Theater archives

Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)


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

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.

“What are you going to do today?” I’d say.

“I don’t know, Adrienne,” he’d always say. Then he’d ask me, “What did you think about yesterday?” And he’d describe something he’d done the day before. He’d sit staring intently at the stage for a while, as the actors waited. He’d lean over, elbows on his knees, and continue to stare passionately at the empty stage. Suddenly he’d jump up, go to the actors, and almost whisper to them. I couldn’t hear him. He’d then go backstage and talk to the prop person and bring out a prop he’d never seen, examining the prop and considering it in great detail for a long time. He’d go talk to the actor or actors he was working with and sit down with them and talk very softly again for a long while . . .

Then he’d come back to where we were sitting. And with a tiny smile, he’d say, “I think you’re going to like this.” And sit down next to me.

Suddenly the actors would start to do something extraordinary that I never could have dreamed of, something beautiful, shocking, overwhelming, and breathtaking. I wanted to run out and cry.

Edward Albee, playwright

When you’ve known and admired someone for over 40 years they develop a kind of permanence and it shocks you when they cease. Losing Jack Gelber and Joe Chaikin within a month of each other was a double whammy, but this piece is about Joe, gentle, soft-spoken, eagle-minded Joe.

A sequence of memories crowds in: Joe in Jack Gelber’s The Connection; Joe working with Jean-Claude van Itallie to make a new idea of theater; Joe alone in a chair in a spotlight on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London, reading Beckett; Joe in Alaska—just last year—performing Sam Shepard before an audience of eager young playwrights who, after, crowded him to pull from his presence nourishment, knowing they would get it; these and much more.

Thank you, Joe.

Arthur Miller, playwright

Joe inspired those who could quiet their souls long enough to listen to him, or more accurately, observe him. He seemed to bear happiness into his art and world, irony and laughter and respect for living things and ideas. Long ago, he composed a scene around a Thanksgiving dinner in which eight or 10 actors “talked” by simply vocalizing sounds and gesturing and using their faces to convey attitudes and character while uttering a nonsensical no-language. It was hilarious and conveyed a crippled poetry that backed one into a corner where the view of humanity was devastating—suddenly we were all fools and simultaneously gallant enough to go on struggling to climb out of our fatuousness and ignorance and vanity; and it somehow ended up in some kind of tragic space. Joe, I suppose, lived so close to death that it was for him simply the part of life one had to give the nod to and fend off at the same time. And it all came down to a kind of artistic decency, for he was a servant of truth, which is not at all as easy as it sounds.

Anders Cato, director

During the years that I spent with Joe as his assistant, co-director, or co-eater of countless Indian brunches, he taught me many things about theater, but what he really taught me was something much bigger. Joe was not afraid.

In his work as well as in his life, he embraced dark and difficult questions, the ones that really matter. Often Joe would cut through any kind of small talk when meeting people, and immediately ask them, “What do you believe?” The big questions were not asked to make people nervous or challenge them, but rather part of his own ongoing search for the joy and wonder of being alive. Once when we were on an airplane, crossing the Atlantic, Joe was listening to music on his Walkman. He handed me one of his little Post-it notes on which he had written, “Mozart 90 percent happy.”

On several occasions during the last couple of years, Joe told me in his simple and beautiful way: “No need living longer.” I remember asking him if there wasn’t a part of him that was still afraid of dying. Joe responded with his particular, light tone of voice, his face completely open: “No.”

Related Story:

Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003), Part II: ‘You Can Make a Fresh Start With Your Final Breath'”