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Living Theater



From its conception, The Living Theatre was dedicated to transforming the organization of power within society from a competitive, hierarchical structure to cooperative and communal expression. The troupe attempts to do so by counteracting complacency in the audience through direct spectacle.


They oppose the commercial orientation of Broadway productions and have contributed to the off-Broadway theater movement in New York City, staging poetic dramas.


Learning Objectives:

  1. By means of reading, lecture, discussion and by demonstration both from instructor and from students, to gain a fundamental understanding of the basic elements of theatre: acting, directing, design, playwriting, and theatre spaces.

  2. To understand and interpret the ways in which these elements contribute to the total theatre experience.

  3. To gain an overview of the historical roots of theatre; its evolution, styles, and practitioners through time.

  4. To learn to read a play, both as literature and as a potential theatrical production.

  5. To develop analytic skills to enjoy seeing and intelligently critiquing a theatre production.

Theater as Protest

Research Sources



Signals Through the Flames, Sheldon Rochlin, 1983 | 97 mins

Signals Through the Flames is at once a history and a celebration of The Living Theatre. Founded in the late 1940s by husband-and-wife performers Julian Beck and Judith Malina, The Living Theatre was for many years the Predominant American outlet for the avant-garde movement.

The Connection, Shirley Clarke, 1961 | 110 mins

Allen Gisnberg brought critic Kenneth Tynan to The Connection written by Jack Gelber and directed by Judith Malina at The Living Theatre’s 14th Street theatre. Tynan’s review, provoked by Ginsberg’s appreciation of the play, and Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd’s music, made The Living a fixture in the downtown scene. This was Shirley Clarke’s first major film effort, and helped set her career in motion as well.


The Connection excerpt, 2009 | 10 mins

In 2009 The Living Theatre staged a 50th anniversary production of The Connection directed by and also featuring Malina. The production took place in the company’s new Clinton Street theater which closed in 2013.


The Brig, Jonas Mekas, 1964 | 68 mins

The Brig by Kenneth Brown was the last play The Living Theatre performed at its 14th Street theatre before being exiled from the U.S. for their criticism of the Marine Corps. Brown, a former Marine, wrote a day in the life piece based on his experience in a brig facility in Japan. Jonas Mekas filmed the play after the 14th Street theatre closed, in a midtown theater space that was also closed. But the crew and ensemble found a way into the space for the filmshoot, which won Best Documentary at the 1963 Venice Film Festival, when the panel mistook its realism for a documentary film.


The Brig excerpt, Evan True, 2007 | 10 mins

In 2007, The Living revived The Brig at the opening of its Clinton Street theater under Malina’s direction. The production was given two OBIE’s for ensemble and direction.

Love & Politics, Azad Jafarian, 2012 | 52 mins

The film follows Malina through her life in the Lower East Side after the death of her second husband, Hanon Reznikov. It premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival and has played in theatres in Europe and South America.


Know Your Rites, Jessica Daugherty, 2016 | 60 mins

Just this August, in the summer of 2016, The Living Theatre went on tour across America. The company revived a piece from the early 1970s, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism, which was created after The Living’s arrest and imprisonment at a D.O.P.S. torture prison under the Medici dictatorship in Brazil. The 2016 tour also included street performances related to the Seven Meditations, at places such as Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, Boeing in Chicago, Haliburton, B.P. and Spectra Energy in Houston, Mormon Temple Square in Salt Lake City and more. This video montage combines these elements to show the companies investigation of the political climate in America, both in the theatre and in the streets.


The Living Theatre. Founded in 1947 as an imaginative alternative to the commercial theater by Judith Malina, the German-born student of Erwin Piscator, and Julian Beck, an abstract expressionist painter of the New York School, The Living Theatre has staged nearly a hundred productions performed in eight languages in 28 countries on five continents – a unique body of work that has influenced theater the world over. The Living is heading to Europe for a workshop tour this winter, and will be developing the play Venus & Mars, which was left unfinished by Malina as its next new work in the years to come.


Brad Burgess is the Artistic Director of The Living Theatre, after having worked with friend and mentor Judith Malina for 10 years until her passing in April 2015. He is an OBIE award-winning member of The Living Theatre ensemble. Brad is a founding board member of The Indie Theater Fund, an organization of 230-plus theatre companies that collectively tithes and fundraises to support independent theatre. He is a founding board member of Sophie Gerson’s Healthy Youth with former councilman Alan Gerson and many other NYC community leaders, an organization that provides arts, sports, and science programs to underprivileged kids in the city. He is a board member of The Assembly and FRIGID NY. He is an associate at The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is also a workshop leader for the All Stars Project Cops & Kids program with the NYPD.


Monica Hunken creates solo shows which include, Reading the Water, Blondie of Arabia, The Wild Finish,and Hunker Down. In NY, she has been produced at Culture Project, The Living Theater, Polish Cultural Institute and HERE Arts Center. She has been produced in Australia’s Horse’s Mouth Festival, the Netherland’s DeParade and Fringe Festivals, Norway’s PIT festival, the Glastonbury Festival in England, among many other theaters across the globe. She is an avid cyclist, having ridden across more than 20 countries while also performing, teaching and leading creative direct action workshops.


