack Gerber’s The Connection. But in the 1960s, because of trouble with the IRS, they were jailed for tax debt and contempt of court. They then went into exile in Europe and became a nomadic touring company, playing in the prisons of Brazil and the slums of Palermo. They were eventually allowed to reenter the United States.
The Living Theatre continues to see no separation between art and everyday life, audience and spectator, performance and politics, and the creative life and the life of the revolutionary. It is a loosely knit “tribe” which has challenged many governments and staged more than 80 productions in eight different languages in 25 countries on four continents.
The Theatre sees its mission as both “to call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater” and “to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater.” Judith’s influence on theater and other arts is widespread and profound. She now runs the group with her companion, Hanon Reznikov, dividing her time between Italy and New York.
The Global Situation
Ellen Pearlman (Rail): Tell us about some of the differences between Italy and New York.
Judith Malina: We can’t do anything in New York, we just live on the money we earn in Italy, and do street theater here. It is very tough. If you will permit me a moment of hubris, Italy loves me and New York needs me. That’s hubris. I really feel that the importance of working in New York much outbalances the desirability of the situation in Italy where we are honored in a different way, where we can live. We have a place in the social structure, even as rebels and anarchists, that works for supporting a company.
Rail: Why does New York need you?
Malina: I feel that if anything is going to happen, politically, socially, it is going to happen in New York. That is what it looks like to me.
Rail: Were you here in New York City on September 11th?
Malina: No, I wasn’t. I was in a beautiful, idyllic mountain town 45 minutes out of Genoa, where the kindness of the Communia and Provinca had given us a 16th century marble Pallacio to live in that has been entirely restructured by an architect with our consultation so that we have living quarters for 15 actors and a rehearsal space and a performance space. We create new plays and perform them there first. It is a very small town, 250 people, but they are hosting The Living Theatre.
Here we are in this beautiful idyllic place creating our new work. Someone looked at the television and members of the company called us in and said “look at this, oh my God,” and we all ran to the television, as I suppose everybody did all over the world. We get CNN, and all of our neighbors came to sit with us, like sitting shiva, a Jewish custom, or gathering around the mourners. They came and sat with us and consoled us and watched again and again the replay of this terrible event and when we came back we expected to find everything very different. And certain things are different. Things are certainly warmer among the people we know.
Rail: Did you go to Ground Zero?
Malina: No, I didn’t go and see the site. I didn’t want to put myself through it. I suppose it is an important and elucidating thing. I never went to see The Diary of Anne Frank, either. If only I could foresee something good from it, something like what we just experienced in the World Economic Forum.
Rail: Tell us about the Forum.
Malina: Sure. Hanon [Judith’s companion] gave a reading. We also performed a play about the Forum called Resist Now, with 10 scenes with actors and words by Hanon Reznikov, and a poem about airplanes by Ferlinghetti and a poem, “Moloch,” by Allen Ginsberg. At the protests in Genoa [Italy], we built a Moloch machine which spoke Allen’s words in Italian.
Rail: How do you say Moloch in Italian?
Malina: Moloch! Moloch is an international word, like stop. And we created a Moloch machine and scenes that were very challenging to do in that atmosphere. We were as loud as possible and we didn’t hold back, and our rehearsals are open and I don’t mind people coming to them. There is an old Yiddish saying that you should never show a fool a half-finished work. And sometimes we suffer from that. I think openness is all. I am very much an advocate of that.
Workshops into Theater
Rail: I understand that you’ve been doing workshops of late.
Malina: We were recently in Germany and Belgium and did a lot of workshops with about 40 kids at a time. We do five days working with them and at the end of five days we all go out together and do a play on the street or cafeteria or courtyard. They choose the spot, the words, and the actions, and we show them how to do the play. We do a play called A Day in the Life of a City, and now we are doing a play A Day in the Life of New York, which is a play about Semptember 11th, a piece right after the event.
Rail: How do you get the kids going?
