Both films are presented as a part of the exhibition, Whispers in the Grass: The Living Theatre and The Brig, curated by Anna Gallagher-Ross in her final project at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, opening April 9, 2017 at the Hessel Museum of Art.
On a ship bound for Europe, with New York City receding in the distance, Judith Malina of the Living Theatre wrote in her diary that she was relieved to be leaving the United States, where the paranoia felt among artists and activists was like “terrible whispers in the grass.” The date was April 3rd, 1969. As activists, theatre artists, and co-founders of the experimental theatre company, Malina and Julian Beck had spent the past decade being harassed by police and creditors. But soon, the Living Theatre became aware of an even more sinister spectator—the US government—when the IRS closed the Living Theatre in 1963 during the run of their controversial production, The Brig.
One night following the closure of their theatre, the Living Theatre and a small audience, including filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Storm De Hirsch, broke into the theatre to perform The Brig one last time. Mekas, who had never seen The Brig performed, filmed the illegal performance with a news reporting camera, which enabled him to weave amongst the actors on stage and respond the action of the play in real time. Mekas’ film The Brig (1964) edits out the context of the theatre entirely in order to present a documentary style film of a day in a marine corps brig.
While Mekas was filming, De Hirsch decided to silently film Mekas watching and documenting the performance. In her short film, Newsreel: Jonas in the Brig (1964), the viewer is presented with the context denied in Mekas’ film: the theatre. De Hirsch’s film captures an act of filmmaking, as well as the paranoid circumstances of breaking into a theatre in the middle of the night.
Admission to this event is free.
Whispers in the Grass investigates the closure of the Living Theatre by the United States government in October 1963, an event that ended the run of their controversial production The Brig, sent the Living Theatre to jail, and put the group on trial. The exhibition is based on a research inquiry and guided by conspiracy theories. It assembles evidence in the form of original interviews, films by Jonas Mekas and Storm de Hirsch, archival materials from the Living Theatre’s records, and court transcripts and police surveillance files, to probe the story of artists and activists whose lives and art were haunted by Cold War-era surveillance—a story with lingering implications for our own surveilled time.