Philip Santos Schaffer is a multi-disciplinary theatre artist, currently in his second year in Columbia University’s MFA Dramaturgy Program. BFA Production, focus in Directing, Hofstra University. Associate Archivist and company member, The Living Theatre. Philip is one fourth of the artistic team behind WalkUpArts. Plays by Philip include A PLAY ABOUT DREW CAREY (WalkUpArts, upcoming), I Live With William Walker (Columbia University, 2016), God Likes You (Columbia University, 2016), Alone With Living Creatures (WalkUpArts, 2014), and The Life of the Theatre, a full length play adapted from Julian Beck’s diary by the same name, and produced many times over the course of the past 3 years. For information on upcoming projects, visit


Cindy Rosenthal is Professor of Drama at Hofstra University and a performer and director. She coedited The Rise of Performance Studies: Rethinking Richard Schechner’s Broad Spectrum (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2011) and Restaging the Sixties: Radical Theatres and their Legacies (U. Michigan, 2006) with James Harding. With Hanon Reznikov she coedited Living on Third Street: Plays of the Living Theatre 1989-1992(Autonomedia, 2008). She has published essays inTheatre Survey, The New York Times, Women & Performance, Women: A Cultural Review, and TDR, including Fall 2016, “Circling Up with The Assembly.” She is the author of Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La Mama Experimental Theatre, forthcoming from U. Michigan Press. Also forthcoming: The Sixties, Center Stage, coedited with Harding (U. Michigan) and with Julia Listengarten, Modern American Drama: Playwriting 2000-2009 (Bloomsbury/Methuen).


Students author an original play to be produced by The Living Theater company


Over the course of several days, you will write and revise your play:

  1. Pre-writing: conflict scheme, questions about your story or scene, building a character (focus on the four goals of playwriting --- setting, stage directions, scene with dialogue, character conflict)

  2. Revision: discussion questions about scenes

  3. Dramatize and act out scenes of your play (practice monologues, focusing on conflicts and dramatic scenes) 


Playwriting Vocabulary


CHARACTER: who the actor pretends to be. (Characters want things. They have goals and objectives.)

DIALOGUE: a conversation between two or more characters.

CONFLICT: obstacles that get in the way of a character achieving what he or she wants. What the characters struggle against.

SCENE: a single situation or unit of dialogue in a play.

STAGE DIRECTIONS: messages from the playwright to the actors, technicians, and others in the theater telling them what to do and how to do it.

SETTING: time and place of a scene.

BIOGRAPHY: a character’s life story that a playwright creates.

MONOLOGUE: a long speech one character gives on stage.

DRAMATIC ACTION: an explanation of what the characters are trying to do.

BEAT: a smaller section of a scene, divided where a shift in emotion or topic occurs.

PLOT: the structure of a play, including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

EXPOSITION: the beginning part of a plot that provides important background information.

RISING ACTION: the middle part of a plot, consisting of complications and discoveries that create conflict.

CLIMAX: the turning point in a plot.

FALLING ACTION: the series of events following the climax of a plot.

DENOUEMENT: the final resolution of the conflict in a plot.

General Checklist for Successful Rewriting 


  • Have I written all the scenes the audience needs to see and hear?

  • Do I need any scenes before or after to develop character and conflict?

  • Is the play focused on the main character and conflict? How can I focus it?

  • Are conflict and character developed through the dialogue?

  • Have I expressed as much as possible through the dialogue, avoiding narration?

  • Have I provided settings? Do the settings contribute to the action?

  • Is my work divided into scenes where appropriate?

  • Does the audience get to know the characters well enough to care about them?

  • Are my characters different from each other? Do they speak in characteristic ways? (Speech patterns, style, attitudes, tone, etc.)

  • Are there any characters I should eliminate because they aren’t really necessary?

  • Are my characters well developed? Do I know them as well as I should? Have I revealed as much as I need to about them? How can I develop them further? Scenes? Monologues?

  • Do I know what my characters want? Will the audience know? Are their goals clear?

  • Have I thrown interesting and challenging obstacles into my characters’ paths? Are they struggling? Do people become obstacles for each other?

  • Is the central conflict or struggle of my play an interesting one?

  • Do the characters change? How can I put the characters through a believable change?

  • Have I avoided resolving the conflict too soon?

  • Is the audience always curious to know what happens next?

  • What does happen next? Could I write that scene, too?

Common Problems in Student Plays





  1. Narration—Often the student playwright will make use of a narrator that speaks to the audience as characters do. This should be avoided. The story is best told through the revelation of information by dialogue and action: what the characters say and do. Show, don’t tell.

  2. Too little/Too much information—The whole story is not shared with the audience or there are details not important to the story presented (this can be hard to judge).

  3. Recycled lines—dialogue consists of recycled lines from movies, etc.

  4. Too little dialogue—Try having students create a scene with no action; where we must learn about a character only through what he or the other characters say.


Questions for the Playwright to ask:


• How might the characters’ true feelings be communicated to the audience through dialogue?

• What dialogue could be cut without damaging the story?

• What narrative clues have been left out?

• What is your favorite piece of dialogue? Why?

• Can you think of a way to say this that is truer to the character?

• How does each character feel about the other characters?

• Do we know this by something he or she says?

• Can you imagine something he or she might say or do, feeling the way she or he does?

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