Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Open Letter to New York City

April 29, 2012


We’d like to report a crime in progress.

In 2012, Judith Malina lives under the threat of eviction from her apartment and her theater on Clinton Street.

In 1947, she co-founded the Living Theater with Julian Beck and it remains the oldest experimental political theater in the United States and is arguably the only American political theater recognized throughout the world.

65 years later, Judith Malina does not know where she will be sleeping next week. 

In 1959, Malina’s production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, designed by Beck, opened in New York.  The company had already been among the first American theaters to present Brecht, Cocteau, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein, but The Connection was a break-through event.  It was controversial, depicting drug addiction in a realistic, unromantic light and was honored with three Obie awards and the Vernon Rice (now the Drama Desk) Award for Gelber.  The Living Theater went on to perform the play 722 times around the world and the play has been translated into five languages.

53 years later, Judith Malina wonders if tomorrow will be the last time she showers at home for a while.

In 1963, Judith and Julian were convicted of contempt of court due to tax problems and received a suspended five year sentence.  The charges were later proved to be false.  They left New York and began a five-year European tour of creation and discovery which culminated in their production of Paradise Now, described at the time by Stefan Brecht in The Drama Review as “in content and form outside the social system- not structured by it nor, except as outlet, implementing it: liberated territory.” 

49 years later, the papers are prepared, the lawyers paid and the marshals are just waiting for the go-ahead.  The property at 21 Clinton Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side, the cradle and cauldron of both alternative theater and political activism in New York City, will be cleared of Malina’s possession and presence and it will be available for a new café/wine bar/organic bakery entrepreneur to set up shop and join the bustling businesses lining the block.

In 1971 the Living Theater toured Brazil, playing mostly on the street.  The company members were arrested, charged with suspected revolutionary activity and imprisoned for several months before being deported and sent back home. Personal letters from Mayor John Lindsay, Marlon Brando, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Jean Paul Sartre were undoubtedly helpful in securing their release and repatriation.  Throughout the 70s the company toured the U.S., taught countless workshops, created new work and inspired the creation of such companies as the Open Theater, the Bread and Puppet Theater and the Wooster Group.

This morning, Judith has to consider if she should buy any frozen food at the store, since there’s a high probability she won’t have access to a freezer during the period of her actual eviction and what’s the point in wasting a perfectly good package of spinach?   

In 1985 Julian Beck died and Judith buried her husband and partner of forty years and continued to run the company. In 1989 she received her sixth Obie Award, a small grant in recognition of the company’s legacy and influence on American theater.  In 2008 she received the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theater Foundation.  In 2009 she received the Edwin Booth Award from the City University of New York, and two months ago her new play History of the World was greeted with universally respectful and positive reviews in the New York press, over half a century after some of the same papers praised her production of The Connection

And after 65 years of work, recognition, controversy, mistakes, triumphs, obstacles, resistance, lessons learned, friends made and lost, and always an unquestioned commitment to living her principles on the stage and off, Judith Malina is going to be evicted.

Imagine, for a moment, if Pablo Picasso were being evicted from his studio in Paris.  How would the painters and art world of France respond?

Imagine if Bertolt Brecht were being evicted from his apartment in Berlin.  Would the theater world or the wider cultural world or the city of Berlin allow this? 

There is no crime in a landlord charging a high rent in a desirable neighborhood.  There is no crime in removing a tenant who has fallen behind on that rent.  It does not matter if that tenant is 85 years old, suffers from emphysema and has contributed a literally incalculable amount of value and worth to the city’s cultural life. Capitalism is a cruel, strange, beautiful belief system, but it is not a crime.

That is not the crime we’d like to report.

The crime is that we are doing nothing to help Judith or the Living Theater. 

The crime we are all about to be charged with is one of the worst you can commit: willful negligence; failure to respect and support an elder, failure to support our family

Folks, it is not a crime we are willing to be charged with, let alone commit.

This is not something we want on our conscience, not now and certainly not in the highly unlikely outcome that we are blessed to work in the New York and world theater for forty-five more years only to find ourselves in Judith’s situation: back home where it all began, a shelf of awards gathering dust on a shelf, stacks of glowing, yellowing reviews in a box in the corner and wondering how to carry it all downstairs when the hard-working, impersonal fellow citizens in uniform knock on the door and tell us we have to leave, now. 

We have no money to give to Judith or the Living Theater.  We honestly don’t know how we can help.  But we’re going to ask and we’re going to figure it out and we’re asking every single one of you to do the same.

And since this is an open letter to New York City, we address our leader directly and ask him directly for his intervention.  

Mayor Bloomberg, you are a known supporter of the arts and a very, very rich man.  We ask you to personally end Judith and the Living Theater’s financial ordeal.  Allow this women who came to our city in 1929 at the age of 3; this immigrant, who like all of the immigrants, built this city; this New Yorker who stands as an exemplar of risk, conscience and commitment; allow her to spend the end of her life working, teaching and inspiring, not packing, worrying and wondering where the night will find her tomorrow.  You can stop reading this sentence and make a phone call, your Honor, and this shameful chapter of the history of the Living Theater and the life of the New York theater will end.

If his Honor does not help, and even if he does, we all must.  Not just for Judith and the Living Theater, but for our own honor.

Call the Living Theater.  Ask how you can help.  It’s not too late to get clean and do the right thing. 

John Clancy
Nancy Walsh

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