The tiny woman with long dark hair stepped out of the front row and onto the stage. She drew close to the audience, her piercing eyes sweeping over us, and asked in a loud, strong voice: “Are we here?” The audience, who had taken every available chair, who were leaning forward in collective anticipation, answered together with a resounding “Yes!”
Yes, I was there last night, at the solar-powered Electric Lodge in Venice, to witness a performance by one of my heroes, the great Judith Malina. Judith, an actor/director/writer/activist, founded The Living Theatre in the late 1940’s with her husband and fellow artist Julian Beck. They were the forerunners of the Off-Broadway movement and their political and experimental theatre work was a ground-breaking alternative to a town captivated by Strasberg’s Method. Julian died in 1985 and Judith is now married to Hanon Reznikov, the current director of The Living Theatre. The group has always met with difficulty in finding performance space and has been working in Europe for the past several years, but after this world tour they’ll be returning to take up residency in New York, where it all began.
At the end of my last film project the production coordinator gave me a copy of Malina’s journals from 1947-1957. On the front cover he inscribed: “Dawn, you and Judith have a lot in common- yer both nuts!” A few months ago he emailed me: “Shakespeare in Hollywood- Judith would be proud.” That book was critical in getting me through some of the early doubts and fears about acting again and through the enormous obstacles that accompany every project I do with my company. Judith was very young when she envisioned The Living Theatre and for years she and Julian struggled to find money, performance space and audiences. I often read a few pages of her journal when I was trying to fall asleep and wracked with insecurities. I took comfort in knowing that she had been where I was going and had made her way through.
Then last week I happened upon a newspaper blurb that stated Malina and Reznikov were going to be in town for one night to perform a show called Love and Politics. I had no idea that Judith was still performing and immediately called for tickets. I went with Adam and two friends who I knew would appreciate the show. One of the friends was Rachel, an actor whose own work has been hugely influenced by Malina. We got to the theatre early and I brought my book which turned out to be a great conversation-opener. Although most of the audience knew Malina’s work, many of them hadn’t read her journals and they were anxious to look at it and write down the title. A tall silver-haired gentleman thumbed through the photos in the book and told me that he had also been doing political theatre in New York in the sixties and spent a year in prison for his activism. Another man had studied with Jerzy Grotowski and remarked, “Jerzy always said the strangest things to me in class.” It seemed that many in the audience had either worked with Malina or ran in the same circles and that alone made the evening invaluable.
The evening was divided into three sections: Origins, The Theatre and Understanding the Future. Judith and Hanon sat at a small table and read tons of their wonderful poetry, in-between which they’d get up and perform scenes from their famous work, including Judith’s translation of Brecht’s Antigone, which she translated while in prison for her activism. The Living Theatre has always dedicated itself to nonviolent anarchy and Brecht’s Antigone could not have been more appropriate or relevant. For me, that piece was the highlight of the show. They concluded the evening with a poem titled, “Why the Living Theatre is Returning to New York,” a battle-cry for peace and art that matters. Then they stood, hand in hand on the edge of the stage, to lead the audience in a protest song called “Stop the War,” sung to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.
Afterwards Rachel and I were determined to meet our role-model. We stood in the lobby and waited while scores of friends reminisced with Judith about New York and reporters or documentarians took photos. Judith was practically hidden by the number of people surrounding her but then she suddenly turned to me and Rachel, who were standing behind her, and offered her hand with a bright, warm smile. Rachel told her that it was reading Malina’s work that made her understand how to combine her creativity with her politics. Then Judith turned to me. I took her hand and told her how her life had inspired me. She smiled again and said, “I see you’ve read my book so you know all about me.” I asked her to sign it and she was happy to do so, along with Rachel’s program. She wrote: “For Dawn, with hope for peace and love. Judith.”
In the moment when I let go of her hand and she took my book, I unexpectedly began to weep. I was overwhelmed to be standing in the presence of someone who had made such an impact on my life, my art and my politics. Rachel brushed away her own tears but we were still crying as we made our way out. In the car I sat for a moment, my face buried in my hands, trying to collect myself. Then we went to a bar for a late dinner and talked excitedly about future work.