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BY BILL WEINBERG | Steve Ben Israel, legendary thespian, veteran of the groundbreaking Living Theatre troupe, and pioneer of what he called “performance life” (as opposed to performance art), died Mon., June 4, of lung cancer at his home in the Village. He was 74.
Born to a working-class Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, Israel gravitated to the Greenwich Village beatnik scene in the 1950s. He first acted in the Living Theatre’s controversial 1963 production “The Brig,” which chillingly depicted brutal conditions in a Marine Corps prison — and resulted in the theater being shut down, ostensibly over a tax issue. The troupe afterward left New York for Europe, spending several years on the road. Their ethic of breaking down the barrier between performers and audience reached its pinnacle in the 1968 production “Paradise Now” — often performed naked and high on acid. Israel frequently drove the troupe from city to city.
A 1971 tour of Brazil — then under a right-wing military dictatorship — was cut short when troupe members were arrested on a trumped-up marijuana charge and imprisoned. Israel just barely managed to escape the country, and back in New York worked to get his fellow performers released. The experience resulted the Living Theatre’s most harrowing work, “Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism,” a statement on human-rights abuses, then widespread under Latin America’s military regimes.
In the late ’70s, Israel moved from acting to his own unique take on stand-up comedy — politically themed, stream-of-consciousness, incorporating nonverbal sound effects, and (usually) cannabis-fueled. Under such Zen-like paradoxical names as “Nostalgia for the Future,” “Séances to Contact the Living” and “Nonviolent Executions,” Israel offered humanistic observations on war, peace and life in New York City, all through his characteristic anarchist-pacifist lens.
While Israel performed at benefits for countless left-wing causes, he turned down the opportunity for work in Hollywood, and was economically struggling in his final years. In 2007, the revived Living Theatre unveiled a new production of “The Brig” for the age of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and Israel was brought in as ensemble director — work for which he won an Obie Award.
Israel was working on a collection of his poetry and performance sketches at the time of his death, which may be published posthumously. There are also extensive interviews with Israel in the book “Dig Infinity!” by Oliver Trager, a biography of his inspiration, beatnik comedian Lord Buckley. He is also interviewed in the 2009 independent film “Saint Misbehavin”, about his longtime friend Wavy Gravy.
In 2010, Israel told The Villager that he inspired the title of Jonathan Larson’s famed musical “Rent.” Larson was a waiter at the former Moondance Diner, where Israel would often eat, while arguing with Larson about various topics. The playwright was having difficulty with the title, and Israel mentioned some truism about rent issues that he had said on a radio show he was hosting — and so, “Rent” got its name.
Israel is survived by his wife Pamela, also a veteran of the Living Theatre, and their son, Baba Israel, a hip-hop artist.
Photo by Clayton Patterson