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."


Sam Shepard, playwright

I died the day I was born

and became an angel on that day

since then

there are no days

there is no time

I am here by mistake

These were Joe's own words and became the opening lines of The War in Heaven back in 1984 when we sat down to work in his New York apartment. He was recovering from a stroke suffered during his third open-heart surgery, which had left him with a kind of left-hemisphere aphasia (a fancy term for the loss of language). This was a devastating setback for Joe, whose language was such a profound aspect of his work in the theater. As always, Joe responded to this terrible dilemma with a bright, energetic courage, as though life had again presented him with a rare and mysterious challenge. He was determined to write a piece that dealt with the idea of an angel crashing to earth but he was adamant about not wanting to perform it himself (as he had with our two previous collaborations, Tongues and Savage Love). As we continued with the work, I became convinced that not only would it be a great kind of therapy for him, but that he was probably the only actor who could possibly embody the language that was coming out of him. It was truly being delivered from another world:

Extraordinary

I can tell

where God is my life

I've been dead

so many times

so many times

I've been dead

then better

dead

now better

so many times

These cadences and phrases were surging out of him in sporadic coherent bursts, then locking up incomprehensibly around single words like loose or Venus or turtle, where the word itself—just the mere accomplishment of it, the phenomenon of its sound hitting the air—seemed like a matter of life and death for Joe. The struggle was physical as well as psychological. I became more and more of a stenographer as I watched and listened to his fierce probings into dark territories of demons and planets, then floating down into earthly birds and souls of the dead and air:

air

again it comes

surrounded

it comes

more

so much more

and more

and more

and more

and air

I was in the presence of an extraordinary man, reinventing himself on the brink of disaster, and realized that this had always been the case with Joe and his work. His whole life had been in the constant company of death due to his chronic heart disease, and this reminder of his own mortality informed everything he did in the theater and in life. It characterized the atmosphere surrounding the early Open Theatre days on Spring Street. It was the sign by which we all recognized him as a true teacher and seer into the terrible predicament of our modern era. And it was, finally, the root of his inspiration, which he transferred to us with such amazing generosity and sweetness. Joe liked to quote from Brecht in his early workshops. One line I remember in particular was, "You can make a fresh start with your final breath," and I believe this is truly the way he lived and died.


Joyce Aaron, actress

Joe Chaikin was my friend, my teacher, my director, for 30 years. He was the most important figure in my growth and development. It was his questions that ignited our imaginations and stimulated the finding of forms for the original work that we created in the Open Theatre. His questioning never stopped.

I last worked with Joe in October 2002, in the revival of Beckett's Happy Days at the Cherry Lane Theater. I felt enormously privileged to work on this play with him: He loved Beckett and had wanted to direct Happy Days for many years. He was a master at plumbing the depths of the text, all its details, its humor, and its rhythms. He never stopped exploring. He never stopped giving notes—at the last performance I received notes from him. His devotion to the material, to the work, to the actor, was relentless.

It was his courage, his endurance of life itself, that was an inspiration to all who knew him when he had to re-create himself after the stroke in order to go on. He did that. He went on. He fought for his life every moment, and he won.

I remember seeing him go into a pastry shop, looking around to make sure no one could see him. I watched from across the street as he happily ate his marvelous pastry.

I will miss his presence, his eye, his enormous talent, which he gave to all who worked with him. I will miss him for the rest of my life.


Sara Hartley, psychiatrist

Hearing Joe give a public reading, it struck me that he was utterly dedicated to narrating his sense of the serious puzzle of being human. He had little interest in inþuencing anyone—his authority derived from his earnest attention to the problem of saying something worth saying. It seemed this was what so captivated others—his conviction that art was a necessity for him to create a life.


Robert Heide, playwright

I firrst remember seeing a young Joe Chaikin at the Living Theatre, on 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, when he appeared in Brecht's Man Is Man, playing the lead role of Galy Gay with such an intense combination of ferocity and vulnerability that he stole the show, with Julian Beck proclaiming, "A star—a prince—is born!" Then Joe took over the role of Leach in Jack Gelber's The Connection. Following Warren Finnerty's þamboyant bravura performance, Joe managed to bring his own unique approach, understated and soulful, to the character, a lost, desperate heroin addict. I must have seen these and other Living Theatre productions 10 or 20 times. This was a crazy, unforgettable, happening world, and Joe was at its center.


Stephen Fife, playwright

Joe came to Atlanta to direct my adaptation of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance. One day in the car, driving him to rehearsal, I asked Joe if he'd ever driven. "Yes. When younger," he said. Why had he stopped? "I was distracted by the scenery." He added that he'd had three separate accidents, each time driving his car off the road into a ditch because he was transfixed by the sunlight filtering through the trees, by the rows of dandelions swaying in the breeze, by the sheer beauty of the landscape he was driving through. Finally his three sisters had persuaded him not to drive anymore.

In my previous experience with directors, they had usually wanted to maintain very clear boundaries of where your authority ended and theirs began. With Joe there was none of that, something that was probably largely unchanged from his pre-aphasia days. He was a democratic, supremely non-authoritarian spirit, who loved the companionship of making theater and had no use for petty power plays. The big difference now, after the stroke, was that Joe's conversation was limited. I gathered from friends that Joe had loved nothing more than to mull over moments from that day's rehearsal, to examine them from every angle. Now that was pared back to a few well-chosen words, but he was still fun to bat things around with.

Joe was one of the most sensitive artists ever to grace the American theater. His specialty was in creating indelibly poetic moments onstage, full of feeling and nuance, and then stringing these together to create a strong emotional impression, a very personal and irreducible collage. An old friend and associate of Joe's once told me, "Joe is all about capturing the floating moment."


James Houghton, Signature Theatre

Some of Joe's words:

Funny Sad Slow Fast Light Dark Yes No New Old Funny
Poetry

I loved Joe Chaikin. I will miss his poetry.


Related Story:
"Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003), Part I: He Made All That Happened to Him a Transcendent Experience"

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