Malina: Our workshops start with a set of questions: What is your play about, what are the things you care about, what is important to you? We go to a college and get the big problems the students care about. I might suggest they might give a thought to the people in Afghanistan, but we work with whatever they choose, and there are usually five or six groupings. Some people are concerned about the population, some people are concerned about school procedures. They each create a play, we do exercises teaching them a certain vocabulary, and activity, so they can do their little skits. And then we manage—because we have so many decades of experience—to create a unified play out of their scenes.
They do make the words up, they do an exquisite corpse, which is a form of poetry invented by the Surrealists in which one Surrealist writes two lines on a subject. Let’s say the subject is coat hangers. I write two lines about coat hangers and then I fold the paper so you only see the last line I have written and seeing the last line I have written and knowing the last line is coat hangers, you are going to add to what I have written. And fold it over so the next Surrealists will only see your last line…
Rail: What is the goal of the workshops?
Malina: We are concerned with the politicization of the subject matter and the form only aids that. We are primarily politically oriented so that we keep close touch with young people. We work with 40 kids at a time and in four weeks we will make up to two or three plays and sometimes more. It is very tiring and very wonderful and a good way to keep in touch with young people. In Italy we do it often, and here we do it occasionally. We just did it at Manhattanville College, and we are going to do it at Trinity College. We get a change to be inspired by young people.
I was also inspired by them in a recent march at the World Economic Forum. In Genoa it was more serious, as there was a killing by the police as well as provocation of violence and aggression against the police, a much more difficult situation. But you know even then I looked down the streets at 200,000 people and realized they were all there for different reasons. Some were “Save The World,” some were the “Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina,” and behind us was a group of transvestites in pink fluff and boas making a great deal of noise, and we felt, yes, everybody is here. And they knew, as we knew, that this is one cause.
Rail: And what would you say the cause is?
Malina: Human freedom, human liberty. I’m an anarchist. Free behavior, free choices for the mentally creative and not for the mentally fearful. Some free choice is obviously frightening and yet I say if there were less constriction, people would make better choices because we would love each other more and fear each other less. So that somehow the goal is for us to create a climate in which we don’t fear each other. Yet if I say peace and freedom, everyone will applaud and say “yes, yes, peace and freedom, wonderful,” but if I extend that a little bit and say pacifism and anarchism everyone becomes terrified and runs out of the room and it is a very different kind of reaction.
So when you say what is that goal, it is certain fundamental political principles by which the Living Theatre was founded and remains dedicated. There are certainly anarchists and there are pacifists and there are most certainly feminists, because you can’t be in the Living Theatre and not be a feminist. We’re not all the same, though. For instance, almost all of us are vegetarians, but there are a few of us who aren’t. And we accept that. We have many divergences and we talk about them for hours and hours.
In the Middle East
Rail: How far does the Theatre travel?
Malina: The Living Theatre will only go where it is invited. We missed a lot of good places. We played in Lebanon, but most of us haven’t played in Israel. We just recently played in Lebanon. It was wonderful, we were in Beirut and Tripoli. We worked with workshop groups, people that have suffered so much, who have spent their childhood every night in the bomb shelters and coming up the next day to see what was left alive. And it’s inspiring that they are not bitter and cynical, say like the East Germans, they are full of visions and at peace.
Rail: Did you feel that when you worked with the Lebanese it was cathartic for them?
Malina: It was certainly cathartic for me. I know they certainly felt good. But the point isn’t really that it is a psychodrama, it is a political vision where we say, “What could it be like and how can we make it like that?” We played in Tripoli and Beirut and we played on the streets. They said it was the first time there had been street theatre in Beirut.
Malina: Well, I suppose all those Crusaders who came through probably did street plays. Here is a photo of us on the streets of Beirut, then we did a play against the death penalty, and then we went to the south where the horrible torture prison had been and we played in the courtyard of the torture prison.
(Judith is showing photos while talking)
Rail: Is that a real soldier?
