- The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in Sixties America
"The theatre is in the street," declared members of the Living Theatre at the end of the 1968 production Paradise Now, leading audience members out into public spaces. This groundbreaking participatory piece inspired performers and spectators to live out their freedom—some of them were subsequently arrested for charges of nudity. Surely notorious, Paradise Now should, however, be remembered for its fusing of everyday life and art, for forging a community between performers and audience, and for finding in the street a perfect forum for their politically oriented performances.
Bradford D. Martin's carefully researched study argues that public performance made significant headway during the 1960s. Martin illustrates the importance and nature of public performance, presenting five dissimilar groups: the civil rights group The Freedom Singers, The Living Theatre, the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), and the Guerrilla Art Action Group. All of these groups shared not only similar political views—drawing upon the New Left and counterculture ideas—but they also "document[ed] the emergence of public, politically oriented performance as an important and influential cultural force during the sixties" (160). Martin specifically selected groups that used different media—singing, theatre, visual arts—for spreading their political and social ideas.
The 1960s was a time of political activism—the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the hippie culture, etc.—in which participants sought out visibility. Public performance thus became instrumental for openly fighting segregation in the South, as The Freedom Singers did, or for resisting the institutionalization of art, one of the goals of the AWC. In addition to such concrete objectives, the basic fight for freedom underpinned all of the groups' programs.
Martin opens his discussion with The Freedom Singers, a political group that "sought primarily to advance the integration and egalitarian goals of the early civil rights movement" (21). At that time, political activism took to the streets using various performative elements; The Freedom Singers employed music and communal singing in their public statements. Singing had been a form of social protest since the days of slavery, Martin remarks, outlining the historical role of African American spirituals, whose traditional tunes morphed into freedom songs in the 1960s. A case in point is "We Shall Overcome," which was earlier entitled "I'll Overcome Someday." The more affirmative wording of the 1960s became "a powerful tool with which to express movement unity both to local audiences and to the potentially larger audiences on television" (33). Moreover, singing together helped activists to gain confidence during demonstrations and to deal with violence inflicted by authorities and adversaries.
Unlike the other groups that quickly embraced public performance, The Living Theatre existed for about twenty years before taking their activity and acts of disobedience to the street. Beginning with Paradise Now, street theatre became a staple of the group's activity. By adding interviews with company members and excerpts from the diaries of company founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Martin enlivens his discussion of the company's work before and after its signature piece, Paradise Now.
Despite emerging out of The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the communal-minded Diggers seemed not to emphasize their theatrical work but their community services, such as the Free Food program. Amusingly, Martin recounts that in providing free goods to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, members of this group did not shy away from pilfering. In addition to public performances, the Diggers used broadsides for their proclamations. Yet their participatory street spectacles quickly attracted "a following among the radical left" (114). In those spectacles, the Diggers (like The Living Theatre) embraced a communion between the performers and the spectators. Like the other groups, the Diggers had various encounters with the police and other authorities; but inventive as they were, [End Page 371] they raised money during a public performance for bailing out two Hell's Angels, who had been arrested at an earlier event. In such situations...