Steve Ben Israel, legendary thespian, veteran of the ground-breaking Living Theatre troupe, and pioneer of what he called "performance life" (as opposed to performance art), died June 4 of lung cancer at his home in New York's Greenwich Village. He was 74.
Born to a working-class Russian Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, Israel gravitated to the 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 afterwards left New York for Europe, spending several years on the road, preforming across the continent—as far east as Belgrade. 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 in the Living Theater'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 non-verbal 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 Theater 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 from the Village Voice.
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.
Israel is survived by his wife Pamela Mayo Israel, also a veteran of the Living Theater; their son Baba Israel, a hip-hop artist; daughter-in-law Dawn Crandell, a dancer and performer; and new grand-daughter Sequoia-Rose Hope Israel-Crandell.
Photo from Steve Ben Israel