Circle Game

By Mead, Rebecca | The New Yorker, April 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Circle Game


Mead, Rebecca, The New Yorker


CIRCLE GAME

JoAnne Akalaitis, the theatre director and writer who co-founded the avant-garde theatre group Mabou Mines, in 1970, lives in a ground-floor apartment on the edge of Tompkins Square Park, in the East Village. Each month, on a Sunday afternoon, she hosts a salon there, for women who are in the theatre or interested in the theatre. "Conversation goes from serious intellectual discourse to lowdown, show-business gossip, and the age range is from twenty-five to eighty," Akalaitis, who is a vigorous seventy-seven years old, said recently. She launched the salon in collaboration with Jean Wagner, a professor at Bard. Usually, a topic for discussion is chosen in advance: the group has covered the work of Gertrude Stein, ancient Greek drama, and the oeuvre of Joan Rivers.

The group's members recently turned their attention to Judith Malina, who, along with her first husband, Julian Beck, co-founded the Living Theatre, in 1947. It was a radical and influential collective: its most celebrated works included "The Brig," from 1963, a harrowing depiction of a Marine Corps prison, and "Paradise Now," from 1968, a semi-improvised, fourth-wall-breaking piece that advocated pacifism, anarchism, and nudism. In the Times , Clive Barnes noted, not unkindly, that it generated "an almost mystical sense of tedium."

Events took an unanticipated turn: Malina died, at the age of eighty-eight, on the Friday before the salon, and so what was intended to be an informal session devoted to her work was instead transformed into a celebratory shiva commemorating her life. Akalaitis's dining table was laden with a potluck haul of salads and pasta and a big platter of devilled eggs, a favorite of Malina's. After grazing, thirty or so women settled themselves in a circle, sitting on couches, chairs, and pillows purloined from Akalaitis's bed. First, the actor Randy Danson read a few of Malina's diary entries from the early nineteen-fifties--"If I did this play I would try to make it unbearable for the audience"--to approving chuckles.

"The wonderful thing about the diary is that there's so much blood in it--it is like Bloomsbury, with blood," the actor Kathleen Chalfant remarked. "It wasn't careful. It wasn't nice. People didn't behave the way they were supposed to behave."

Joan MacIntosh, a co-founder of the Performance Group, recalled attending a Living Theatre rehearsal. "The whole company would sit in a large circle on the floor, and everyone would speak, and no one was allowed to respond," she said, wonderingly. …

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