Stagecraft and spectacle are the Living Theatre's tools. But ideas are its foundation - relentlessly radical ideas that have swept up controversy and even outrage for more than three decades.
It was in the late 1940s that Julian Beck and his wife, Judith Malina, formed the Living Theatre. The idea was ''to create a theater that was persistently artistic, divorced from all the commercial thrust,'' Beck recalled in a recent interview in the West Side apartment he and his spouse share with their teen-age daughter, Isha.
For the past 15 years the Becks and company have worked in Europe, settling recently in France, where a government grant helps support them. Ideally, they would like to spend six months each year in the United States; but they may set down permanent roots in Paris, where they hope a theater will soon be provided them - an instance of strong public support which they feel Americans can't (or won't) match.
Still and all, they have a high profile in their native country just now. They recently presented a repertory of four plays at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan; the Malina diaries, covering 1947 to 1957, are being published this winter by Grove Press; and a new film on the Living Theatre called ''Signals Through the Flames'' was released last month. On the side, Beck is playing a part in Francis Coppola's new epic, ''Cotton Club.''
What sort of ideas is the Living Theatre based on? Pacifism, for one. ''Nonviolence isn't just getting America to disarm its nuclear power,'' says Judith Malina, who is co-leader of the company with Julian. ''It's what Gandhi called ahimsa, his principle of nonhurting. It's looking your enemy in the face and saying, 'You are not my enemy. Let me see if I can help you.' It's following this path no matter what.''
Activism and absolute personal freedom - to the point of license and chaos, detractors say - are also on the agenda. ''We speak of a journey toward change, '' says Julian Beck. ''This involves both collective and personal activity - with the understanding that you can't change the world unless you change yourself, and you can't change yourself unless you change the world.''