Living Theatre Makes Last Ditch Effort for Survival

Lucky Ant

Last Thursday, Brad Burgess was able to stop city marshals from evicting The Living Theatre after gathering $10,400 for back rent. But in 12 days the theater, known for its avant garde productions admired by the likes of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, faces yet another deadline. If The Living Theatre cannot raise $24,000 by May 14 it will have to move out. Its founder, Judith Malina, will likely face eviction from her apartment above the theater shortly thereafter.

To meet the goal, the theater has set up a call for donations that went live yesterday through a local crowd-funding site, Lucky Ant. The $24,000 would go towards arrears, as well as the money to pay a consultant who would formulate a plan to put the theater back in the black.

“We are down to the wire,” said Mr. Burgess, the 27-year-old actor who is caring for Ms. Malina and helping run the theater. “The beauty is that this is a last ditch effort that could turn into a permanently sustainable location in the Lower East Side.” The at-times nomadic company has had four previous homes. Most recently, in 1993, its location at Third Street and Avenue C was shuttered by the Department of Health in 1993. Before that, in 1963, its 14th Street theater was closed by the I.R.S.

So far, $3,100 in donations have been made.

As The Lo-Down reported last month, 2012 has not been kind to the theater, which is burdened by a commercial lease for its space at 21 Clinton Street. In a video calling for donations, Ms. Malina says, “The rent, the electricity, the insurance, those are the big problems — when the problems should be the creation of the art.”

Counting this month, the theater owes $33,900 in arrears since February.

“This is very much do or die,” said Nate Echeverria of Lucky Ant, which is based on Chrystie Street. “They get the money, then they can buy time with the landlord.”

Founded in 1947, the company made a name for itself by running afoul of authorities and pushing the boundaries of theater. “Audience interaction was the point, and confrontations, nudity, onstage and offstage sex and frequent police intervention were as much the marks of a good show as an ovation,” noted a Times article when the Clinton Street theater opened in 2007. Yet the theater’s prestige and big-name supporters haven’t kept it afloat — a stark illustration of how difficult it has been for off-Broadway companies to survive in the wake of the economic recession.

Still, the 85-year-old Ms. Malina is taking the seemingly constant threats of eviction in stride. “She’s not a computer and phone person,” said Mr. Burgess. “She has to sit back and wait. It’s rather nerve-wracking for her. Her health isn’t the greatest possible, but she’s been through this before.”

Mr. Burgess was optimistic the theater would be pulled back from the brink. The implications of the theater closing were just too demoralizing to comprehend. “I can’t live in a world of theater where Judith Molina hasn’t earned a permanent space,” Mr. Burgess said. “I believe New York City will understand that.”

He added, “The alternative is total despair — I mean, if I can accomplish only one-tenth of what she did, what kind of security will I have in my life? She founded the whole Off-Broadway movement!”