Malina: Yes, and she is doing our “Not in my name” scene, and she is saying to him, “I want to reverse the cycle of violence, and here is how I am doing it,” except she is saying it in Arabic. She is saying to him, “I swear to you I will never kill you. Can you promise me the same thing?” And this is usually said to any spectator, but she went right up to a soldier. I don’t know what he said back.
Rail: Wow, this is such a strong and beautiful image.
Malina: Well, this is the prison where we played, this prison is run by the Hezbollah, in fact the whole south is run by the Hezbollah, it is very touching to go there because my husband and I are Jewish, and members of the company are Jewish and they didn’t know this particularly, and if they ever would have asked us I would have said yes, I would never deny being Jewish, but on the other hand if they don’t ask me, I don’t have to tell them. This was a torture prison, and we did a play against torture and the Hezbollah men were very hard on us about how you can’t have men touching women or women touching men. Now here (in a photo) you see that we did do that because The Living Theatre does a lot of physical stuff, we don’t just stand there and talk.
This was the one place where we made a compromise. We had to wear long sleeves and we mostly covered up, and we weren’t offended by it, that is the custom, but the Lebanese young women were very offended by it. They were hip college girls, 19 years old and suddenly being told they had to cover their filthy feminine neck or something; that in the end we do abhor, and we all embrace and made sounds. We did two circles, a woman’s circle and a man’s circle, so that the women in the audience could put their arms around us because otherwise you couldn’t do that. They couldn’t just put their arm around a man, you have to take this by steps, that would be like undressing or something.
But we had a wonderful time in Lebanon. They made up the play, a piece about torture, they did a very interesting thing. Somebody found a mimeographed publication with the letters of the children of the prisoners and the whole text was the letters of the children, so the authorities couldn’t object.
Rail: Why do you think they invited you?
Malina: Because there was a young actress who took a workshop with us here on an exchange program and thought we would be interesting and thought she could get away with it.
Rail: And she did.
Malina: Yes, she got money from the cultural ministry to bring us. It was all her doing, so it was just one woman’s idea—it was beautiful. I think it is such a shame that a person like me, a Rabbi’s daughter, should be invited to Lebanon and not to Israel, but that is what happened.
Rail: Yell at Israel.
Malina: We’ve been in negotiation with Israel for almost 40 years.
Rail: Why won’t they let you come?
Malina: They keep saying that they will try. They don’t like pacifists and anarchists who are going to give them trouble and make problems like we do.
Rail: What do you think of the soldiers within the Israeli army who are refusing to serve?
Malina: I think that is so fantastic. I think the anarchists have spent the last 100 years trying to make a similar point. I think we are advanced enough to organize our own social structures and our educational structures, without hurting each other, and that the world should be run this way, which is contrary to all governments, laws, structures, and parties. This is why I don’t vote and I don’t petition the government except sometimes not to kill people.
Rail: How does anarchism influence your theater?
Malina: I try to give the hope in our theater that it is possible to have the world we all want, but we are all conditioned to believe that we cannot have it and we should not fight for it: Don’t fight for that because if you fight for that you won’t get the housing project through. Don’t fight for everything, because you will get nothing. Don’t be an extremist and say we want more government. Let’s just say we want a more tolerant government and one that won’t oppress people badly. Don’t fight for what you really want because you can’t get it and you only will discourage people with your stupid utopianism. That is what they say. And we say, struggle for what you really want because that voice is the clearest, the truest, and the most important, and certainly the most uncompromising. Struggle for what you really want, and what we all really want is a world without prisons, without national boundaries, without police, without a monetary system that is in itself oppressive, and instead with a social organization that is beautiful, feasible, possible and humane. There are beautiful historical examples where it has been tried and it has worked and that is one of the world’s unspoken miracles.
