Rachel Rosenthal dies at 88; experimental theater and performance artist

Rachel Rosenthal, shown in 2009, often incorporated environmentalism and man's ties to nature in her works

Rachel Rosenthal, shown in 2009, often incorporated environmentalism and man’s ties to nature in her works

(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Rachel Rosenthal, the celebrated performance and theater artist who for 50 years brought experimental productions and other unclassifiable creations to audiences around Southern California, has died. She was 88.

Rosenthal died Sunday evening of congestive heart failure at her home in West L.A., said Kate Noonan, managing director of the Rachel Rosenthal Company, the nonprofit theater organization that Rosenthal founded in 1989.

During her long career, Rosenthal incorporated many themes in her live performances but would often return to environmentalism and man’s ties to nature.

“The overriding theme in all my pieces is always the same,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “It’s about our relationship to the Earth. It deals with who we are as a species and how we belong on this planet.”

For years, she performed with a shaved head -- a kind of artistic trademark that she started in 1981. (In later years, she let her hair grow out somewhat.)


Her avant-garde productions -- often performed at small venues around Southern California -- were so distinctive that the city of Los Angeles named her a Living Cultural Treasure in 2000.

Born in Paris to Russian parents, Rosenthal fled with her family to escape World War II, moving to Brazil and eventually settling in New York.

Rosenthal studied art in the U.S. and France before moving to Southern California in 1955. She became active in the L.A. cultural scene, creating the Instant Theatre, an experimental company, and joining the feminist art movement that took off in the 1970s.

Her productions often combined elements of drama, dance and music. One of her most lasting creations was the TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble, a group that has carried on her legacy of avant-garde performance.

Rosenthal began teaching performance in her studio in 1979 and went on to teach and lecture at universities around the country. She later branched out into visual art after retiring from the stage in 2000.

For now, the Rachel Rosenthal Company will go on without its founder. “We do performances one weekend a month in her studio space and will continue to do that. I will continue to teach her workshops,” said Noonan.

Rosenthal is survived by her nephew, Eric Landau. A public memorial is being planned but details haven’t been announced.

A full obituary will appear at

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT