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New York's Living Theater Drops Its Curtains

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Living Theatre was the oldest running experimental theater company in the United States. Founded in 1947, it gained fame for breaking down the fourth wall between actors and the audience. But the ensemble has been forced to shutter its Manhattan performance space. Its director has moved into an assisted living residence. Still, she vows that the show will go on. Jon Kalish reports from New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HERE WE ARE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) It's a step in the right direction.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Audience members sit on wooden platforms set between concrete walls and pillars as the troupe's last play "Here We Are" unfolds. It's a sort of history lesson on the anarchist movement. One song lays out the function of an anarchist collective.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HERE WE ARE")

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) We will make all the things that we need and we use; food, clothing and housing and sandals and shoes, and sandals and shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) I am making sandals.

KALISH: And the audience did too - really - they made sandals. The play was written and directed by 86-year-old Judith Malina, who co-founded the Living Theatre with her husband, the painter and poet Julian Beck.

JUDITH MALINA: I'm in the theater because I'm a revolutionary and I want to make a revolution. I want to make the beautiful non-violent, anarchist revolution. And I think that this is where, if anywhere, it's going to happen.

KALISH: The Living Theatre helped establish off-Broadway during the late 1950s and early '60s. Critics hailed two of its early plays, "The Brig," about the military justice system, and "The Connection," about junkies waiting for a fix.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE CONNECTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What do you want to hear? That we're a petty, miserable, self-annihilating microcosm?

KALISH: Its cast carried the play onto the screen in Shirley Clarke's acclaimed film.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, " THE CONNECTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Hurry, hurry, hurry, the circus is here. Suicide is not uncommon among us. The overdose of heroin is where that frail line of life and death swings in a silent breeze of ecstatic summer.

AL PACINO: I was there. I used to clean toilets there with Marty Sheen. And we both were backstage, put the sets on for "The Connection" and all this great theater.

KALISH: In a 2005 documentary, Al Pacino described seeing the company perform "Paradise Now," an infamous production that often resulted in both the audience and the actors shedding their clothes and getting arrested for indecent exposure.

PACINO: The audience became the theater. They were the event. They were the play. And on one side of the theater was Judith Malina and on the other side was Julian Beck. They were controlling it on either side. They were orchestrating it. And it was literally the most exciting, vibrant alive thing that I - I can only describe it as changing my life.

KALISH: The Living Theatre was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and toured for years in Europe and South America. The company's insistence on mixing politics with theater has always made it a struggle to find funding. On the night it closed its Manhattan headquarters, veteran performance artist Penny Arcade staged a benefit. She says the arts establishment has largely ignored Judith Malina.

PENNY ARCADE: If this was Japan, if it was France, if it was Canada, Judith would be a national treasure. She would be recognized for her contributions, not only to theater but to the culture. I mean, we're talking about one of the architects of the counterculture.

KALISH: Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina spent her own money like an anarchist. She reportedly invested $800,000 in the recently shuttered Manhattan performance space. The money came from the sale of her late husband's paintings and the Living Theatre's archive, which was acquired by Yale University's Beinecke Library.

MALINA: Keeping the company together has been, you know, a very big struggle of 65 years now. There's no other company that's managed that.

KALISH: But the Living Theatre doesn't have the pull it once had on the culture. Fortunately, Malina developed her own successful acting career, appearing in "The Addams Family" and other movies. In "Enemies: A Love Story" she played a Holocaust survivor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY")

MALINA: (as Masha's mother) They're looking for you in the newspaper. Here. Nowadays, when someone is looked for in the newspaper, it's no small matter.

KALISH: Malina funneled the money she made on the big screen into the Living Theatre. Al Pacino and Martin Sheen provided support but in the end, it wasn't enough. Thanks to Malina's Hollywood gigs, she has a pension from Actor's Equity. She moved in to an assisted living residence the union operates in New Jersey. Malina says she's been toying with the idea of doing a play with the residents there.

MALINA: It's a nice place. It's beautiful. But I don't want a nice place that's beautiful. I want to I want to work in New York City. I want to work on the Lower East Side. That's the most important thing.

KALISH: Malina hopes to come into Manhattan a few times a week and continue working with the company she helped found more than half a century ago. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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