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Ritual Performance and Spirituality in the Work of The Living Theatre, Past and Present

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 36-53 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0003

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The experimental theatre of the 1960s, often inspired by the theories of Antonin Artaud, generally abandoned traditional dramatic structure and literary masterpieces in favor of ensemble-driven, ritualistic work rooted in the body that sought to transcend the limits of verbal, cognitive-based communication. While important work was done by companies led by Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner, Joseph Chaikin, and others, Julian Beck and Judith Malina's troupe the Living Theatre occupies a singular, long-lasting, and significant position in this theatrical landscape. In my essay, I will explore how the Living Theatre, initially as part of the larger 1960s radical theatre movement, sought to merge art and life and create a performance space that could allow for spiritual transcendence. In a sense, those who seek out the Living Theatre have a spiritual intention that resonates with the altruistic intent of their ensemble-driven work. (I have experienced this firsthand, having sought out the company after seeing Tablets in 1989 while still a graduate student, which eventually led to my work with Reznikov as assistant director on Rules of Civility in 1991.) The Living Theatre essentially used performance, including extensive audience participation, as a contemporary act of secular ritual that could provide spiritual sustenance to a decaying culture it believed needed new myths and rites of worship. The Living Theatre is also unique in its long-standing commitment to this spiritual mission, and it is still active today. The company continues to negotiate how daily life might intersect with the theatre as a holy space of sorts, where visions of a richer, spiritual world and human existence can be forged in performance first among a company and then between actors and spectators.

Founded in 1947 by Beck and Malina as part of the off-Broadway movement, the Living Theatre by the early 1960s was most interested in awakening what it perceived as a passive, spiritually alienated audience. Frequently, its experiments were rooted in myth and ritual harkening back to the origins of theatre as a means of restoring a sense of vitality and importance to contemporary performance. Beck conceived their theatre as an encounter "that would be an intense experience halfway between dreams and rituals, through which the spectator could achieve intimate comprehension of himself . . . and the nature of things." Beck further described the appeal of Artaud for the Living, as they are referred to in Europe, in "his desire to bring to the theatre the outcry, the great scream, as the Greeks tried to reach for that moment of scream. It was the protest, the way at least of the voice breaking out of the inhibition. Do I dare and raise my voice? . . . Artaud wanted to smash the whole prison society with that outcry, with that scream."

Numerous other artists challenged rigid and often authoritarian conventions and institutions in this period. In general, the avant-garde theatre of the 1960s envisioned the theatrical encounter as a means of forging new communities and more authentic value systems for both artists and spectators. While different companies created their own style of theatre, certain characteristics emerged in common during this era. Because of the influence of Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty, traditional dialogue and characters were typically abandoned in favor of sound and movement rooted in ensemble collaboration. Artists rejected naturalism in favor of seeking the metaphysical in Artaudian "speech, gesture and expression." Theatre pieces were often created around a series of rituals, frequently involving audience participation. As critic Margaret Croyden noted, "Artaud set the tone for the radical theater of the sixties. . . . What he envisioned . . . was a ritual theatre, of psychotherapy and spiritual transformation." Richard Schechner, founder of The Performance Group and editor of the Drama Review during this period, argued that ritual and theatre differed significantly within boundaries of performance. For Schechner, conventional theatre offered entertainment for a passive, separate audience, whereas ritual allowed for the spectator to engage in participatory acts that could create a community with transformative potential. The work of social scientist Victor Turner later influenced Schechner's work in the area of performance studies, with Turner's notion of the liminal defined as a place "neither here nor there," but rather "betwixt and...

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