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Living Legend

Judith Malina discusses her six decades with The Living Theatre and the company's revival of its seminal work, The Brig. logo
Judith Malina
"Violence is the darkest place of all. Let us throw light on it. In that light we will confront the dimensions of the Structure, find its keystone, learn on what foundations it stands, and locate its doors. Then we will penetrate the locks and open the doors of all the jails." Judith Malina wrote these words in 1964, in regard to her directing The Living Theatre's landmark 1963 production of Kenneth H. Brown's searing portrait of the inhumanity of military prisons, The Brig.

Over 40 years later, Malina revisits The Brig, with a new production that inaugurates the company's new home at 21 Clinton Street, on the Lower East Side. The show begins previews April 19, with an official opening on April 26.

Founded in 1947, The Living Theatre is the oldest experimental theater group still operating in the U.S. It was started up by Malina and her husband Julian Beck (who died in 1985) as an alternative to the commercial theater. The internationally acclaimed company is fiercely political, with many of its shows taking place on the streets as political protests rather than in traditional theater spaces. Among its best-known productions are Paradise Now, The Connection, and The Brig, which was one of the most influential theater pieces of its time.


THEATERMANIA: What were the considerations in choosing The Brig as the company's first production in its new space?

JUDITH MALINA: We talked about doing a brand new collective work, but The Brig seemed so relevant to what people were concerned with today. The incredible tortures in military prisons seemed so much in everybody's mind that we just thought it was the right moment to do this.

TM: How are you approaching this new production?

A scene from The Brig
(© John Ranard)
JM: We haven't changed a thing. The Brig really shows us how the military person is formed, the way a nice young man or woman is turned into a kind of mechanical killer. There are no particular references to any war; it's about a military brig and they haven't changed much in the last couple thousand years, probably. I didn't think we could do the play again with the intensity and energy that we did in '63. But the young actors -- many of whom have had some experience in the wars -- are really very wonderful.

TM: How is the context different in 2007?

JM: When we did the play in '63, it was on the crest of a time of great social energy, upheaval, and change. We were heading right into 1968 and that revolutionary time. And I think that something like that is happening now. Julian Beck used to say that history moves like a pendulum between active and less active. There was a tremendous upsurge of energy that sort of ended somewhere in 1970 and people retreated -- not from the ideal of liberty or of peace, but from the belief in the possibility of creating it. But now people are totally dissatisfied with the political structures, with the way things are decided and done, with the way blood is shed. There's a whole new energy. It seems to me that we are on the point of such a social change again, and we hope to be part of it as we were then.

TM: What does it mean for The Living Theatre to be back in a permanent home in New York?

JM: We've spent more or less the last dozen years dividing our time between Europe and America. They love us in Europe, and we even have a nice headquarters in Italy. But it seems like the important place to work, the place that needs to be reminded of the politics of theater, is New York.

TM: Is there something that you're particularly proud of that the group has accomplished or helped make happen?

JM: My teacher Erwin Piscator, who was the director of Brecht's plays, pointed out that the meaningful impact of theater is on the level of revolution and change. It's really kind of wonderful to have survived into this time to see some of those changes. As far as specific achievements, it's not really for us to judge. But wherever there's peace and an end to hostility, can I take credit for that? We're part of the flow, part of a river of change. Certainly the concept of anarchism has been brought forward as a peaceful idea by the Living Theatre, and before that it was mostly connected with violence. Perhaps we've had some influence in showing that you can't have freedom by shooting people dead. We talk a lot about the incompatibility of violence and revolution.

TM: What's next for The Living Theatre?

JM: I'm looking for a script that involves the audience in a deeper way -- that really involves them in the process, and will inspire them to take action. I haven't found it yet, but we've got a list of things we want to try out. We're going to do a repertory of new, experimental work as well as poetry, video, music, and dance events. We want to draw the energy of many artists in different forms together, and see if we can't get a good revolutionary chorus out of it.

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