Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)

He Made All That Happened to Him a Transcendent Experience

 Joe Chaikin, who died in his sleep on Sunday, June 22, was for four decades as significant a figure as the American theater has yet produced. Actor, director, writer, and founder of the Open Theatre, he influenced the lives of innumerable artists worldwide. Plagued his whole life by chronic heart disease, in 1984 he suffered an aphasic stroke from which he recovered sufficiently to direct, write, and even perform for two decades more. Joe once said that, since he had not been expected to survive past puberty, he considered every further day of his life a miracle. The Voice invited Joe's friends and colleagues to share their memories of the miracle, which appear this week and next. —Michael Feingold

Judith Malina, The Living Theatre

Joseph Chaikin
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Joseph Chaikin

In William Carlos Williams's Many Loves, Joe sold me a house . . . and in Brecht's Man Is Man, I sold him an elephant . . . and his intense commitment to the moment—that was it—made these transactions an emblem of the whole terrible dilemma of the human race. For Chaikin always played the moment in which he was as the true moment—the only true moment—and brought to these transactions the momentous presence of the present. In this way he made all that happened to him onstage a transcendent experience.

When the Vietnam War led the theater into the streets and we sat down in protest together in the middle of the Times Square traffic, the police rode in with clubs. A glancing blow caught the side of my head. I saw a flash of red and pain and then I felt Joe's body covering me, and I took shelter under his protection and felt no more blows. Julian [Beck] was less lucky—a broken rib punctured his lung.

But Joe's persistent innocence rises above it all and has protected us all these years without our even knowing it. The courage of his unmasking of the unashamed self and his laying bare the secret recesses of the soul make it clear that Open was the right name for his theater. We see more now, and the light is his.

Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright

When I met Joe at the Open Theatre loft on 24th Street in 1963—40 years ago this September—he looked like an attractive curly-haired kid with startling blue eyes. The scene comes back: Listening to him drop philosophical "pebbles," as he called them, as if into a pond around which we, young theater people, sit, Joe seems like a mildly spoken guerrilla fighter, using theater to unmask the lies with which we've grown up in the '40s and '50s. Perhaps because Joe started creating theater games when he was 10, incarcerated in a cardiac home for children who might die any day, death was always present for him, and making theater was life itself. In the Open Theatre industrial loft, with its peeling dark blue plaster walls, I'm struck by the intense quality of everyone's attention as Joe talks about feelings taboo to express publicly—grieving, joy, and fear. No one here is paid; everyone chips in to pay the rent. We're all alarmed by the escalating Vietnam War. Joe plans improvisational exercises to show how the facade painted for us by our parents, by politicians and advertisers, is so different from what we feel. Curiously, as we listen to Joe talk, everyone's ego seems to have dropped. Because of this the room feels lighter. After the workshop I feel exhilarated and inspired. I want to show my plays War and Motel to Joe, and to talk with him about Artaud and Gordon Craig. I say excitedly, "Your work is wonderful but how do you make your acting exercises into plays?" Joe's sweet face lights up: "I've been waiting for someone to come along and ask me that question." Our collaboration, our deep friendship, has begun. It will last 40 years.

Tina Shepard, actress

The thing was, working with Joe, it was always an adventure: If you thought you knew where you were headed, you were wrong.

We worked from our imaginations, our impulses. Joe was interested in devising a means for getting at those impulses before they were tamed. We were working toward what we didn't already know. The work we made was held together by the tension between the demands of theatrical presentation on the one hand and the wildness, the lawlessness of the human spirit on the other.

Peter Brook, director

Through all the painful changes in his body, Joe never changed. He was ever watching, ever listening, ever loving. Pure is a word so pure that it can only be used rarely. Joe was, Joe is and always will be—pure Joe.

Adrienne Kennedy, playwright

I think of 1976, when we were working on A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White at the Public Theater. At rehearsals, Joe and I sat in the first row facing the stage. He always insisted I sit next to him so he could get my responses. Often before rehearsal started he'd go out into the hallway or backstage and talk to the stage manager or designers. Each morning at 10 a.m. I could hardly wait to talk to him.

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