Interdisciplinary artist-performer Rachel Rosenthal — known for her shaved head; passions for feminism, animals (including two rat “companions”), ecology; and a vocal range that traverses gravelly depths and operatic heights — turns 83 on November 9. Recipient of the Obie Award in 1989 and this newspaper’s Career Achievement Award in 1997, she’s been described as “living cultural treasure” in a proclamation by the city of Los Angeles, while The Drama Review’s editor, Richard Schechner, has ranked her theatrical vision with that of Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. Rosenthal’s latest book, The DbD Experience — part acting notes, part memoir — was just published by Routledge.
A birthday gala and fundraiser for the Los Angeles–based company she founded in 1989 (The Rachel Rosenthal Company) is set for Saturday, November 7, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., at Santa Monica’s Track 16 Gallery. The event will feature a silent auction of 83 artworks by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Mike Kelley, Ed Moses and June Wayne, with proceeds supporting her troupe’s TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble performances, student scholarships and visiting-artist stipends.
“People have been coming out of the woodwork donating pieces to the silent auction” Rosenthal says, adding that the kinds of art being contributed is more experimental than these artists usually exhibit, which seems apt for a celebration of Rosenthal’s life.
Rachel was born in 1926 in Paris, the daughter of cultured Russian emigrés, Leonard and Mara Rosenthal. During her birthdays in the 1930s, she was expected to perform a ballet recital for dozens of her parents’ high society friends and acquaintances, who were also entertained by Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz.
In the ’30s, she used her teddy bears to perform a puppet show for the servants. But the character who most caught her imagination, she recalls, was Snow White’s Bad Queen, whom Rosenthal would impersonate, wearing a flowing cape while running down a spiral staircase in her parents’ home. This play-acting could be described as a formative attempt to comprehend forces of evil — such as the Nazis, who would drive her family from Europe in 1940, or an economic system that would plunder the Earth’s resources and push environmental stability past the tipping point of sustainability.
As refugees, the Rosenthals settled in New York. Rachel became a U.S. citizen but longed for Paris, and for the next eight years, she traveled back and forth between the cities.
“I was in Paris when the Theatre of the Absurd blossomed,” she notes.
Rosenthal recalls once sitting in a café with several people, as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sipped coffee, “and everybody was in a circle, talking about existentialism.
“Ionesco, Adamov, Artaud, Beckett were all very accessible. We are used to thinking of Picasso and Matisse as dead, but they were not dead when I was there.”
Rosenthal was attending a theater school in Paris when Merce Cunningham and his partner, John Cage, came through to teach a master class. Now an American, Rosenthal became one of their translators and, eventually, one of Cunningham’s dance students.
Rosenthal was in New York, attending the High School of Music and Art, when Cunningham and Cage, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were transforming the state of the arts. “There was a time in the mid-’50s, Jasper and I took a floor of a little building in Lower Manhattan; it was going to be torn down. We became dear friends. Bob had his studio around the corner. So for those eight years, unbeknownst to me, I was being molded by these extraordinary influences, and in such a way that I could never be in a certain category. I was a mix of all these things.”
In 1955, Leonard Rosenthal died of a heart attack while vacationing in Beverly Hills; he was buried in Los Angeles. Mara, wanting to be near her husband’s grave, relocated to L.A., and Rachel followed not only to be near her mother but also to accept a job teaching at the Pasadena Playhouse’s theater academy.
“The traditional people in the school hated me. I didn’t wear the right clothes,” says Rosenthal. Pantyhose hadn’t been invented, so Rosenthal wore denim tops (which, in 1955 was working-class and not chic), and black tights instead of standard-issue stockings — “because I was showing dance steps. I kept being called to the dean’s office of women’s studies. They told me I had to change my look. I said I’m not going to open my legs and show what’s under there. Finally, they fired me. First I was upset, then I opened my own workshop, and that was that.”
Los Angeles in 1955 was a “pretty, warm and dull desert,” Rosenthal remembers. “The San Fernando Valley was all cornfields. Orange County was an endless horizon of orange groves.
“The first gallery that was in any way interesting and avant-garde was the Ferus Gallery,” established at 736 North La Cienega Blvd. in 1957 by curator Walter Hopps, artist Edward Kienholz, and poet Bob Alexander. “It changed, little by little, into what became recognized as ‘the California style.’ I got to know these people because they were the only people I felt close to with my background.”
At about this time, Rosenthal was developing her own improvisational theater company, called Instant Theater.
“My audience was mainly the artists from the Ferus Gallery. I had this tiny, tiny space, and people just lay down on the bleachers with cushions. It was very Oriental-looking, everybody was getting high on dope. I had no idea that this was going on. I just remember a sweet-smelling cloud that was dancing over their heads; we were improvising all this crazy stuff onstage. When the evening was over, I’d ask them, ‘What did you think?’ They were always saying, ‘It was cool, it was great, we were grooving.’ I thought, ‘Gee whiz, are we that good?’ ”
After she stopped performing in 1966 because of arthritis, Rosenthal returned to the stage as a solo performer in 1975, building an international reputation over the next two decades for her stage works, which started with autobiographical themes and transitioned into poetical-furious laments directed at human abuses of the animal kingdom and the planet.
Rosenthal’s last performance was in 2000, and since, she has devoted the last decade to teaching and creating companies.
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“I feel great, you know, like I’m in my 40s. But the body acts up every so often. Of course, I can’t stand looking at myself in the mirror because I really don’t look the way I feel, and that’s annoying. People treat me with such respect, and that’s annoying, too. I use bad words a lot, which helps. The horror of growing old is that I forget words and names. But I’m not ready to quit. I want to be around for all the discoveries about the cosmos, and all the things we don’t know.”
She cites two prevalent changes over the decades of her life. The first has been the shift in cultural values toward an ever-greater prevalence of economic motives. “Art is now dependent on a group of people who are not artists yet are determining what kind of art is seen.”
The other is our view of time. “Time is not our friend anymore. Everyone is running as fast as they can and wanting everything to happen yesterday. I don’t want to live that life. I haven’t achieved the life I do want to live,” Rosenthal reflects. “I want to take my dog, and the two of us are sitting in a café. I’m sipping tea and the dog is eating biscuits, and we’re just sitting there.”
The Rachel Rosenthal Birthday Bash is on Sat., Nov. 7, 7-11 p.m., at Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, Building C-1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. $25. Visit rachelrosenthal.org.