Malina: In Spain, from 1934-1936 until it was smashed by the Fascist forces and the Spanish Civil War, in the Ukraine under Makno (Makoh), where the anarchists organized the entire Ukraine and the wheat growing farmers and they did it all with anarchist councils and it was beautiful. In Spain the whole city of Barcelona was organized for two years by anarchist councils and ran better than ever, worked better than ever, because anarchist councils are much more cooperative than competitive political parties where there is always a secondary agenda because of a political party. Anarchist councils hopefully don’t have that kind of agenda, but an agenda of what works best for people. Therefore they have always been successful.
There is a wonderful anarchist literature that I recommend to all who hear me. There is a history that is written about and known but suppressed in the sense that you haven’t learned about 1934-1936 in Spain when they were running the agricultural structures. We almost got to the point of abolishing money as a form, not entirely but they came very close, and inside the agricultural communes they were already not using money. That is, these wonderful idealistic things happened and were always crushed by the worst forces. In Spain they were crushed by the coming of the Fascists, in the Ukraine by the development of the beautiful communist ideal into the horrors of tyrannical Communism. So we haven’t really been able to make it function for over more than a few years; wherever it has been tried it has worked but it has been smashed, and its history has been suppressed in the educational system. Nobody talks about these anarchist experiments; they are not taught in any school curriculum, but they should be.
Rail: What is the ultimate goal of your work?
Malina: To give people hope. The Living Theatre is trying to tell people that we can create a world that will abandon some of the worst abuses of hierarchy and give them the hope that we can really get along without hierarchy altogether, because I think we can. I think we are capable as human beings to live on a whole other level of cooperation and collectivity instead of living amidst competition and all that goes with it. Now how to do this, how to create this and how to overthrow the violent structures with non-violence, this is the great dilemma of our time. This is the work and duty and vision and hope we hand to the younger generation. We say to them you figure this out now, how are you going to get to non-violence without violence. Because we are a small community, we try in the Living Theatre to be a microcosm, and by working as anarchists and pacifists, to do as much as we can do, though we have all been swimming in dirty water. Where we can, we have to try, and where we can’t, we have to study. What else can I tell you?
Brittain Ashford with Charles Quittner
JUNE 2023 | Theater
Known for her wistful voice and originating the role of Sonya on Broadway in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Brittain Ashford, the once-front woman for the band Prairie Empire, has released a new album of original music under her own name. A follow-up to 2019s Drama Club, a collection of musical theatre songs run through a David Lynch filter, Trotter (which shares her late fathers surname) sees Ashford looking back at a period just after her Broadway debut. In true Ashfordian form, the crooner of melancholy manages to find strange optimism in the grieving process.
Despite its Bumpy History, Merrily We Roll Along Glides Back to New YorkBy Billy McEntee
DEC 22–JAN 23 | Theater
The first time I saw Merrily was at Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey in 2008; Stephen Sondheim apparently attended a performance and spoke to the cast. I remember being amazed by the score, confused by the story, but moved by the endingin that amateur productions final gesture, as the chorus refrains me and you during Our Time, antihero Franklin Shepards piano comes back on stage and he, alone, faces it. Maria Friedmans production, now sold out at New York Theatre Workshop, concludes with a similar visual, and an idea clicked: music is the you to Franklins me, the thing he cares most about and what he has to lose when the people who make him sing fade away, dimming like distant stars.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkinss The Comeuppance Goes Where Only Fools Dare: The High School ReunionBy Paul David Young
JUNE 2023 | Theater
I have never felt the slightest inclination to go to a high school reunion, but apparently many people do in America, and thus a subgenre of film and theater has been created. The premise is that no matter how miserable high school was or how bad your relationships were, you will return to spend a few intoxicated hours with those special people from long ago. Branden Jacobs-Jenkinss riff on this genre, The Comeuppance at Signature Theatre, showcases his ease with dialogue as he keeps the action going in a continuous gabfest, seamlessly and artfully directed by Eric Ting, at the pre-party leading up to the reunion.
threeBy Ama Birch
MAY 2022 | Poetry
Ama Birch has a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts. Belladonna* is publishing these poems and others in a chapbook called (Spirit) in 2022 as part of their Lesbian All-Stars series.