My knowledge of the Living Theatre is limited. My first introduction to their cause was through my research for Fourth Arts Block, and my first Living Theatre experience took place last week, once again with my comrades at FAB.
After a lovely pre-show dinner of Ukrainian delights at Velselka (yes, I ordered the borscht), we scurried south to 21 Clinton Street. Even walking on Houston, so far east of Avenue A felt like a adventure. Obviously, I do not get out in the Lower East Side enough, it seems like the graffiti grows larger there, must be something to do with the lack of streetlight.
Turning down the Living Theatre’s block I had a sense of life and community that instantly reminded me of being on East 4th Street. I could be wrong in assuming the Living Theatre has been the beating heart, or at least a large artery of this locale, but I have a good feeling I’m not.
If you haven’t heard the news, times are changing over at 21 Clinton Street. Considering how challenging the recent years have been for everyone everywhere, no less can be said for a historical anarchist institution like the Living Theatre. Largely guided by the justice-conscious love machine (and co-founder), Judith Malina, the Living Theatre will be leaving their first real home in New York, but not before having a final go of things, and they’re going until the last possible minute.
We came to a hallway stuffed with bodies waiting to cross the veiled curtain at the entrance to the theater. A young man popped into view and it was explained that we would be entering three at a time, and were thusly grouped, and awaited our turn to step into the world of the Living Theatre.
Being near the end of the line (it was a long walk from Velselka), my group was last. We were asked to sit down and wait for one of the “guides” to approach us after they finished serving their first group. We watched as people were being shown patterns of movement, or having their feet outlined on leather vinyl. It seemed we were being prepared to battle for peace, love and justice, something I have not outwardly expressed since childhood. We were blinded; navigating space only with the help of our guide, then suddenly released and encouraged to fly (oh, did we fly). We voted – for our liberal ideals, our anarchist fantasies, for the Living Theatre. Sadly, our half of the room lost the arbitrary ballot count, and we were reseated on our platforms, and proceeded to finish making our leather vinyl sandals to dance in. We watched the most successful anarchist movements of history crumble in front of us, scenes hard not to tie to the Living Theatre’s present position, and composed impromptu poems from the words surrounding us throughout the evening.
And Judith, oh Judith. I had scanned videos and interviews of her and Julian Beck, her life partner and cofounder, during my research. She has been fighting this fight so much longer than we could ever comprehend, the same fight we were hashing out in the basement, and she was THERE. In the room. All 86 years of her. Sitting on a bench in the back, taking it all in, probably for the twentieth time. Her presence was a comfort, it made the effort viable, I no longer felt obligated to give my participation, but rather, just let the experience wash over me. A cleanse of the constant self-criticisms, the bitter cynicism, and hopelessness our generation struggles to escape.
As hard as it is to imagine a harmonious world where people are not led by a leader but by altruism alone, it is a lesson that should be taken with weight. If we want our liberal ideals and anarchist fantasies to ever come true, perhaps we should start dreaming, just like Judith and Julian taught us.
Here We Are performs its final showings tonight and tomorrow.
February 22 & 23 @ 8:00pm, 21 Clinton Street. $15.
The final event for the Living Theatre @ 21 Clinton Street is the Hot. Cheap. Living. Performance Festival, running through Monday, February 26.