16 September 1935|
Brooklyn, New York, USA
|Died||22 June 2003
New York City, New York, USA
|Occupation||Theatre director, actor, playwright, pedagogue|
Early life and education
The youngest of five children, Chaikin was born to a poor Jewish family living in the Borough Park residential area of Brooklyn. At the age of six, he was struck with rheumatic fever, and he continued to suffer from resulting heart complications throughout his life. At the age of ten, he was sent to the National Children's Cardiac Hospital in Florida. It was during this period of isolation he began to organize theater games with other children. After two years in Florida, his health improved, and he was returned to his family, who had moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where his father had taken a job teaching.
Chaikin briefly attended Drake University in Iowa, and then returned to New York to begin a career in theater, studying with various acting coaches, while struggling to survive working a variety of jobs. He appeared as a figurant at the Metropolitan Opera, and gradually began to be cast in legitimate stage roles, going on to work with The Living Theatre before founding in 1963 The Open Theater a theater co-operative that progressed from a closed experimental laboratory to a performance ensemble.
Open Theater allowed Chaikin and his colleagues the space to experiment with unconventional and organic drama techniques. They embraced dance and musical performance practices and encouraged actors to be more expressive in the body. When asked in a 1999 interview why he was compelled to start Open Theater, Chaikin responded, "I’m not crazy about naturalism on stage. An actor is an interpretive artist. They can take their talent further. I wanted them to stretch, be creative."
The Open Theatre's most famous and critically acclaimed production, The Serpent, was a unique creation developed largely from the actors' own experiences, using the Bible as text, but incorporating current events, such as the violence that plagued the 1960s. An Open Theatre exercise by Jean-Claude van Itallie, "Interview," became part of the play America Hurrah, and Chaikin directed the "Interview" section when the play opened at the Pocket Theatre in 1966. In 1969 Open Theatre performed Endgame by Samuel Beckett, with Chaikin playing the role of Hamm and Peter Maloney as Clov, at the Cite Universitaire, Paris, and in 1970 at the Grasslands Penitentiary, a fulfillment of Chaikin's desire to experiment with audiences who would be fundamentally and culturally different from cosmopolitan audiences.
In 1970-71 Open Theatre performed Terminal by Susan Yankowitz, touring the production internationally—including at the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran (1971)--as well as to many maximum and minimum security prisons in the eastern U.S. and Canada. The Open Theater operated for about ten years. Chaikin closed the Open Theatre in 1973 because he said it was in danger of becoming an institution. Although it achieved much critical success, Chaikin said: "I have rarely known a case where a critic's response to actors, directors or writers has expanded or encouraged their talent- I have known cases where by panning or praising, the critic has crushed or discouraged creative inspiration".
His first work after closing the Open Theatre was in collaboration with the playwright Robert Montgomery: ELECTRA, a three-character version of the Electra myth with Michele Collison (from Peter Brooks' company) in the title role, Paul Zimet as Orestes, and Shami Chaikin, Joe's sister, as Clytemnestra. The work was a critical success in New York City, and later toured colleges in the United States with Tina Shepard in the title role.
In 1977, Chaikin formed an experimental workshop company called The Winter Project, whose members included Ronnie Gilbert, Corey Fischer, Robbie McCauley, Mark Samuels, Robert Montgomery, Christopher McCann and Will Patton, as well as core members of the previous Open Theatre, among others. In the Winter Project, Chaikin proposed and participated in explorations of the boundary between life and death, the actor as storyteller, listening, found dialogue and more. His production of The Dybbuk at the Public Theater in 1977-78 was, to some extent, influenced by some of these researches. Chaikin had a close working relationship with Sam Shepard and together they wrote the plays Tongues and Savage/Love, both of which premiered at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. They were commissioned to write When The World Was Green for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, later collaborating to write War in Heaven. Chaikin was an expert on Samuel Beckett. He adapted Texts for Nothing with Steven Kent who directed him in a solo show based on the material which performed at the Public Theater in New York, at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, the American Center in Paris, and in Toronto. Chaikin directed a number of Beckett's plays, including Endgame at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Happy Days at Cherry Lane Theater.
His book, "The Presence of The Actor" was first published in 1972 by Theatre Communications Group, and a second edition followed in 1991. Based on his experiments with actors, the book includes exemplar notes, photographs, and exercises from Open Theatre productions, and records Chaikin's ideas about theater as a tool for social transformation.
In 1984, Chaikin suffered a stroke during his third open-heart surgery, which left him with partial aphasia. Despite this barrier to communication, Chaikin continued to act, direct and to create plays in collaboration with other actors, writers, and groups including Mira Rafalowicz, Traveling Jewish Theatre, Michael Posnick and John Belluso, whose disability-themed plays were produced at the Mark Taper Forum, Trinity Rep, Pacific Repertory Theatre, Keen Company and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Following Chaikin's stroke, several writers, including Jean-Claude van Itallie, Susan Yankowitz, and Sam Shepard, wrote plays specifically for Chaikin to perform and direct, most notably The War in Heaven which was directed by Steven Kent. Chaikin performed the piece in San Diego, Atlanta, and Parma, Italy, Samuel Beckett's last poem, What Is the Word?, was written for and dedicated to Chaikin. Overpowering his aphasia once again, Chaikin publicly performed the poem.
Chaikin was a lifelong teacher of acting and directing, and lived most of his adult life in New York's West Village, at Westbeth Artists Community.
- Belluso, John (Fall 2004). "Remembering Joseph Chaikin (1935-2003)" (PDF). Theater. 34 (3): 129–30. doi:10.1215/01610775-34-3-101. ISSN 0161-0775. Retrieved 2008-10-15.
- Ralph Blumenthal (24 June 2003). "Joseph Chaikin 67 [sic]: Actor and Innovative Director". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-15.