TJT, The Group Theatre and In the Maze of Our Own Lives

I co-founded TJT in 1978 when I was exactly thirty-three years old.

On my last birthday, I was sixty-six. For what amounts to half my life, I’ve been able to work within a single artistic home, something rare and wonderful in the world of  American theatre.

But all homes are temporary and TJT  is about to end – at least in its current form. Many of you have already heard this news and know why we’ve decided to close the company at the end of the 2012, thirty-fourth season.  If you haven’t, there’s a brief account on the TJT website, http://www.tjt-sf.org.

In 1931, the founding members of The Group Theatre created  a community of trust that allowed them to “build a dream”  together and, from it, make a new kind of theatre – one that could shape a still-young, American culture. The plays they produced – particularly those by Group member Clifford Odets – became touchstones for generations of American writers: Arthur Miller, Alfred Kazin, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, among others.

For me, the great discovery of the five years I spent researching and writing In the Maze… has been that the Group’s story is, perhaps, its greatest and most far-reaching gift to all of us who followed. As I came to know the landscape of that story, I recognized its contours in the turbulent history of all the American ensemble theatres whose work inspired TJT’s: The Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, The Free Southern Theatre, Bread and Puppet, Teatro Campesino, and more. I learned that before Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and about twenty-five more young theatre-makers started the Group, there had never been any ensemble theatre in this country and there had been no serious representation on stage of working-class, immigrant or poor Americans. No plays that drew on the enormous energy that had been building through the first three decades of the roiling century.   I felt as though I had met my ancestors.

When my travels through the 1930s began, I had no idea that TJT was approaching its own end as an ensemble theatre or that In the Maze of Our Own Lives would launch its last season. Neither did I have any idea, when I began work on this play, that  a new movement like  Occupy Wall Street and all the gatherings it has inspired around the world would be embodying so many of the same hopes for real democracy that motivated the Group.

Life, in all its beautiful, ironic and poignant artistry, has rhymed our story with the Group’s. There’s a hard-won wisdom embedded in that story: the closing of any single theatre is not, as Harold Clurman put it, a catastrophe.  In the Maze of Our Own Lives ends with my version of Clurman saying:

“Someday the accountants are going to look back at what we did and try to come up with a balance sheet for The Group Theatre.  Success. Failure. Screw ‘em. Success and failure mean nothing next to what we lived and what lived in us.  You know this. We all do: an impulse moved through us and it changed America.

“If it’s finished with us, it might be a relief.

“But if no one insists on paying attention to farmers and pipefitters, to janitors and young mothers being worked to death; if the passion to tell every forgotten story dies out,  then it’s a gaping goddamn wound – a fatal wound – in the American soul.”

One thought on “TJT, The Group Theatre and In the Maze of Our Own Lives

  1. In terms of longevity than can be few more difficult and frustrating careers than acting. I have watched people struggle for years in film to stay active. The fact that your group survived 33 years is a miracle. It isn’t just the work, but the intimacy of a froup that is together that long – it is like a multiple marriage with all the attendant hard work. Separating, it would seem, would be more like the loss of spouse than a divorce. The grief must be tremendous and confusing. That being said, I cannot imagine that the next threshold will lead you someplace wise and wonderful. Let me say again that it is astounding to have been with a group that long. I was thinking that you lasted a multiple of what Black Mountain and other collectives with a vision did. Best in your new journey

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