Remembrances from The Lost Village: Death of The Living Theater

THE QUINTESSENTIAL VILLAGE ARTIST: For Judith Malina, above, money was always a problem and interfered with her ability to work. Photo credit: Nick Dewitt. 

12/05/2018 Articles, Arts and Culture, Neighborhood, People 

By Roger Paradiso

If there is one interview that haunts me from my film The Lost Village it was the one with Judith Malina. Judith and Julian Beck met when she was 17. In 1947 they formed The Living Theater, which was a part of the Village scene in the 1950s and 60s until they were evicted from their 14th Street theater in 1964. Judith was a proud anarchist and pacifist. Malina’s work with her theater was always a groundbreaking alternative to the commercial theater uptown. She was the quintessential Village artist. Beck died in 1985 but Judith was still active performing, writing and directing with The Living Theater when I met up with her in 2013. On a cold and windy early January day I approached her theater and apartment building on a gentrified Lower East Side street. I felt as if I was looking at one of those post-modern architectural structures you would find in Germany or Russia, but this was 21 Clinton Street. I came to a side door which led to the theater and there was a flyer posted on the door. It was for Here We Are, the latest production in the 66th year of The Living Theater. When I came into her apartment, I felt something was happening, but I was kept in the dark. Several men and women came in and out of the apartment and there were a few boxes being packed. We started talking about the difference between the Village back in the 60s and today. She said that money was always a problem for her and interfered with her ability to work. Judith performed two of her best-known plays, The Brig and The Connection, at that theater space on 14th Street from the late 50s through 1964. For many years she lived in Europe and toured the world, but for now she seemed back at home. She had a modern apartment and a concrete space in the basement which housed her theater.

As we were wrapping up the interview, she suddenly mentioned that she was forced to leave her apartment because of money issues, and she was also losing her theater. That was a shock to me, as I was not told about this at all in our brief meeting the day before when I stopped by to say hello. Many thoughts were running through my mind, such as how composed she was giving me this bad news. Then she mentioned she was moving to New Jersey. I looked at her and was hoping that the answer to my next question was that she was moving in with family or friends. She said she was moving to Englewood, New Jersey. I knew that the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home was there. She looked at me as if to say, “Go ahead, it’s your line.” I asked her where in Englewood? Like a true dramatist she had lured me into her nightmare. She said she was moving into the Actors’ Home because “I have nowhere to go.” I was told by Brad Burgess, the associate artistic director of The Living Theater, that Judith was trying to set up a theater piece at the Actor’s Home. It was with great sadness that I learned of her death a few years later. By the way, the rent of her theater space in gentrified Clinton Street was rumored to be about $20,000 a month. In the end, money was the thing that brought down Judith Malina. The Clinton Street home to The Living Theater closed in late February of 2013 with her last production called Here We Are. “I demand everything — total love, an end to all forms of violence and cruelty such as money, hunger, prisons, people doing work they hate,” Judith told the New York Times in 1968.