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Claudia Costa Pederson Reviews "Living on Third Street"

"Living on Third Street" Reviewed by Claudia Costa Pederson, Liminalities

Book Review Living on Third Street: Plays of the Living Theatre, 1989–1992. Hanon Reznikov. New York: Autonomedia, 2009. 208 pp.

Hanon Reznikov (née Reznick, 1951—2008) the producer, director and author of the productions of the Living Theater envisioned Living on Third Street as a document about the activities of the theater company that he helped run for twenty-three years. Published posthumously (Reznikov died in 2008) the book is an eulogy to his life work and to the theatrical encounter.

The book opens with a dedication by Hanon’s brother James Reznick. The core of the work is a historical overview of the Living Theater that focus on the years 1989—1992, a period when the theater was located on Third street in New York City’s Lower East Side. Essays include an account of the trajectory of the Living Theater by Cindy Rosenthal, a Professor of Drama and Dance at Hofstra University and the book’s editor. Rosenthal traces the origins of the collective to the living room of Living Theater founders German-born actress Judith Malina and painter Julian Beck who conceived the idea in 1951 amid the booming modern art scene in New York City. Her discussion focus on the collaborative aspect of the ensemble. Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater and Reznikov’s partner, contributed excerpts from her diary. The main body of the book pertains to nine texts of selected plays accompanied by discussions and short impressions by a number of contributors. It also includes a comprehensive chronological list of events pertaining to the activities of the theater and an index of names of members and collaborators, as well as images of performances, and leaflets. The book concludes with an essay by Reznikov that relates the company’s move to the present address, 21 Clinton street in New York City.

As a record the book also follows the Livig Theater's nomadic model as the four years on Third street were exceptional in its continual moves to various locations in New York City and frequent touring throughout Europe (the company included groups active in London, India, and Brazil, at various points in time). The theater pieces included reflect a similar model in their development and performance. All nine pieces (representing a small selection of works performed during this time) were conceived in collaboration with fellow artists and members of communities living around the theater.

Documents include The Tablets, a performance text by Jewish-Belgian-American poet Armand Schwerner adapted for the theater by Reznikov; The Rules of Civility, also adapted by Reznikov from the writings of George Washington; and collective creations by members of the Living Theater including Tumult, or Clearing the Streets, IandI, The Body of God, and German Requiem. The last play, a collaborative piece by Reznikov and Malina entitled The Zero Method, is a piece about philosophy, the theatrical experience, and their partnership.

The structure of the plays is based on a exploration of the relationship between the written and performed word. For instance, Tablets (1989) explores the materialist epistemology in relation to the limits of knowledge. Its central figure—the scholar is a metaphor for the crisis of the hermeunetic tradition. IandI (1989) is based on a play by Else Lasker-Schuler, a poet active in Weimar Germany. The work was written during exile in Palestine in the genre of cabaret and vaudeville to ridicule the Nazis. The play is based on the classic German tale of Faust associated with the Christian tradition of evil and good. The piece portrays the doctor and his tempter as the two halves of a divided self whose conflict ultimately erupts in Nazism and war. The Rules of Civility (1990) is based on George Washington's 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (1640). They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The play comments on social etiquette as a construct of public image rather than a code of ethics. The play was performed at public protests in Italy against the war in Iraq in front of the American embassy in much the same manner as during the ’60s, in protest against the war in Vietnam.

The vitality of the Living Theater ensues precisely from its commitment to a situated practice of social critique. Two of the plays included in the book dovetail with ongoing disputes about urban space and the shaping of urban experience between authorities and New York City residents. Tumult (1989), the first play performed at Third street, is agit-prop performance about use value of community spaces, community gardens, squatters' rights, and the right to assemble peacefully in streets and parks. The performance evolved as a response to the 1988 riots in the East Village's Tompkins Square Park. The public performance involved the residents in mockups of the riots. The Body of God (1990) brought New York squatters, homeless, actors, and audiences together around questions relating to urban housing and social marginality. The issue of waste is the center of Waste (1991) a piece about environmental issues, resource management, and abundance. For this piece, artists in the community were invited to contribute work to the temporary waste museum set up in the theater’s space.

Underlying the activities of the company is a rigorous and continuous self-reflexivity. The last play text in the book, Zero Method (1991) underscores this premise. The play is based on the poetic- ontological approach of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) applied to the questions of the theatrical act itself. The piece is a autobiographical meditation and an invitation to the audience to engage collective dialogue about the Living Theater itself at a moment of crisis involving the uncertainties of relocation.

The nomadic model of the Living Theater evolves from a basic premise rooted in a conception of theater as sociopolitical engagement (Malina was trained by Erwin Piscator in the tradition of Brecht’s Epic theater). The radicality of this idea resides in its aim: the development of experimental conditions toward other visions and means of organization. To this end, the running thread of Living Theater's experimental plays is the encounter—between two lovers, between generations, between the actor and members of communities. On the interstices of theater and activism, the Living Theater hinges on the conceptualization of lived experience. The book appropriately concludes with the notion of the Living Theater as an idea—“the idea of freedom.” (193)

Though at moments the written word falls short at conveying the liveliness of the Living Theater, the texts and accounts gathered in the book provide a glimpse. In particular, the short vignettes relating improvised moments from each of the particular performances encapsulate the fluidity and spirit of the performative act. The publicizing of this legacy is especially relevant to the present context as electronic forms of performance in the electronic realm cite the Living Theater as one of their points of reference (e.g., Critical Art Ensemble and RTMark). Living on Third Street: Plays of the Living Theatre, 1989–1992 is an important contribution as the first attempt at making public a historical record of the company's contributions to activist- based performance and theater, and a celebration of progressive social energies.

— Claudia Costa Pederson