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The Living Theatre is an Americanmarker theatre company founded in 1947 and based in New York Citymarker. It is the oldest experimental theatre group still existing in the U.S. For most of its history it was led by its founders, actor Judith Malina and painter/poet Julian Beck; after Beck's death in 1985, company member Hanon Reznikov became co-director with Malina.

Goals and influences

From its conception, The Living Theatre was dedicated to transforming the organization of power within society from a competitive, hierarchical structure to cooperative and communal expression. The troupe attempts to do so by counteracting complacency in the audience through direct spectacle. They oppose the commercial orientation of Broadway productions and have contributed to the off-Broadway theater movement in New York City, staging poetic dramas.

The primordial text for The Living Theatre is The Theater and Its Double, an anthology of essays written by Antonin Artaud, the French playwright. It was published in France in 1937 and by the Grove Press in the U.S. in 1958. This work deeply influenced Julian Beck, a bisexual painter of abstract expressionist works. The troupe reflects Artaud's influence by staging multimedia plays designed to exhibit his metaphysical Theatre of Cruelty. In these performances, the actors attempt to dissolve the fourth wall between themselves and the spectators.


In the 1950s, the group was among the first in the U.S. to produce the work of influential European playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht (In The Jungle of Cities in New York, 1960) and Jean Cocteau, as well as modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Based in a variety of small New York locations which were frequently closed due to financial problems or conflicts with city authorities, they helped to originate Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway as significant forces in U.S. theater. Their work during this period shared some aspects of style and content with Beat generation writers. Also during the 1950s, the American composer Alan Hovhaness worked closely with the Living Theatre, composing music for its productions. In 1959, their production of The Connection attracted national attention for its harsh portrayal of drug addiction and its equally harsh language.

Actors Kesh Baggan and Gene Ardor, from the 2007 production of the Brig

The Brig (1963), an anti-authoritarian look at conditions in a Marine prison, was their last major production in New York before a disagreement with the IRS led to the closure of the theatre space and the brief imprisonment of Beck and Malina. For the rest of the 1960s the group toured chiefly in Europe, and turned to even more politically and formally radical work carrying an anarchist and pacifist message, with the company members creating plays collectively and often living together. Major works from this period included the adaptations Antigone and Frankenstein, and Paradise Now, which became their best-known play. Paradise Now, a semi-improvisational piece involving audience participation, was notorious for a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while themselves disrobing; this led to multiple arrests for indecent exposure.

The group returned to the U.S. in 1968 to tour Paradise Now. In 1971 they toured in Brazilmarker, where they were imprisoned for several months, then deported.

The Living Theatre has toured extensively throughout the world, often in non-traditional venues such as streets and prisons. It has greatly influenced other American experimental theatre companies, notably The Open Theater (founded by former Living Theatre member Joseph Chaikin) and Bread and Puppet Theater. Its productions have won four Obie Awards: The Connection (1959), The Brig (1963 and 2007), and Frankenstein (1968). Though its prominence and resources have diminished considerably in recent decades, The Living Theatre continues to produce new plays in New York City, many with anti-war themes.

In 2006, The Living Theatre signed a 10-year lease on the basement of a new residential building under construction at 21 Clinton Street, between Houston and Stanton Streets on Manhattan's Lower East Sidemarker. The Clinton Street theater is the company's first permanent home since the closing of The Living Theatre on Third Street at Avenue C in 1993. The company moved into the completed space in early 2007 and opened in April 2007 with a production of The Brig by Kenneth H. Brown, first presented at The Living Theatre at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1963. The re-staging, directed by Judith Malina won Obie Awards for Direction and Ensemble Performance.

In October 2006, the company opened a revival of "Mysteries and Smaller Pieces" the 1964 collective creation that defined the interactive and Artaudian style that the company became famous for.

In late 2007 / early 2008 the company founder Judith Malina performed in "Maudie and Jane" - a stage adaptation, directed by Reznikov, of the Doris Lessing novel, "The Diary of Jane Somers".

In April 2008 Hanon Reznikov suffered a stroke. He died on May 3, 2008.


  • Neff, Renfrew (1970). The Living Theatre: U.S.A.
  • Rostagno, Aldo, with Judith Malina and Julian Beck (1970). We, the Living Theatre. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • The Living Theatre (1971). Paradise Now. New York: Random House.
  • Malina, Judith (1972). The Enormous Despair. New York: Random House.
  • Malina, Judith (1984). The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947-1957. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
  • Mystic Fire Video (1989) Signals Through the Flames. Documentary. Originally released by The Living Theatre in 1983 as a motion picture, produced and directed by Sheldon Rochlin and Maxine Harris.

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