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Living Theatre Closes NYC Space, Judith Malina Retires

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Living Theatre Closes NYC Space, Judith Malina Retires
Jon Kalish, New York Daily News

Clinton St. theater was behind on its rent. Anarchism and Utopian views have cut down on grants.

A lower East Side theater that championed anarchism, Utopian experimentalism for 66 years will close for good this week — and its fiery founder will spend her remaining days in an unhappy retirement.

Judith Malina will move Thursday to the Lillian Booth home for retired artists in New Jersey after losing her lease on Clinton Street's Living Theatre, where she produced cutting-edge theater for six decades.

"I'm in the theater because I'm a revolutionary and I'm very unhappy about having to give this place up," Malina told The News.

Malina had put $800,000 of her own money into the basement performance space — the profits from the sale of her late husband’s art collection — but had fallen four months behind on the rent.

Even donations from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono couldn’t save the theater, which started out producing stage works by Gertrude Stein,. William Carlos Williams and the Europeans Jean Cocteau and Bertolt Brecht.

“It might've been easier if we had taken all the money we had six years ago and gone to Bushwick, but Judith in her 80s didn't want to live in Bushwick," said Tom Walker, who has been with the theater for 40 years.

The diminutive actress, who appeared in major motion pictures as "The Addams Family" and "Enemies: A Love Story," lived in a modest apartment above the theater — a cost-cutting measure after living in a sprawling upper West Side apartment for 50 years.

"If this was France or Japan or almost anywhere else in the world, Judith would be considered a national treasure and she'd be supported," said Penny Arcade, the veteran lower East Side performance artist who is doing a benefit for Malina Wednesday.

The theater group has performed on five continents, often at non-traditional venues such as prisons and steel mills. Two of the Living Theatre's best known productions, "The Connection" and "The Brig," marked the start of the Off-Broadway movement in the late 1950s.

But like American jazz artists who sometimes find it easier getting gigs in Europe than they do at home, the Living Theatre has struggled in New York. The company's leftist politics likely curtailed grants from government and corporations.

But to the end, The Living Theatre stayed true to itself. The final production, "Here We Are," featured audience participation, with ticketholders learning how to make sandals and then dancing with the actors on stage. A narrator recited Utopian verse.

And Malina’s feistiness has not faded, mocking the Lillian Booth facility as "a f------ old age home."

"It's a nice place. It's beautiful," she softened. "But I don't want a nice place that's beautiful.”

In fact, she’s already plotting her next production.

"I'm definitely going to continue creating plays," she said. "I’m thinking about doing a play about old age there called ‘The Triumph of Time.’”