George Bartenieff (1933 – 2022)
Read a tribute in the New York Times
“I live to perform and I perform to live.”
“If you don’t like this reality, go out and make your own.”
Looking back through the path of my career, which consists of largely commuting from uptown to downtown, devoted to both classicism and the new structure evolving from experimental theater, I see that my work centers around a quest to synthesize traditional theater with a new heightened theater experience relevant to our own time.
As a child, I studied at the Piscator Junior Dramatic Workshop, where I performed with Judith Malina. Then, to Broadway at the ages of 14 and 16; then I studied at London’s RADA and the Guild Hall, then back to New York in 1955. This quest brought me to work with many important movers and shakers of the old school and the new: Harold Clurman, Lillian Hellman, Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, Alan Schneider in plays by Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, Vaclav Havel, Andre Gregory, Joe Papp, David Hare, and companies like Judson Poets Theater, the Living Theatre (The Brig), Mabou Mines, Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet, and Ellen Stewart’s LaMama, while at the same time experimenting with new ways of teaching acting to a new generation and developing my own acting work.
The Sixties and Seventies were a time of amazing innovation: I saw my first “Happenings” in the storefront studios of painters and poets, collaborating, then I was performing in them at Electric Circus, Alice Tully Hall and elsewhere; I saw my first free street theater play by poet Robert Nichols and then I was performing in his play “The Expressway” on the street in front of the brand-new Public Theater, produced by Joseph Papp as the inaugural production of his new experimental theater, The Shiva. At the same time I was acting Shakespeare in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and American classics like John Dos Passos’ USA and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life in regional theater at the Hartford Stage.
I was dissatisfied with the character roles I was getting in the commercial and regional theaters. I wanted to play the more poetic and language-driven plays that were being written. I suggested to my colleagues at Judson that we found a theater so that we could continue to expand on our vision of language and heightened reality plays and, also, that we invite other like-minded companies that had no performance space. Theater for the New City, 1970, produced over 400 new works, in which I also often acted, by Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard (Pulitzer Prize, Buried Child), Rosalyn Drexler, and many others, including Us by Karen Malpede. That production led to founding Theater Three Collaborative in 1995, so I could return my focus to my acting by collaborating on the development of one play at a time. At Theater for the New City, I also co-founded the Annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, the annual free five borough street theater tour, the creation of anti-war and ecological art and performance festivals, and I organized a six-theater consortium of simultaneous eco-festivals across the country, 1992-’94.
All the while, I continue to juggle an acting career on and off- and off-off-Broadway, as well as touring America and Europe with Bread and Puppet Theater and Mabou Mines, and, later, nine times in three countries with Theater Three Collaborative’s Obie Award winning, one-person play, I Will Bear Witness: The Holocaust Diaries, which I also co-adapted. This constant interweaving of classical, traditional and wild experimentation is documented, production by production over the past 72 years, in the archive assembled below. It has led me to four Obie Awards, one for Sustained Excellence as a Performer, another for acting Victor Klemperer in I Will Bear Witness; two for producing; a Phillie Best Actor 2005-06 season for Tuesday’s With Morrie, and a Drama Desk 2006, for Best Ensemble, Stuff Happens.
In 2015, I performed Theater Three Collaborative’s Extreme Whether in Paris as part of ARTCOP21, and in a new production of the play at LaMama in 2018, I recreated the role of Uncle. I have also been touring living rooms and colleges before intimate audiences of 20 to 40 people with a new version of I Will Bear Witness, about the early years of the Hitler regime, to spark conversation. I am currently in workshop with Theater Three Collaborative for the new play by Karen Malpede Other Than We: A Cli-Fi Fable.
— George Bartenieff, 2018