Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003), Part II

'You Can Make a Fresh Start With Your Final Breath'

 Joe Chaikin's two careers were separated by a cardiac operation during which he briefly "died" on the operating table. Despite the partial aphasic stroke he suffered then, he recovered sufficient powers of speech to go on acting and directing with undimmed effectiveness, as his colleagues' tributes attest. —Michael Feingold

Susan Yankowitz, playwright

Reinventing himself: Joe Chaikin in 1991
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Reinventing himself: Joe Chaikin in 1991

When Joe talked about the stroke that left him aphasic, he said, "I couldn't anything, only the word yes, I couldn't say no, only yes yes yes." That yes wasn't calculated—Joe wasn't yet able to choose his words. It was a spontaneous reflex of his spirit, the same affirmation of possibility—possibility was an important word in Joe's lexicon—that gave birth to the Open Theatre; that anatomized death (in Terminal) so all of us would pay attention to the ordinary act of our breathing, which reminds us that we are alive; and that later enabled him, after much anguish, to accept the limits on his speech and reinvent himself as he had reinvented the theater. In the last years of his life, he wanted more "comic," he said, and what I will remember best, I think, is his chuckle when he found it.

Richard Peaslee, composer

Developing a new piece with Joe and his actors was not only exciting, it was an opportunity to flush out your brain. Sure, rehearsals were usually in a loft or unheated basement somewhere totally inconvenient, and with a budget for maybe one musician, but the atmosphere of warmth, of humor, and of exploration with moments of startling originality made it all worthwhile. Joe created that atmosphere. He was gentle, he was modest, but he was also tough aesthetically. Through his ruthless editing of acting, writing, and music, we all began to learn about the theater what he already knew about life: what really mattered.

Ellen Stewart, LaMaMa E.T.C.

We at LaMaMa are very proud that Joe Chaikin chose to share his genius with us. We love him.

Bill Irwin, performer

Joe Chaikin's greatest gift to me, among many, was his invitation (out of the blue), in '91, to come and discuss what he described as "Sam . . . BeckettTexts . . . for Nothing." I was greeted and seated and handed a copy of what I later learned was Joe's adaptation of Beckett's 13 prose pieces. I had never read Beckett's Texts for Nothing. (I'd often maintained that I "knew of them" but I'm not sure that was really true.) The "discussion" was Joe inclining his head toward the pages and saying, "Read, you, read, Bill." As so often, the mysterious mix of question, invitation, and directive. The next hour was one of my most memorable encounters with literature. I don't know why this should be so; it was four or five of us in a room with an actor reading words he'd never seen before; I'm sure in the standard sense it was terrible, an uninformed drone. But I shall never forget it; I see in my mind the pages, with Joe's arrows and notations captured in photocopy in the margins.

For a long time I thought what I had read was exactly what Beckett had written. Only in time did I read and compare Beckett's full text to the adaptation Joe had made—with Beckett's permission. Years later, making my own stage version, I learned so much about Joe and, I think, about Beckett's writing in re-learning the Texts and memorizing them in the original, slowly forsaking the edits that Joe and his collaborator had made. The edited words occasionally come into my head in what, still, in places, feels like the "right" word order, and I see Joe doing his imitation of Beckettthe incline of the head, the slow smile, the sinking of the head down onto folded arms for long periods. These are the gifts you only perceive as gifts in looking back on life and seeing what is truly memorable.

Paul Zimet, The Talking Band

At the end Joe's failing heart made each breath a great labor, and then his breathing stopped. The breath was always key to Joe's work as an actor and director. For him the breath was a seismograph detecting currents of emotion. It could lead the actor to locating territories of human experience more subtly and precisely than could the words we commonly used to name these experiences. For Joe, the breath was a more powerful tool than psychological analysis for discovering "the parts of yourself which have not lived yet." In all acting traditions the breath is important, but I think it loomed larger for Joe because his injured heart always made him aware of the immanence of death. He told us as actors to play each moment on stage as if it were the only chance we would get. Don't assume the present breath will be followed by countless more. This was not an abstract thought for Joe. It shaped the intensity of his work and the work of those who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him. It determined his aesthetic: Pare an event down to its essential emblem—an image, a phrase, a gesture. It governed the choices he made: Only work on what is important to you. Yet for someone so influenced by thoughts of mortality, Joe's theatrical work was anything but grim. He knew the darker the subject, the more important it was to find the humor in it. When we found it, he would break out in an infectious smile, an irresistible giggle. In 1996, when we were rehearsing the revival of the Open Theatre's Terminal, a piece about death and dying, Joe was afraid we were getting too gloomy and heavy. To make his point—with the eloquent brevity of his aphasia—he said, "Sarah Bernhardt. Slept in a coffin. Too much."

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