Co-founded by Julian Beck and Judith Malina in 1947 as an imaginative alternative to commercial theatre, it has been one of the most important and revolutionary "underground" theatre companies in the United States. The Living Theatre has staged more than 800 productions in eight languages in 25 countries on four continents - a unique body of work that has influenced theatre the world over.
During the 1950's in New York, The Living Theatre pioneered the unconventional aging of poetic drama - the plays of American writers like Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth and John Ashbery, as well as European writers rarely produced in America, including Cocteau, Lorca, Brecht and Pirandello. Best remembered among these productions, which marked the start of the Off-Broadway movement, were Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Many Loves, The Connection and The Brig.
The difficulty of operating a unique, experimental enterprise within a cultural establishment ill-equipped to accept it led to the closing by the authorities of all The Living Theatre's New York venues. During the 1960's, the company began a new life as a nomadic touring ensemble. In Europe, they evolved into a collective, living and working together toward the creation of a new form of nonfictional acting based on the actor's political and physical commitment to using the theater as a medium for furthering social change. The landmark achievements of this period include Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, Antigone, Frankenstein and Paradise Now.
In the 1970's, The Living Theatre began to create The Legacy of Cain, a cycle of plays for non-traditional venues. From the prisons of Brazil to the gates of the Pittsburgh steel mills, and from the slums of Palermo to the schools of New York City, the company offered these plays, which include Six Public Acts, The Money Tower, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism, Turning the Earth and the Strike Support Oratorium, free of charge.
The 1980's saw the group return to the theater, where they developed new participatory techniques that enable the audience to first rehearse with the company and then join them onstage as fellow performers. These plays include Prometheus at the Winter Palace, The Yellow Methuselah and The Archaeology of Sleep.
Following the death of Beck in 1985, Malina and company veteran-turned-co-director Hanon Reznikov opened The Living Theatre on Third Street in Manhattan, producing a steady stream of innovative works including The Tablets, I and I, The Body of God, Humanity, Rules of Civility, Waste, Echoes of Justice and The Zero Method .
Currently, The Living Theatre company is dividing its time between creating new works commissioned in Europe, and performing them in New York and on tour.
The Copenhaver Artist-in-Residence Program was established in 1989 by an endowment from Miss Margaret Sue Copenhaver of Richmond and Mrs. Gordon Hanes of Winston-Salem, N.C. in memory of their parents, Dr. Eldridge and Margaret Greever Copenhaver. Eldridge Copenhaver, an alumnus of Roanoke College, was president of Marion College in Smyth County and a Lutheran pastor. His wife was the librarian at Marion College. The endowment funds residencies, on the Roanoke College campus, of eminent scholars and artists whose special talents enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the college. Periods of residency may be as short as one week or as long as a year, but in every case the Copenhaver artist is on campus for a period of time sufficient to allow extensive interaction with faculty and students. The artist also holds one or more programs open to the public.