Legendary “Living Theatre” on the Brink; Can it Survive?
Since its inception as a pioneer in avant-garde theater and experimentation, way back in 1947, The Living Theatre‘s work has revolved around messages of injustice, peaceful anarchy, struggle and revolution. A new film, “Love and Politics,” about co-founder Judith Malina and the company, will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29th. The film offers a slice of 85-year old Malina’s contemporary life, and documents some of the recent struggles in the company’s current home at 21 Clinton Street.
We recently sat down with the Living Theatre’s executive producer, Brad Burgess, to discuss the company’s current state of affairs. Burgess was a 23 year old actor in the company who stepped in to assist Malina after the death of her partner, Hanon Reznikov, in 2008. The company had just returned from almost thirty years abroad, touring internationally and around the U.S., without a permanent home. They found the space on Clinton Street in 2005, renovated it and opened with much fanfare in 2007.
Since then, the historic company has struggled to stay afloat — Malina continuing on without a co-director, Burgess acting as a liaison and assistant to Malina. They have both been burdened with the almost impossible task of paying a commercial rent in downtown Manhattan in an era in which funding for Off-Off-Broadway theater seems to have dried up. While continuing to create new shows, they have juggled eviction threats and repeatedly held emergency fundraisers to pay the bills and keep the theater in its Clinton Street home.
The most recent crisis came in the form of a notice from city marshals, who were threatening to evict Malina from her home (she lives upstairs above the theater) after she fell six weeks behind on her own rent. Incidentally, one of the building’s three landlords, Ali Yaghoubi, is also the producer of the new Living Theater documentary.
In typical “Theater of Revolt” fashion, Burgess told us Malina’s response to this latest crisis was, “Let them arrest me. Carry me out of here by my feet and see how that goes over.” But Burgess wasn’t going to let that happen. In addition to assisting Malina in the company’s productions and overseeing daily operations at the theater, Burgess is Malina’s live-in care-taker. “That (having to leave her home) could kill her,” he says, pointing out that Malina has emphysema.
“This is a living legend. She’s 85 years old. This is her home. The only reason we can keep going is because she can take an elevator from her apartment down to the theater and get to work,” Burgess added.
The company’s 20-year lease has been in a constant state of re-negotiation. Ticket sales for various productions have been strong. They’ve also rented the space out to other companies (including The Culture Project, which most recently resided in the theater while raising money to retain their own home on Bleecker Street) but none of this has brought in enough to cover the rent.
The Living Theatre has had to lean heavily on their high profile supporters, (Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Martin Sheen and Olympia Dukakis to name a few) many of whom credit the institution for helping to establish their own careers.
Burgess says the time has come for someone else to step in and act as a business manager, or as director of operations. “Artistically, we’re fine, we’re great,” he says, “but we need someone who knows how to navigate these things…After four years now, I feel like I put in my time – but that’s not what I’m good at. I’m good at this other thing (acting, directing, producing) – and I’m learning from one of the greatest of all time, how to do this other thing.”
“You know, maybe Julian Beck (the theater’s original co-founder and Malina’s first husband) in the ‘40s, 50s, 60s, was able to run the theater out of his back pocket, with cash — roaming around Europe, but in the 21st century in New York, with a commercial lease, (we need) a team of professionals with degrees, not a 23 year old actor who spends a couple years trying to run a business with his 85 year-old ‘guru director’.”
The plan at the moment is to negotiate a six-month reprieve, so they can take some time to raise serious money and buy out the next few years of their lease in one fell swoop. In the meantime Burgess and the company continue to look for a long-term survival strategy.
Burgess has high hopes for a new plan he helped create, now underway with the League of Independent Theater. They have established a funding initiative in which theaters throughout the city will contribute to an annual fund to aid small, independent theaters in New York. Burgess is the first to admit, however, until the plan comes to fruition, the future of the Living Theatre is extremely uncertain.
“I want the Living Theatre’s story to be one of success,” he says. “One of the reasons why I did give up my acting career for so many years to help Judith with this is that I believe in this theater so much. At this point it’s the most important thing in the world to me. It doesn’t have to be that to everyone else, but I do feel like the theater community at large has to realize that if Judith Malina and the Living Theatre don’t deserve to have their own space after 65 years of work, thEn the model for anything outside of Broadway is one of failure, and not one of success, and I can’t let that happen.”