Steve Ben Israel, countercultural performer, dead at 74

[/media-credit]Photo by Clayton Patterson ” align=”alignleft” width=”300″]
Steve Ben Israel.

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

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12 Responses to Steve Ben Israel, countercultural performer, dead at 74

  1. Steve's power of imagination, his creative drive and his special dynamic, rootet in the duration of the moment, has inspired so many folks all around the planet, that it will be impossible not to feel his infinite presence. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him closely for several years. I learned a lot from him. While conventional teachers had tried to get Steve to speak the way they wanted him to speak on stage, he taught them how not to, so that the original, irreplaceable vision would not be tainted and could be acted upon with a generous faith. Hans Echnaton Schano.

  2. Steve was a fact of life.

    Every thing he did still is.

    We'd sit in the back room of his small apartment, under the loft, by his desk, bach playing softly around us and Steve would be preparing smoke and he'd smile and lean in and begin, "you know, man…" and then i'd be caught in the theater of his words and his gestures. Steve's capacity to tranform his body into the conveyor of any emotions, and contradictory ones too, was limitless. He became the thing he was conveying.

    And funny. I became laughter listening to him, watching him, and following the development of his words. Steve was funny.

    And scary. Once he performed for me in that little perfectly lighted back room one of his violent scenes in the brig. I trembled in fear even as I trusted without a doubt that he would do nothing to hurt me. His control was to the finest point of movement and speech. His use of speech and of pre-speech [or post-speech?] sounds was awesome. His timing was just as sharp and full of content as his material. His delivery was itself an art. He was a poetcraftsman of his life.

    And a scholar. Steve was a scholar. He read books and thought about things and put things together and figured out how to broadcast them.

    Steve one more hug. You were always terrific.

    Neil Heims

  3. Lawrence White

    A very cool dude. Thanks for everything Steve.

  4. oscar madison

    The 60's died 60 yrs ago, the living theatre is the dead theatre, steve, don't call me anti-israel, was a moribund testament to false nostalgia and a remorseless will not to live in the present…

    • These are not the right roses for this man.

      And having seen a production of a new play by Judith Malina at The Living Theater on Clinton Street, last New Years Eve, I can assure you The Living Theater is quite vital.

      "Into the company of love it all returns."

    • Hey Oscar,Steve was very much living in the present.He moved audiences young and old .He was a brave artist with a huge heart. He also did not hide behind a made up name of a a dead sitcom star.Regards to Felix Unger

  5. Joanie Fritz Zosike

    steve ben Israel, rip

    When I first saw steve ben israel perform in 1978-ish, I realized what is possible. On stage. Off stage. In life. Shy as I am, I went up and spoke with him after the show to tell him how much his performance of Nostalgic for the Future moved me. He was soft-spoken and rather reserved. I was so surprised by his understated manner after seeing this incredible burst of energy who had torn up the stage for the past hour or more. This made me think about utility. Choice. Burning. Of course, steve never did anything half-ass. He was as monumental a persona off stage as on. One just needed to listen carefully, and listen I did. steve is one of the greatest inspirations of my life. To wit. Flash forward to the late 80s when I began working with The Living Theatre, a gig that lasted over 25 years and of which I'm a proud alumnus. Steve and I weren't bosom buddies nor did we hang out a lot. But we had a meaningful friendship. Getting to know steve to the degree that I did is one of the greatest joys of my life. I believe we understood each other. As I continued to watch steve’s work evolve over the years, he became even more mind-blowing and incisive. As things in the world became ever more serious, his comedic commentary became increasingly uproarious, yet sad at the same time. But he never left the audience in the lurch. Rather he filled them with a transcendent vision of hope. As a person he was deep, insightful, funny as hell, twinkly (yes, I said twinkly as in always a twinkle in his eyes), and full of love toward first of all his wife Pamela and son Baba, his friends, his many communities, and the world. Few people have ever attained such a compassionate world view or so wry an assessment about the crazy things we human beings do in the name of god, country–even love (psiloveyou). And steve was all about love. Yet he had his opinions. I remember being at a march and rally at the UN to protest Israel's oppressive policies toward Palestinians. There was a counter-protest comprised of a contingency of orthodox Jews (all men, of course, probably hassidim and definitely Zionist). I made a critical remark to steve about them, after which I expressed regret about putting them down when after all, I'm also a Jew. To which he said in all seriousness: "Those aren't MY Jews." It was just so funny, especially because he said it so seriously. steve's comedic observations were always serious at root. He saw so clearly into the bones of life. Everyone has their steve ben stories and everyone cherishes them. I'm honored to say that steve was my mentor (unbeknownst to him, even though I told him so), my colleague, my friend. I'll miss you, brother. You put a big crack in the wall when you slipped out. I somehow thought you'd live forever. Those who came into contact with him know that he was loving, gruff, brilliant, critical, communitarian, irreverent, a monumental performer, stubborn, passionate, kind, fearless, hip and a bona fide mensch. Wonder-filled sbi, who'd sometimes comment with a child's sense of wonder how well his new show had been received, as if it was a surprise to him. It probably was. Wonderful steve ben israel, inspiring wonder in those who got a peak into his non-stop amazing universe. Joanie Fritz Zosike

