Conference Calls: where artists and revolutionaries meet | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Conference Calls: where artists and revolutionaries meet



One day toward the end of the Bush era, Donna Blue called New York looking for the revolution. She had lost track of it sometime after her guerrilla theater days in the late 60s, when she had, among other acts of antiwar, dressed as a Vietnamese woman and wailed through the halls of the Capitol in Washington.

If you're a theater person and you want to check on the status of the revolution, you call one of its longtime practitioners, Judith Malina, cofounder of the pacifist, in-the-street, in-the-world Living Theatre. Malina and her first husband, Julian Beak (who died in 1985), took the theater to Paris during the 1968 student rebellion, to Brazil during the military government, to Italy when factory workers were on strike. Malina has also been seen in the films Awakening The Addams Family, and Household Saints.)

Lachman was looking for the revolution because she was preparing a piece on the life of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was born in Russian-ruled Poland, educated in Switzerland, and helped found the Communist party of Germany; she was assassinated by reactionary troops in Berlin in 1919 at age 47.

Lachman had been told by a Haitian voodoo priestess that she'd be doing the life of Luxemburg. "It wasn't a prediction. It was a spiritual guide connection," she says. The priestess said, "For your next project you will portray Rosa Luxemburg." Lachman's reaction was, Who? She had a lot of catching up to do.

A few months later, in early 1989, she began working on the project, at first in fits and starts, researching the life of the humanitarian revolutionary and the history of political theater She reread Julian Beck's The Life of the Theatre--musings and manifestos about power, freedom, and action and descriptions of the Living Theatre's travels (often involving arrests) and performances. (Samples: "Too much perfection on Broadway. They make a graven image, all, all of them vanity. . . " "This is a period of emergency. Therefore emergency theatre is the theatre of awareness." "Improvisation is related to honesty and honesty is related to freedom and freedom is related to food." "An art which does not address itself to the horrendous problem of the division of the world into classes increases the universal anguish.")

After that Lachman decided she needed to talk to Malina, who with Beck had been "the mama and the papa of the whole thing. They were out on the streets and in prison when I was born." Lachman is 42. Malina, born in 1926, cofounded the Living Theatre in 1947.

"Here was someone," says "that hadn't seemed to go through the 80s and that whole dismal period. She was still fighting." Lachman called cold. "She didn't know me from borscht," she says.

She asked the older woman, "What do you think happened to the revolution of the 60s?"

Answered Malina: "What do you mean, what happened? It's still going on." Malina told her, "Your problem, honey, is you think we're living in a postrevolutionary time. You're living in a prerevolutionary time."

Lachman reenacted this phone call in one of "me" portions of The Language of Birds: Rosa Luxemburg and Me, a one-woman show she presented at the Blue Rider Theatre last fall. It reopens January 21 to coincide with the theater's six-week event "The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg: A Conference Where Artists and Revolutionaries Meet." Malina is one of the featured speakers. Writer and radio commentator Andrei Codrescu will give the keynote address this Wednesday, January 19. Local panelists include artist Carlos Cortez, Alderman Dorothy Tillman, actor Susan Nussbaum, and journalist Salim Muwakkil.

Lachman sees it as a town meeting, a conversation between audience and panelists. "I want it to be controversial and vital and impolite as possible."

Tim Fiori, chairperson and producing director of the conference, says it will give activists a chance to network. "I think there was such a hunger after the Berlin Wall fell and all of the bad press, if you will, about socialism and communism that there was a real void that was left among the left-leaning people."

The event won't be doctrinaire, he says, just as Luxemburg wasn't dogmatic; she was a socialist who wasn't afraid to criticize Marx and Lenin. Like Lachman, Fiori has been immersed in Luxemburg's life; he cowrote The Language of Birds with her and at one point was going to perform in it.

"We're not advocating the overthrow of the state," adds Fiori, which is fortunate, since $10,000 is coming from the Illinois Humanities Council. "But we are advocating socialist ideals--social justice, food for people."

Or in Malina's case, anarchism. Malina says she differs from Luxemburg philosophically--Malina is a pacifist and says Luxemburg believed in armed struggle--but admires the way she boldly acted on her beliefs. "That is an example for us artists, activists, teachers, writers, people doing the work of the world."

Malina says the Living Theatre--which the Now York Times described as "legendary," "quixotic," and middle-aged in a review last month of the piece Anarchia--is still devoted to pushing the limits of the theater and investigating the limits of freedom and pacifism. "We want to be where there is action in which we can insert our ideas and art and presence." The troupe has recently collaborated on street theater with homeless people in Manhattan.

"Everybody wants peace and freedom," says Malina. "Even bad presidents want peace and freedom. If you take them to their logical conclusion, you come to anarchist and pacifist forms." Anarchism, she says, is nonhierarchical, uses consensus decision, and has been tried with success--in Ukraine between 1917 and 1921, and in Spain in 1936 and 1937. "It's a form that works. It's natural to human beings. Most families, if they're not dysfunctional, work that way."

Despite the "untenable amount of suffering" in the world, things are improving, she says. People are becoming aware that punishment doesn't work with children, that animal rights are important, that abuse is real; they're more conscious of hierarchical forms. Instead of asking why the 60s didn't radically alter the world, we should look at the ways it has affected life now, Malina says.

In talking with Malina, researching Luxemburg's life and politics, and working with the indefatigable local leftist Fred Fine, who functioned as a dramaturge for The Language of Birds, Lachman says her consciousness has changed. It's been a revelation to be around people whose happiness depends on circumstances in the outside world, not just on their immediate surroundings, she says.

Now she's revamping and deepening the show. It's still more conventional in form than the Living Theatre's work, but there are parts where the traditional barriers between audience and performer are removed. "I'm scared," she says, of Malina's reaction, hoping she'll like the show.

Malina will speak, show video clips of the Living Theatre in action, and answer questions from 7 to 9 PM Monday, February 7, at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted. admission is $10. For information on the play and the January 19-February 23 conference, call the Blue Rider at 733-4668.

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