Filed under: Creative Activism, Satire
Steve Ben Israel, a Living Theater Performance Artist, Dies at 74
by Paul Vitello
The New York Times
June 16, 2012
The young Steve Ben Israel was a longhaired, card-carrying pacifist, anarchist, comedian and performance artist who toured during the 1960s and ’70s with the Living Theater, an avant-garde repertory group. He had leading roles in many of the company’s cheerfully seditious productions, including “Paradise Now,” in which the cast, naked, exhorted audience members to seize the theater, form anarchist cells and overthrow the government.
Making anarchist performance art was a hard way to earn a living even back then, when millions of young Americans were dabbling in revolutionary ideas. But Mr. Israel, who died of lung cancer on June 4 in Manhattan at 74, kept at it for the rest of his life, friends said — a one-man revolutionary cell delivering jokes, stories and poems aimed at undermining capitalist society. He did not advocate overthrowing the government much anymore. He was trying, he told people, to foment a mass uprising of compassion.
He was in the subway one day, on the No. 1 train, when he announced: “Hi, everybody! My name is Steve. And I’m a poet and a performer. I live here in New York City. And I’ve got these 17 dollars that I want to give out to everybody on this train.”
It was a setup, as he later described it in his club act. After he handed out the money, he gave his slightly disoriented audience its marching orders: “Next time an artist, or a homeless person, gets on the train, you dig in your pocket and you give them a quarter. And remember: You’re 75 cents ahead!”
Bob Fass, a WBAI radio host and friend, attributed Mr. Israel’s staying power to optimism. Ideology and politics mattered to Mr. Israel, he said. Eye contact mattered more. “He liked people,” Mr. Fass said. “He never gave up on people. He was relentless in that way.” Mr. Israel became a mainstay of the Living Theater during its New York heyday, when its productions pushed the limits of emerging Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theater with works by playwrights like Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein and homegrown improvisations like “Paradise Now,” its most successful show. Its cast members performed not only nude but also, in many cases, by their own later accounts, high on LSD.
Mr. Israel was an integral part of two productions that received Obie Awards: he portrayed the monster in “Frankenstein” in 1968 and was guest co-director of the 2007 revival of “The Brig,” originally staged in 1963, about a Marine Corps prison.
In 1971, when nearly the entire cast of “Paradise Now” was arrested on drug charges during a tour of Brazil, Mr. Israel eluded arrest, fled to New York and enlisted help in getting the troupe freed after 65 days in jail. Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, Jean Genet and Allen Ginsberg rallied to the cause.
Mr. Israel toured for 15 years with the Living Theater. A pacifist-anarchist with a down-to-earth streak, he was the organizer who frequently handled negotiations when the shows caused problems with the local authorities (a common occurrence). When diplomacy failed and the troupe needed to get out of town fast, Mr. Israel usually drove the bus.
In 1977, he and his wife, Pamela Mayo Israel, a fellow performer, left the company, which is still operating. His wife and son, Baba, who announced his death, survive him, along with a granddaughter.
“I live a few blocks away from here in SoHo,” Mr. Israel told the audience at a comedy club in Greenwich Village years later. “SoHo: where you can buy a painting of a regular pizza for $12,000. But a painting of a Sicilian will cost you $18,500.”
He worked for the next three decades as a “live artist” (his homey term for performance artist), sometimes on street corners and subway cars, but mainly in clubs and small theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Mixing poetry and political satire, he produced two one-man shows, “Non-Violent Executions” and “Nostalgia for the Future.”
Steven Ben Israel was born in Brooklyn on May 25, 1938, the son of Jack and Rose Israel. His father was a truck driver. After high school, Mr. Israel spent a semester at the University of Kansas. His only achievement there, he said, was playing a round of pool with a basketball-playing upperclassman, Wilt Chamberlain.
He began his career as a stand-up comedian and jazz drummer. Lenny Bruce, whom he met in the Village in the late 1950s, deeply influenced his worldview, he said.
Before joining the Living Theater, he played roles in an Off Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.”
In recent years Mr. Israel was known for what he called impromptu interventions: one-man street-theater improvisations, some of them witnessed by friends and some recounted in his club act. Many were about money, which he called civilization’s most coercive and violent force. In one, he became a superherolike “Money Fairy,” breaking up an actual fight over the correct change between a hot-dog vendor and his customer by giving each the sum of money in dispute.
In his last performances, Mr. Israel presented what he called the world’s first “seven-second play.”
“To be,” he intoned with authority Hamlet never mustered.
“That is the answer.”