Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1996
On the very edge of the theater landscape, there’s an old growth forest called the avant-garde. The political and economic climate have worn it down and withered much of it away. But, still standing tall and unbowed is one giant evergreen named Joseph Chaikin.
Born in Brooklyn in 1935, Chaikin joined the controversial, confrontational Living Theater at age 25, earning three Obie Awards for acting (and after many other honors, the first Obie Lifetime Achievement Award). In 1963, he founded the Open Theater, an influential, collaborative laboratory/workshop for actors and playwrights, which, during its decade of existence, was one of the nation’s most acclaimed experimental theater groups.
In churches and garages off-off Broadway, The Open Theatre presented highly visual, visceral, interactive pieces like “America Hurrah,” “Viet Rock,” “The Serpent” and “Terminal.” Here, the play was not the thing; it was the “creation” of the play, the synthesis of the artists’ instincts, the communal interaction, the improvisation, that made the art.
Disbanding the Open Theatre to prevent its institutionalization, Chaikin continued his actor-oriented collective-theater experiments as director of the Winter Project, and then went on to direct, act in solo works and co-write performance pieces.
In 1984, during his third open heart surgery, Chaikin suffered a stroke and subsequent aphasia, which severely affected his use and comprehension of language. The doctors said he’d never regain more than shards of language. But that didn’t stop him from writing, directing or performing.
This month (March 8-9), the UCSD Theatre Department hosts a two-day symposium/performance tribute called “Joseph Chaikin: A Life in the Theatre.”
“We wanted to honor him while he’s still alive, and in stride,” says Alan Havis, Associate Professor of Theatre at UCSD and coordinator of the tribute weekend. “We want to announce to the world that he has many creative years ahead of him.”
The highlight of the weekend is the 25th anniversary production of “Terminal”, the Open Theater’s searing piece about the dead and the dying. New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow described the original production as “a horrifying, unnerving and moving artistic experience… stunning in [its] theatricality.”
As this year’s Quinn Martin Chair, Chaikin will direct UCSD graduate students in “Terminal”, helping them, says Havis, with its “ritualistic, elemental theatricality… to get away from opulence and intellectualism in theater. ”
Also on hand for “Terminal” will be Paul Zimet, who was in the 1970 production, and Susan Yankowitz, who, credited with the original text, will be working on rewrites. (“Twenty-five to thirty percent new material,” says Havis. “Reflecting the AIDS plague and other diseases of our time”).
A star-studded string of guests will participate in the weekend panels and performances. Each has either worked with or been influenced by Chaikin: playwrights Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes and Megan Terry, actors Judd Hirsch, F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin, critic Eric Bentley, directors Mame Hunt (Magic Theatre, San Francisco) and Ellen Stewart (La Mama, New York), and others.
Chaikin himself will perform, presenting parts of Samuel Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing”, and a reading of “The War in Heaven”, one of his three collaborations with Sam Shepard.
When Chaikin performed “The War” at New York’s American Place Theatre in 1991 (along with another post-stroke piece, “Struck Dumb”, written with Jean-Claude van Itallie), Mel Gussow, of the New York Times said “the plays share… a feeling of life imperiled. Each is a mysterious journey of discovery and an eloquent emanation from a character who seems to be lost in time and space and is fearful that he may be unable to communicate… The performance is filled with a childlike wonderment… Mr. Chaikin movingly expresses his endless search for the unknowable.”
From a distance, Chaikin himself is somewhat unknowable. He doesn’t do phone interviews, so I had to fax my questions to Anders Cato, his associate, who obtained responses from Mr. Chaikin and then faxed me back. Parts of his moving letter, with quotes from Chaikin, follow.
“Joe has often talked to me about how he used to feel frustrated about not being able to communicate, but how he one day met another man with aphasia who told him that he had simply stopped being frustrated. And that day Joe decided to also stop being frustrated, because you can’t walk around being frustrated all your life. ‘Stop frustrated and angry. It’s silly,’ Joe told me. [Now he] practices reading. Every Sunday, he reads to a friend of his who is blind…
“Joe told me once that with aphasia it is very hard to lie. So-called ‘social talk’ is very difficult for Joe and instead he talks about things that matter to him, or he doesn’t talk at all… When he worked with Sam Shepard on their new play, Joe would often talk about birds, evil, religion and food… Other topics which are very important to Joe are the stars (the universe) and disability. In different workshops he has looked at the world from the perspective of somebody who is physically different…
“In San Diego, Joe and Susan [Yankowitz] will try to explore [in ‘Terminal’] the old topic of death and dying through the perspective of a younger generation… When we discuss “Terminal”, Joe keeps coming back to the word Celebration. ‘Not only sad, but also celebrate,’ he said…
“In a letter to Sam Shepard from 1984, Joe wrote: ‘This encounter with mortality, mine and everybody else’s… I want to live deeper. I don’t know how.”
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.