Back From the Brink, Living Theatre Hosts Fest Celebrating Survival

"Cho H Cho" featuring Daniel IrizarryErica Min “Cho H Cho” featuring Daniel Irizarry.

With arts funding getting slashed and donors pinching pennies, 11 downtown theater companies have joined forces for an avant garde festival next month. What space will serve as host? The Living Theatre, of course, which narrowly avoided shutting down weeks ago.

The month-long undergroundzero festival will open June 29 with a sit-down interview with Judith Malina, the revered founder of The Living Theatre. Ms. Malina will also fill the role of Mary in a production of “The Gospel of St Matthew” — a victory lap of sorts for the 85-year-old woman who nearly saw her life’s work come to an end due to debt.

“This is part of preserving one of the city’s treasures: Judith,” said Brad Burgess, who cares for Ms. Malina and helps run the theater. “If she’s not supported — the founder of the movement — what do the rest of us have? If she’s taken care of then there’s hope.”

Of course, The Living Theatre’s financial woes are far from unique. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, 50 of New York City’s 200 performance venues with 99 seats or fewer closed between 2003 and 2010.

Undergroundzero is an attempt to combat the trend by sharing resources and collaborating on and off the stage. “It’s about theater companies supporting theater companies,” said Mr. Burgess, who added that groups collectively raise funds while also sharing basic things like mailing lists and performance space.

In 2011 undergroundzero went on a one-year hiatus to become a more formal “collective” comprised of companies committed to participating in the festival every year.

"Oxygen" by BFloor Theatre CompanyCourtesy of Emily Owens. “Oxygen” by BFloor Theatre Company.

While The Living Theatre will serve as headquarters for the festival (and its many after parties), other productions will take place at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on Suffolk Street and JACK in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

The eclectic lineup includes a “series of performative lectures on debt,” a tour of the Meatpacking District based on William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and “Cho H Cho,” a play that “explores and observes the culture and values of globalized consumption through the lens of quantum physics, DaDa, Artaud, and the loving and violent extremes of the body,” according to a press release.

Guest companies from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Thailand will participate in the festival, as well. The international flavor is appropriate, given that The Living Theatre received donations from all over the world. According to Mr. Burgess, the Norwegian Actors Union contributed money to the theater on the last day.

“I think it’s the new model for theater and arts organizations,” he said of the new collaboration. “It’s an extinction pattern. If we don’t make new moves, the trend isn’t going to reverse itself on its own.”