Gaia Squarci: Judith Malina and the Living Theatre
Today I am handing over the post to documentary photographer Gaia Squarci who is taking this opportunity to not only celebrate the birthday, but the life and career of director Judith Malina who passed away in April.
Today is Judith Malina’s Birthday
The Living Queen
by Gaia Squarci
By blind chance back in September 2013, I shared a glass of wine in Bergamo, Italy, with musician Pietro Pirelli, whom I had never met before. When I mentioned I was living in New York, he jumped, “Then you must meet my friend Judith Malina! We worked together a few years ago, do you know the Living Theatre?
Judith and her husbands Julian Beck and Hanon Reznikov changed the history of American theatre. They brought it to the streets, to prisons, to mental institutions. Julian died in the 80’s but Judith is still alive. She’s a pacifist and she doesn’t believe in money. Her message is always political. Of course, she’s been arrested in twelve countries. She lives in New Jersey now, in an old people’s home, but she never stopped working towards her cause. You should visit her. She’s an incredible woman.”
Once back in New York Tom Walker, associate artistic director and archivist of the Living Theatre, helped me to get to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, where Judith had lived since 2013.
She was 87 when I met her. The tiniest woman with a raspy voice, nearly deaf, slowly pushing herself around in a wheelchair with her miniature black shoes, she would look up at you and make you feel incredibly small. I felt a straight, focused stream of energy coming from her, who knew exactly what she wanted. She was whole, and I couldn’t help but feeling lesser in front of her, vague.
I never knew much about theatre. I told her photography is my way to learn about the others. She was working with young actors and I said I wanted to follow her and the company. She could barely hear me, and because of my accent she could understand even less of what I was saying. She always heard just enough when she wanted to, though.
“Well, yeah, you can keep learning forever, but if with what you’ve learnt you don’t start the Revolution, then all of it is completely useless”.
Judith was blunt. She was saying the kind of things you need to hear but no one ever says. Niceness was not beautiful enough for her. She was witty, vain, mischievously cute and superbly uncompromising. A queen, in other words.
Brad Burgess was then her closest friend and working partner. He was only 28 at the time, but the two of them had lived together for six years after the death of Judith’s second husband Hanon, until the company lost their theatre in the Lower East Side.
It was a bond of a higher kind, unlike any other I had ever witnessed. An elderly woman who raised professionally a young man, shaping his views and entrusting her legacy in his hands, and a young man who unblinkingly devoted to her his whole twenties. Two pure idealists and two painfully stubborn, unmanageable persons, for a long time they had been each other’s mainstay through honors and free falls, holding on tightly, watching baseball together and bickering like a married couple.
It was Judith and Brad’s world.
I met them when they already knew it wouldn’t last very long.
Judith suffered from emphysema, and she died this April 10th.
Shortly after on that day Brad sat down close to her, and after the longest silence he just said: “Babe, what an incredible life you had. You nailed it!”
Today is her 89th birthday.
I’m happy to write to Judith on her birthday for the many times I was not able to make myself understood with her, either shouting with an accent or shooting in silence, taking in.
She was an icon for many, but she offered herself generously because she was curious of everyone, although easily disappointed. When she looked at people asking a question, she really wanted to hear the answer; preferably a sharp one. For nearly 89 years Judith never stopped pushing people to their highest selves, spreading herself around the world in such a way that her recent death already pales in front of her relentless life, and the echo she triggered which others will sustain.
I remember her with the words once Brad used to depict her: “An aristocratic anarchist”.
Gaia Squarci is a photographer and cinematographer based in New York City. Raised in Milan, Italy, she studied Art History in at University of Bologna and photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in New York. Gaia’s work focuses on documentary projects. Photography brought her to work on the way physical perceptions influence people’s way to interact with one another, and feel about each other. Gaia’s clients include the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, VICE and L’Oeil de le Photographie. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Ireland and China.
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