Getting to Know: Jerry Goralnick from the Living Theatre
by Remy Marin
Jerry Goralnick has been working with the Living Theatre, a pacifist anarchist theatre company that explores expressionism, movement and improvisation as forums through which to convey powerful and controversial subject matter, for 25 years. This past fall, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a workshop that Jerry and fellow company member Lois Kagan Mingus conducted at Skidmore College. The Living Theatre has a very refreshing and unique way of approaching movement, and so I was thrilled when Jerry agreed to share with us his experiences with the Company.
REMY: Jerry, you have been working with the Living Theatre for 25 years now, and perform both new plays as well as pieces that the company has been performing for decades. What about the Living Theatre continues to capture your attention and dedication after all these years?
JERRY: Well, the Living Theatre is a pacifist anarchist collective and it’s very important that that opinion, meaning pacifist anarchism, is continually expressed.
REMY: Could you describe what pacifist anarchism means to you? I know that people tend to view anarchism in a way that is not exactly how the Living Theatre views it.
JERRY: Well, first of all, we’re pacifists and when we look at all the different forms of political organizations, we see that the only form that really allows us to create the kind of world that we want is anarchism. The confusion about anarchism comes from the mainstream media using the word ‘anarchy’ when they want to say political chaos, and that started back in the 1880’s. So for 100 years, people have seen the word ‘anarchy’ and thought that it meant political chaos, which in fact it does not.
REMY: Going to the pieces that you’ve done with the company, so much of what you perform covers such powerful and controversial topics like the death penalty, liberation and the plague. How do you decide what subjects to address?
JERRY: The Company usually meets after we finish the current production. We start to discuss and the way we do that is we say “What’s the burning issue?” For example, back in the late 90’s, we had one of these discussions and what came out of it was that we felt that water was going to be the war commodity for this century the way oil has been the war commodity for the last century. So we started to work on the Water Play.
REMY: Has the water play come out yet?
JERRY: No, we worked, we developed, we did a workshop production of about a 35 minute piece and then it didn’t develop after that. We moved on to something else.
REMY: Does that happen a lot, where you start to go with an idea and it just doesn’t work out?
JERRY: Not a lot, but it happens sometimes. Usually it’s because something else occurs.
REMY: Do you ever go back to the old piece?
JERRY: Yes. For example, last year, we did a play about the Biblical character Korach. Korach is a story that Judith Malina and the Company has wanted to do for at least 20 years.
REMY: When you came and did the workshop at Skidmore you taught us a piece about Cain and Abel, and you’re mentioning that you wanted to do this piece from the Bible as well. So you have these extreme, relevant topics and then on the other hand you have stories from the Bible. What strikes that balance there?
JERRY: There have been several dissertations on the Jewish roots of the Living Theatre because Judith Malina is the daughter of the Rabbi and has had a very strong face in Judaism all her life. In fact, every year we celebrate Passover as a Living Theatre ritual because, as far as religious rituals go, Passover is the one that is about liberation.
REMY: During the workshop, you taught us a lot about tableaux vivants and movement improvisation. Could you explain what, exactly, is tableaux vivants and why improv is so important for your theatre productions?
JERRY: Over the years, we are constantly looking for performance and so we mime old forms, which tableaux vivants certainly is—it comes from parlor games from the 17th century—and then we’re always asking ourselves, “what is the new form?” We’re happy to take from the past and use it where we feel that it works for us and then we’re always sitting around or moving around and say “what’s the new form?” A lot of our work is done in the street, and so this is very different from being inside a theatre where a pin spot can isolate something and draw everyone’s attention and you can do something very simple. Of course, that’s totally different from the street, where you’re bombarded by all kinds of stimulus. And so, we’re always looking for forms to use in the street that will focus attention. We took the tableaux vivants form from the parlor game and started to develop it to where we could use it in the streets. For example, tableaux vivants really means “freezes,” and in the street, freezes are extremely powerful. Often, when we’re going to do a street theatre play, we will deem a procession, we will decide where the performance is going to be, and then we’ll go a few hundred yards away from that point and we’ll do a procession. That’s merely a way to attract attention—people hear a huge uproar and then silence with everybody frozen. That immediately attracts the eye and the interest. That’s one of the ways that we took that idea and turned it into something we could do in the street.
REMY: In addition to improvisation, we learned a bit Meyerhold’s method of Bio Mechanics, and that’s such a different form of movement. How would you say that Bio Mech factors in to everything?
JERRY: This goes back to the accosted search for new forms. What happened was, of course, nobody knew what was going on in the Soviet Union because there was a wall and there was no communication between artists and there was a book that the Living Theatre stumbled on of Meyerhold’s Bio Mechanics. In the book were photographs of the etudes, but they showed position 1, position 2, position 3 and so forth, but they didn’t show how you got from position 1 to position 2. So the company together worked on what that might have been, and so the Living Theatre supposed what Bio Mechanics looked like and created a form. And then, when the Soviet Union dissolved and students of the students of Meyerhold were able to come to the West and give workshops, we met.
REMY: What is it about Bio Mechanics that you feel really fits into the Living Theatre?
