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The Theater Is in the Street

The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Public Performance in 1960s America

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Theater Is in the Street
    Book Description:

    During the 1960s, the SNCC Freedom Singers, The Living Theatre, the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group fused art and politics by staging unexpected and uninvited performances in public spaces. Through their activism and the response it provoked, art, theater, and politics began to converge and assume a new visibility in everyday life. While their specific political visions varied, these groups shared the impulse to stage performances and actions publicly—"in the streets"—eschewing museums, theaters, and other conventional halls of culture. Bradford D. Martin offers detailed portraits of each of these groups and examines why they embraced public performance as a vehicle to express and advance their politics. At a time when the New Left and the counterculture were on the rise, these artists reflected the decade’s political and cultural radicalism and helped to define a new aesthetic. Civil rights activists mobilized singing in the struggle for desegregation, introducing a vibrant musical form into the public space. The Living Theatre culminated an arduous quest to mesh artistic and political goals, leading audiences from theaters into the streets to begin the "beautiful nonviolent anarchist revolution." The Diggers playfully engaged San Francisco’s counterculture in politics with their carnivalesque public actions. The Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Action Art Group sought to disrupt the conventional art world, mounting protests in and around New York City museums. By questioning the values and assumptions that separated art from politics, these groups not only established public performance as a legitimate aesthetic but also provided a new creative vocabulary for future generations of artists. Their continued involvement with the women’s liberation movement, rural communes, and political street theater into the 1970s and beyond challenges the popular myth that activists disengaged from politics after the 1960s.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-125-0
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Convergence of Art, Politics, and Everyday Life
    (pp. 3-19)

    During the 1960s, artists and activists transformed notions of how public spaces might be used, expanding the range of cultural and political expressions beyond the substantial restrictions they had faced in the early postwar era. Echoing a widespread sentiment among 1960s artists, the sculptor Claes Oldenburg asserted that for art to be vital it must do more than “sit on its ass in a museum,” embracing subject matter and venues familiar to people’s everyday lives.¹ “Public space” or, more colloquially, “the street” provided the locus for this sea change in the arts. Describing a civil rights movement confrontation in Talladega,...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement: Delivering a Message on the Front Lines
    (pp. 20-48)

    The civil rights movement achieved its greatest triumphs by bringing to the fore issues of human and constitutional rights, morality, power relations, race, and culture, and giving these abstract concepts concrete shape in the hearts and minds of the American public. Movement activists accomplished this through a series of direct action nonviolent protests designed to call attention to the injustices of southern segregationist society. Many of the most celebrated direct action campaigns in the movement, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, involved activists’ efforts to desegregate public accommodations. Thus the transformation of...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Living Theatre: Paradise and Politics in the Streets
    (pp. 49-85)

    “The theatre is in the street. The street belongs to the people. Free the theatre. Free the street. Begin.”¹ These final words of the Living Theatre’s landmark theatrical productionParadise Now, which the company performed from 1968 to 1970, encouraged audiences to begin a nonviolent revolution by moving from the theater into the street; they also encapsulated most of the salient themes of the group’s career. The idea that “the theatre is in the street” underscored the cultural currency of public performance, and it was a revelation that came after nearly two decades of struggle to create new ways of...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Diggers: Politicizing the Counterculture
    (pp. 86-124)

    Unlike the Living Theatre, which evolved into a community-oriented street theater group only after twenty years of experiments that mixed creative and political impulses, the Diggers articulated their countercultural ideas through public performance from their inception in the mid sixties. “We were doing a piece of theater called the Diggers,” Peter Berg remarked, “and it involved the audience,” emphasizing the collapsing of boundaries between art and everyday life, between performer and spectator that typified this aesthetic. The Diggers performed their street theater mainly in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, distributed free food in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, and made...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group: Politicizing the Art World
    (pp. 125-159)

    Arts and cultural groups of the sixties used performance in public spaces to dramatize a vision of social transformation. Public performances such as the freedom singers’ accompaniment of civil rights demonstrations, the Living Theatre’s procession to the streets at the end ofParadise Now, and the Diggers’ “Death of Money” and “Death of Hippie” street parades, emerged as the groups’ political and creative sensibilities converged. It was especially appropriate for the freedom singers to be singing in public, as desegregating public accommodations was one of the fundamental goals of the early civil rights movement. Though the Living Theatre existed for...

  10. EPILOGUE The Continuing Value of Public Performance
    (pp. 160-166)

    The careers of the SNCC Freedom Singers, the Living Theatre, the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group document the emergence of public, politically oriented performance as an important and influential cultural force during the sixties. During the civil rights era, freedom singing figured prominently in a constellation of social, cultural, and political developments that opened public spaces to various forms of cultural expression that lay dormant amidst the climate of suspicion that surrounded radical political expression after World War II. This transformation paved the way for the Living Theatre’s civil disobedience “play-in” ofThe Brig,...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 167-190)
    (pp. 191-200)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 201-210)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-212)