New York's avant-garde godmother on why anything can be revolutionary in the right context
“I was destined to be an actress. When my mother was a student in Germany, she wanted to go into theatre and hoped to work with Erwin Piscator, who worked with Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar Republic era. He was the ‘white hope’ of German theatre and he was going to be something great. But he was also a communist, and the country was approaching fascism at that point, so it didn’t work. My mother ended up falling in love with a very idealistic rabbi.
My father’s main work in America, outside of running the German Jewish congregation, was to make people know what was going on with the Jews in Germany, which Americans didn’t believe yet. There were lots of rallies to inform them about the Nazis, and I started attending them when I was a young child. I would read poetry about German Jewish children and what was happening to them, and my mother carried the handkerchiefs to make sure I was having the right effect! You know, making people cry. I didn’t know yet that this was a form of political theatre, but it was. I was already doing it when I was a baby – and it became my career and my life.
My mother trained me – I recited, I went to Madison Square Garden shows and I participated in small theatrical events. But when I was a teenager, Piscator came to New York and started schooling on 12th Street, and I enrolled and studied with him. I learned what I needed to know about political and modern theatre. About changing the form from the old narrative to the theatrical form. I wrote The Piscator Notebook (2012) chronicling my experiences with him. He really turned theatre upside down, taking it from an entertainment industry event to a teaching and learning and participatory event.
When I graduated, I became lovers with Julian Beck, and he and I decided to start our own theatre, The Living Theatre, in 1947. It’s been going ever since. First we did shows out of our living room on West End Avenue. Then we rented the Cherry Lane theatre and dozens of others. Antonin Artaud (in his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double) showed us an approach to theatre that was new and had to do with the actors’ ability to pierce through the audience’s armour. And we’re all armoured – we couldn’t get through kindergarten without it. He would use our own most personal suffering as performance. He called it ‘theatre of cruelty’. I never liked the term, but his influence was total.
“I don’t believe in categories of revolution. Almost anything can be revolutionary in the right context. People say it starts from within, and it does, but it can’t just stay there”
There was a period in The Living Theatre when we had political differences, and we went three separate ways in the late 60s. Some went to rally in London, some to India, and Julian and I went to Brazil, where we were eventually imprisoned6. But I found the Brazilian people open, loving, and honest. More open than most Europeans, except Italians, who are probably the smartest people of all. Smart enough to know it’s easier to let the protestors live in the Teatro Valle! After Brazil, I lived in Italy for 12 years, mainly Rome, and played 132 cities there. We were in Europe for more or less 30 years. We were based in Paris for a long time – it was an interesting revolutionary period in France.
It’s a myth that I started to become involved in political protests specifically in the 60s. I have always worked with a group of anarchist-pacifists that have been in the States for maybe 200 years. They form the basis of our Living Theatre movement, but I help other protest movements, too: feminism, anti-war, I participate in everything. I’ve been doing it since my childhood and every decade since – not as much as I used to, because I’m limited physically, but I still help organise.
I don’t believe in categories of revolution. Almost anything can be revolutionary in the right context. People say it starts from within, and it does, but it can’t just stay there. There has to be a meaningful action. I’m a pacifist, so I approve of any and all nonviolent protest. It can be doing confrontational theatre with no chairs for the audience. It can be any form of art. It can be a refusal to use money. Who is a feminist? It’s basic: someone who stands up for rights for women. That can be a simple, direct thing.
I never audition for The Living Theatre. I take who comes. I have the superstition or the knowledge that the people who belong to us come to us. There’s only ever one challenge: money. The art comes from within and is always present. The ideas we give to each other – the world gives us ideas. The only struggle is how to live without money, because there never is any. To make ends meet, I was a waitress, a part-time clerk, I tinted photographs, everything. Later, I was luckier, and got little parts in movies. I did Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino, just acting gigs. Then The Addams Family much later, in the 90s.
Up till the last month (when The Living Theatre’s New York location on Clinton Street was forced to close in 2013) I thought I’d pull through. I’ve done a ‘special fundraiser’ to pay our rent every day of my life. Now I’m stuck here (in the Lillian Booth home for retired actors in New Jersey) but I have someone drive me into the city a few days a week. It’s not ideal, but the company is still active and preparing to do a new play I’m writing, No Place to Hide. I also want to do a play with the residents of this institution. It’s about what you gain as you get older. Everyone focuses on loss – and you do lose a lot: your sight, your hearing, your ability to breathe properly – but it’s absurd to think people stop growing. You are different at 15 than ten; you are different at 20 than 15. Why do people think 80 is no different than 75? We never stop learning and changing, and I believe that after 75 you finally become fully yourself, with the wisdom and experience to back it up.”
The documentary Love and Politics with Judith Malina is available on DVD now