The Living Theatre

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by Charles Rotmil

I was pretty young and that was a crucial, formative period. But some part of me understood that I was in the right place at the right time. It was a hotbed of creativity because of John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. Bob Dunn’s classes were based on Cage’s approach to musical composition, so we were actually learning Cage methods of indeterminacy and chance, which were very freeing technically in making dances. We didn’t have to take ourselves so seriously, though we were very serious about our work. John wasn’t at those classes, but he was certainly around the Cunningham studio and, for me, his influence was parallel, if not greater, than Merce’s. My aesthetic was born there, and in the work of many of us the vocabulary of movement is sort of dimensionless, not fixed in a recognizable technique. Robert Rauschenberg was a good model for us. He knew how to have a good time and gave a lot of parties in his loft. The first work I did at Judson was “Rain Fur.” I remember being on the floor and rolling over slowly. I started upstage and rolled downstage. Alex Hay, to whom I was married at the time, may have been in it, too, but I’m not sure. It was accompanied by Charles Rotmil playing a bamboo flute. — from Allen Hughes, “DANCE; A Place And Time To Find New Ways To Move,” New York Times (June 3, 2001).

Part of the world in motion back in the 1960s was the Living Theatre, which had a space on 14th Street and 6th Avenue. Robert Dunn ran a choreography workshop on the second floor, a small dance floor with bars and other equipement. Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer were part of it. I would hang out and sit quietly on the floor watching and taking photographs, as one of them did her dance, while reciting James Joyce. It was a new thing to do then and avant garde. Chance was all part of the game, as outlined by Merce Cunningham and John Cage. The Living Theatre was downstairs, a complete little theatre, small and intimate. Once Cage gave four simultaneous lectures, three on tapes and one live. He stood talking, once about death, while the tape recorder went on about mushroom hunting and eventually all four were going at once. It was fascinating because my brain would try to focus on individual lectures, going from one to the other, as my brain would do the editing. I had to laugh because I thought I would lose my mind any moment. I went to almost all the plays the Living Theatre put out, often more than once. I must have seen Jack Gelber’s The Connection fifty times. They let me hang out and take pictures. And I did. I even went back once during the day and took some formal photos of Judith Malina and Julian Beck.  

Most recently I went to their new place in the basement of an old building not far from Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. As before, they bring the audience into the play. In this instance they removed the seats, having everyone on an open floor acting with the actors. Still very much living theatre.

Back in the 60s, I would hang out backstage in the dressing room and watch the actors apply their make-up. One of them was drinking right out of a cough medicine bottle, saying to me it was for his voice, even though it was loaded with codeine then. It was a cheap way to get high legally, but for me it meant doing hard drugs. I feared getting hooked. Yet I had a taste of everything that was available then: pot from hookah pipes to ether from a cotton-soaked cup to scopolamine. I felt it was okay to try something once and be done with it. To this day, I tend to feel high most of the time, and I do not need the boost, especially if I am trying to focus.

The play that night was Luigi Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise, in which, very much like Six Characters in Search of an Author, the characters are dissatisfied with the writer and get rid of him and then eventually get rid of the director. I have a somewhat blurred photo showing Julian Beck being thrown off the stage.

The Connection is about a group of junkies waiting for the arrival of “Cowboy,” a black guy in a white suit. Not sure if it is a spoiler but he eventually does arrive. A jazz band played on stage live. During intermission, some of the actors wandered around begging for money to get a fix. It was real.

Some of the Living Theatre actors went off to Hollywood; even Judith Malina played Grandmama in an Addams Family movie. I met Charles Addams once at a rooftop party on First Avenue. He came in with his little dog, the RCA dog, with a black ring around his eye. I told Addams how I enjoyed one of his books, which had on its cover the Addams family moon bathing. Pugsley was playing in a sandbox. Addams asked if I noticed what he was doing there, “He is planting mushrooms.”

Photographs by Charles Rotmil of Luigi Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise Performed at the Living Theatre in the 1960s

Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s


Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s


Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s


Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s


Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s


Charles Rotmil, photo of Luigi Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise as performed by the Living Theatre, 1960s

Julian Beck being thrown off stage during the play


Written by Charles Rotmil and published by RealityStudio on 18 August 2012. Text and images © Charles Rotmil 2012.
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Comments Total: 2
kent perry
Jun 9 2013
10:41 am

Loved the photos and pieced cheers and thank you

charles rotmil
Sep 28 2013
9:55 am

loved what you did with my stuff. I am in nyc this week oct for 3 weeks, apt sitting dog watching in the village. I will be walking the dog to Washington Square. Can one go home again? I will find out.

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