Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Joseph Chaikin

Joseph Chaikin (16 September 1935–22 June 2003) was an American theatre director, playwright, and pedagogue.

Early years

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 job. 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.


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. 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 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".

In the mid-1970s, Chaikin formed a company called The Winter Project, whose members included Ronnie Gilbert and Will Patton, as well as core members of the previous Open Theatre. 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, and later, they wrote together War in Heaven. Chaikin was an expert on Samuel Beckett, directing a number of Beckett's plays, including Endgame at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Happy Days at Cherry Lane Theater.

Chaikin received six Obie Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement, and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

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.

Personal life

In 1984, a stroke suffered during open-heart surgery left Chaikin with partial aphasia. Despite this barrier to communication, Chaikin continued to direct and to create plays in collaboration with other writers, including John Belluso, whose disability-themed plays were produced at the Mark Taper Forum, Trinity Rep, Pacific Repertory Theatre 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. Samuel Beckett wrote a poem dedicated to Chaikin entitled What Is the Word?. Overcoming some of the limitations of aphasia, Chaikin subsequently performed the poem as a monologue.

Chaikin was a lifelong teacher of acting and directing, and lived most of his adult life in New York's West Village.

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