Judith Malina was the cofounder of the Living Theatre, along with her husband Julian Beck, and they played key roles in the development of Off-Broadway during the 1950s and Off-Off-Broadway in the 1960s.
Off-Off-Broadway director Larry Kornfeld honed his skills at the Living Theatre before directing dozens of shows at the Judson Poets’ Theatre throughout the 1960s. “Judith Malina, Julian Beck, and I hit it off right from the beginning because we saw eye to eye about aesthetics,” he said. “We were breaking away from commercialism in New York theater and were influenced by Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble, and the new movements in avant-garde theater.” Since its founding, the Living Theatre remained itinerant. After its West Ninety-Ninth Street location was closed, Kornfeld joined Malina and Beck when they were preparing to open their final location on West Fourteenth Street, on the northern edge of Greenwich Village (where The Connection debuted). The Living Theatre was also part of the broader antiwar and civil rights struggles during this time. “We marched on the White House in the fifties to ban the bomb,” Kornfeld said. “So that kind of political reaction to the status quo fell in line with the artistic reactions—you can’t separate them. It all fit together by the end of the fifties into the sixties, when there was the beginnings of an anti-bomb, anti-war, anti-middlebrow movement. My experience at the Living Theatre was a five-year period in which every day I was stage managing, directing, acting, learning—soaking it all in. And also being part of the many artists, dancers, and people who came to the Living Theatre—like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and so many others.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Fittingly, one of the Living Theatre’s workers, Peter Crowley, spent time there well over a decade before he began booking the Ramones, Blondie, and other punk bands at Max’s Kansas City. In both venues, he witnessed the dissolution of barriers that separated audiences from performers. After running away at the age of seventeen to join the circus (literally: Crowley worked for Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. as a sideshow laborer), he moved to New York in 1959 and got involved with the Committee for Non-Violent Action. Crowley met Malina and Beck at a demonstration and began working in the theater’s lobby and bookshop, taking acting classes on the side. “The Living Theatre’s involvement with the peace movement was an attraction, and the plays themselves were fascinating,” he said. “They did The Connection and The Brig, those are the two famous ones.”
Ed Sanders grew up in western Missouri, in the small farm town of Blue Springs. After briefly attending the University of Missouri, he hitchhiked to the East Coast in 1958 to attend New York University. “I soon was enmeshed in the culture of the Beats,” Sanders recalled, “as found in Greenwich Village bookstores, in the poetry readings in coffeehouses on MacDougal Street, in New York City art and jazz, and in the milieu of pot and counterculture that was rising.” He also began volunteering at the Catholic Worker, a newspaper founded by activist Dorothy Day that was dedicated to social justice. In 1962, the political poet decided to publish his irreverent mimeographed zine, Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, after a transformative experience viewing Jonas Mekas’s film Guns of the Trees, which featured Sanders’s literary hero Allen Ginsberg. The next day, in a fever of inspiration, he typed the first issue of Fuck You on a Catholic Worker typewriter using mimeograph stencils and colored paper that he “borrowed” from the newspaper. Day was furious when she found out, so Sanders then produced an issue of Fuck You using equipment found at the Living Theatre, a place where provocative aesthetics and left-wing politics aligned. “I went down to DC with the Living Theater to be a part of the Great March on Washington on August 28, 1963,” Sanders said. “I brought along my Bell & Howell [movie camera], plus a satchel of the freshly published issue of my magazine.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore