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Julian Beck and Judith Malina founded the Living Theater in 1951 as an experimental theater company. They are best known for three or four theatrical productions: Jack Gelber's The Connection, Kenneth Brown's The Brig and a few communally-created pieces, including Mysteries and Paradise Now.

They were about breaking down traditional boundaries and separations within the theater, and about promoting a specific view of what social change to agitate for. They were instrumental in introducing profanity, nudity, and audience interaction to the United States stage. Their pieces, while now dated and naive-seeming, were at the time controversial (in theater circles) and on the cutting-edge of the avant-garde.

The Connection, which has been compared to Waiting for Godot, was a precursor to the "mockumentary" form now best known in the movies This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Best in Show. Theatergoers watched a pair of cameramen and an "author" talking about the improvised "play" they were recording. The "improvisers" were said to be real heroin addicts (the claim is made in various places that the actors actually were heroin addicts) waiting for the Cowboy, their "connection," to come through.

As in Waiting for Godot, most of the "action" consists of interminable waiting. But in Beckett, Vladimir and Estragon clown around and talk about waiting; in the Connection, the addicts actually wait, and do nothing. According to theorists and historians, a radical break happened here, where the actors were not performing onstage, but were just "being there."

The Brig was set in a Marine Corps detention center. The text was very difficult to hear and understand because of the way in which it was delivered, characterization and plot ceased to exist in large part, and the audience received instead of a narrative an experiental "landscape" (following Stein).

Their communal work broke with tradition in even more substantial ways. They moved among the audience in plain clothes, brought the audience onstage as participants, performed nude, performed improvisationally, developed their material without writers or directors, and made a host of other minor innovations. Their pacifist utopian anarchist ideology eventually rendered them irrelevant in large part to an American audience, and after the IRS closed down their theater (supposedly because of legal reasons, but more likely due to the anti-American bent of The Brig, they moved their theater to Europe and South America, where they continued to perform for decades. One more recent performance I have read about was performed illegally and ended with the figure of Death leaving the actors bound and gagged. They relied on the villagers watching to participate (illegally) by freeing them.

The Living Theater is important in the history of avant-garde theater for several reasons. It was one of the first American theaters to incorporate Artaud, other theaters (e.g. The Open Theater and The Performance Group) built on their foundations either directly by using people who had been part of the Living Theater or methodologically, and, of course, the performances outlined, and others were quite innovative in their own right.

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