Erwin Piscator and Bertold Brecht reinvented theater during the great unsung Weimar Republic in Germany. Creative energy and enlightenment were manifesting so fast at the time the Central Bankers were forced to collapse the currency in order to restore fascism to the throne of Europe’s most powerful economy.
But there was that glorious decade when Piscator ran the People’s Theater in Berlin and was integrating multimedia into theater while deconstructing it from an entertainment vehicle to a path to enlightenment. Before the Nazis came to power, Piscator immigrated to New York City and began teaching a Dramatic Workshop at The New School attended by Marlon Brandon among others.
One of his students was a young girl named Judith Malina, who would soon reinvent theater along with painter/poet Julian Beck when they created The Living Theater and began holding performances on the second floor of an ancient wooden building on the Upper West Side, around the corner from where Malina’s parent’s lived. Beck was a Yale student when they first met, and Judith was 17-years-old.
There were some synergistic elements that contributed to the evolution of experimental theater, and The Living Theater represented the height of that evolution. The troupe began doing yoga and living together communally, while also experimenting with psychedelic substances and improvisation. Their greatest work, Paradise Now, was so transformational that at the end of the performance, the audience sometimes took to the streets to make a protest for world peace.
When I moved to New York City in 1979, Malina and Beck had just returned from decades of exile in Europe. They had been hounded out of the country as subversives during the 1960s. I remember when I first saw Julian standing on the corner outside my Upper West Side apartment. He was unmistakable, very tall and very bald on top with long hair down to his shoulders. I was awestruck to find him just hanging out in my neighborhood and it would take years before I made it into their nearby family apartment, and by that time, Julian had passed.
Judith became a huge stoner late in life and once got taken to the local police station when she was caught walking down 98th street casually smoking a joint. They let her go with a $100 fine. Pot was like daily bread to Judith and she paid little attention to the fact it was illegal. When I wrote a screenplay about growing up in Central Illinois in the 1960s, I offered her a role and we soon held a reading at The Living Theater that was well-received. Judith was not happy with her role, however, but only because she felt it didn’t have enough lines and I should add some more. She also worried that my ending was very dark and pessimistic, as if sending the message that the 1960s revolution had been a failure and not a success. “But isn’t that what happened?” I asked. “Didn’t they successfully co-opt everything and depoliticize the population?” Perhaps, said Judith, but (and I am paraphrasing here) it was our job to inspire the change.
Judith kept inspiring and fighting the revolution for enlightenment and world peace until she took her last breath at age 88 on April 10th 2015.
Her spirit is a good place to be.