JERRY: It’s a form of movement that’s very expressionistic that captures the eye. On the street, it’s very difficult to express things in words. You can’t have dialogue between two characters, there’s so much going on and so much noise that there’s a movement that can express the idea. So, for example, you did the Cain and Abel etude, which clearly shows this idea of brother killing brother in 30 seconds. We adapted the Bio Mechanic form and adapted it in a lot of different ways. We have used Bio Mechanics as a form of expressionistic movement many times.
REMY: You’ve been saying that a lot of the reason why the Living Theatre is so movement-based is because you’re on the street and it’s hard to hear dialogue, but what about when you perform on a stage?
JERRY: We also often use it on the stage because a lot of our plays are more poetic text-based. Again, there’s not a lot of dialogue, and so we might create a piece and we’ll say, we have to figure out how to move while we’re doing this. Often we’ll say, is there a Bio Mechanic way to do this? If not, someone might come in with something else that they know and say there’s a yoga pose that we could use or a dance form that we could use. And so we’ll draw from everyone’s experience.
REMY: You use so many different forms of movement, like you were saying, and you really look beyond what’s expected and stereotypical for a theatre group. What is it that makes the Living Theatre so involved in movement and what is it about expressionistic, abstract and improv movement that you feel is so effective in the theatre?
JERRY: When the audience is experiencing the performance, so much of working communication is physical. Even in just a two-way conversation that you’re having with someone, you pick up body language ques. So we communicate with what we say and with our body, and so sometimes it’s much easier to express what we want to express through body movement.
REMY: When you came to Skidmore and we did the tableaux vivants, you were talking about how it is not only a way to show the audience something, but also a way for self-discovery almost and a way to find what was within you. Could you talk a little bit about that?
JERRY: Improvisation is a good way to discover. When you really free yourself up, you might surprise yourself, and that’s why we use the surrealist form of writing, the exquisite corpse, because it’s almost a form of automatic writing. You surprise yourself, and it’s the same way with movement improv. The more that the group works together and gets to know each other, the further down people feel comfortable going. For example, if we had worked with a group at Skidmore for six months and we had continued to do tableaux and exquisite corpses, eventually we would have gotten to a point where we knew each other so well and we would say “okay, the theme for these tableaux is x, y or z” and we world be able to do something and the people watching it would say “this tableaux communicates the idea so clearly.” The director may have never been able to do that. It’s almost by chance, but not really because so much rehearsal has gone into it.
REMY: I also remember with the tableaux that, when we did our piece, we began it with a series of tableaux vivants that didn't necessarily relate to the subjects that we were going to discuss in the skits that we had created. Why do you find that doing a tableaux vivant that’s more about going where you go is so effective when it’s not about the topic of that particular performance?
JERRY: Well, again, we were introducing the idea. For example, now you as a participant know the idea, so you might become part of a performance company that could rehearse for six months doing the form. And as you’re doing it and you’re developing your piece and developing the specific ideas that you want to get across, you’d start to find that your tableaux are become more specific. I’m doing that right now with Occupy Wall Street where we’ve formed street theatre blocks and a group of people start to get together and we’re working with tableaux forms. The very beginning of the work is to just learn to move in the space, you have to start to become aware of traffic patterns and the other people, first of all so that no one gets hurt and then so you can start to learn other peoples’ patterns and skills and you start to develop. We did that, we just moved and froze, and then we started to write exquisite corpses on specific issues and then we started to combine the text from the exquisite corpses with the tableaux. There was a huge change because, like you said, people then started to think about what’s the emotion, what’s the issue behind the movement, and that changes it. That shoots it to a power of ten, we might say, and so the exploration deepens and becomes more profound.
REMY: Could you explain more about the exquisite corpses?
JERRY: The exquisite corpse is a form that’s surrealist and the idea is to do more automatic writing because there is this belief that our talent lies in our subconscious and so, if we find pathways to our subconscious, our talent comes out. I think that everybody in performance experiences this kind of thing, whether it be dance or theatre or music, where you are going along and all of a sudden you do something brilliant. You hadn’t planned to do it, it just happened and you say to yourself “where did that come from?” It came from your talent. So the exquisite corpse is a way to create text that often we discover really speaks to the issue. You remember the form- you write two lines on a paper and then fold it so that the next person can only read that second line and writes two lines, and so forth.
REMY: Would you say that, in the sense of just saying what you feel instead of contriving something, it’s very similar to the way that you use movement improvisation?
JERRY: Yes. So you’re doing the movement improvisation and you do a movement that creates an emotion within you. That then forms the next movement that you do.
REMY: My last question, which I know might be a hard one to answer: of all the performances you have done with the Living Theatre, are there any that stand out in your mind as being your favorite or ones that you felt really resonated?
JERRY: Oh, sure. Mysteries and Smaller Pieces.
REMY: Mysteries was a collection of smaller skits that you did, correct?
JERRY: Yes, you might say it was one of the first non-linear plays and it’s a series of theatrical rituals.
REMY: Why did that stand out for you?
JERRY: It’s one of the few times where I really experienced that, instead of me performing the play, the play was performing me.