  6. I met Steven when the Living Theater had just returned from France; still the Sixties!

    They were about to perform at BAM, not exactly the Promised Land in those days. But an historic series of performances to come.

    They, the Living, needed friends, apartments and most of all, publicity … and we, members of the various (at the time) "small-fry" performance groups who composed the "Radical Theatre Repertory" met with some of the Living at the apartment/office of Saul Gottlieb in the service of the cause, and to arrange things, raise money, lick and stamp envelopes and reach out to the members of the press.

    Steve as always by the apartment and he was certainly the most out-going, most good natured, and yes, most unpretentious … completely without pretense … and unspoiled of the group. Turns out he was from Crown Heights, same as me. Right around the corner.

    Ben Israel. What a name. We hit it off right away.

    Over the years, our paths crossed, and we had time to sit and chat: I attended his performances, saw Pamela, and heard about Baba's passage from baseball player to performer and from Bronx Science to the English stage. I many times watched Steve's amazing theme-and-variation comic performance of what he called "Reminiscence of The Future." He wore a flower in his lapel. We always spoke of Tuli.

    There was always time to talk: Steve was offered, from time to time, parts in Hollywood films, by Mike Elias, another Living graduate, and friend to me, and better friend to Steve, and always turned them down.

    I haven't seen Steve for a year or more. He often emailed me the news, and we corresponded occasionally about what I was doing, writing, thinking.

    An unforgettable, and unforgettably talented, truly energetic and fully energized real friend is gone.

    • Woops: I made the mistake of misnaming Steve's show: it was "Nostalgia For The Future" and not otherwise. Allen

  7. A walk through Washington Sq. Pk…Steve ranting about the woes of the world…I and the trees listening intently to his menu for a better universe interspersed with irony on a bed of laughter. Never to be forgotten…his eternal youthful energy shared. RIP Mensch.

  8. Steve ben Israel could have been a 2nd rate hack comedian, he could be doing the Fountainbleau with a comb over right now, or being the opening act for Celine in Vegas. Around the Danny Rose Table he would have been the hipster inflected one with a trace of a Bklyn accent. A better Geroge Carlin, a swifter Robert Klein,.

    Instead he's dead,joint dead,smoking back to a dream of 60's forevever, Paradise Now. Julian Beck set him free to be, to act, to create and chained him to a past he couldn't overcome. The 1st Time you saw Steve, you thought Lenny Bruce had risen up, the 2nd Time you saw Steve you thought he was Woody Allen's dimmer brother, the 3rd time, you wanted to strangle him.

    The 60's created and destroyed, like those who look too intently at the sun. R.I.P. Israel is my X-tian name. Forgive and Forget…

  9. Alexis Rzewski

    The city was his laboratory. He observed, he listened, he interacted, he toyed around. At the end of the day, he had a story to tell. The best I remember from him, an elongated phone answering message I heard, in which he was doing his best, performance wise, in pulling out a friend from his depression. While we were all listening to the playback of the phone message, we were slowly realizing that the message wasn't just a plain phone message, but it was evolving into a piece of art. At the end we were all laughing. Awesome mind.

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