Chaikin began making theater as a small child while convalescing from rheumatic fever. Living far away from home for extended periods in a hospice for children with heart conditions was traumatizing and also, as Chaikin says, boring. The theater Chaikin created to console himself during this difficult period was, as it would be during subsequent times of crisis, lifesaving.
Chaikin moved to New York in 1955, where he began training as an actor. He was a rising young star in 1962 when he was cast in the role of Galy Gay in the Living Theater’s landmark production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mann Ist Mann. In his 1972 book, The Presence of the Actor, Chaikin credits this role (in which a humble dockworker is transformed into a killing machine) for shattering his complacency as an actor, leading him to begin questioning everything. The business of making theater in America began to disgust him. What had up to this point been a career Chaikin now began to see as a calling. In an effort to explore new ways of making theater, he gathered together a few friends and began a series of workshops, open-ended laboratories in which games, movement exercises and improvisations were employed to “express the inexpressible.” What were the expressive powers of the actor’s body beyond language? How could the American actor escape the grip of naturalism on training and performance? As Chaikin described it, the impulse was “to get away from talking.” Open Theater was born out of these workshops.
A key feature—and radical for the time—of the work of the Open Theater was the collaborative open-ended nature of its exploration. For the first two years of its existence, there were no Open Theater productions as such, just the occasional open rehearsal or workshop. The investigation of the actor as a totally expressive instrument—voice, body, movement, gesture—was another strikingly unique feature. And when Open Theater began to make shows, the creative process of the group was modeled more on the transformation of dance and music than on conventional theater practice. Open Theater’s first major production was The Serpent, a full-length work based on Bible stories that toured the US, Europe and Israel in the late ’60s and garnered many major awards. Terminal, a full-length play with text by Susan Yankowitz, grew out of an extended workshop on death and dying, and opened in France in 1969. The Mutation Show opened in 1971, to be followed by Nightwalk, an exploration of levels of sleep and awareness. Several writers, including Megan Terry, Jean Claude van Itallie and Sam Shepard contributed; it opened in New York in 1973, the last production of the Open Theater.
After disbanding the Open Theater in 1973, Chaikin continued to create theater pieces through his own workshops, but was also increasingly invited to perform in and direct larger-scale works.
In May 1984, in the middle of a heavy schedule of directing and performing, Chaikin underwent his third open heart surgery and suffered a severe stroke during the operation. The stroke left him severely aphasic. At first he was barely able to speak. As he described his feelings in a 1989 article in Hippocrates by Bernard Ohanian, Chaikin was “very very very . . . depressioned, depressing, depressed.” But within a year after the stroke, the theater again offered Chaikin a way out: his own radio performance of a piece created for him by Sam Shepard, The War in Heaven. Other projects rapidly followed, a production of The Bald Soprano at the Cubiculo Theater; Struck Dumb, a collaboration with his Open Theater colleague, Jean Claude van Itallie, based on Itallie’s interviews with Chaikin; and a theatrical production of The War in Heaven.
In the 15 years since the stroke, Chaikin has tirelessly worked to recover his ability to compose his thoughts into coherent speech, and the theater has provided the forum where he has wrestled with, through, and sometimes around words. His body of poststroke work, which, in addition to collaborations with van Itallie and Shepard, includes directing works by Susan Yankowitz, performances of works by Samuel Beckett, as well as the stagings of new plays and revivals, is a testimony to his undiminished appetite for creative work and for the lifesaving role of the theater in his life.
Yale Repertory Theatre, March 17, 1999
Present: Joseph Chaikin, Liz Diamond, Scott Robinson and Yale Repertory dramaturg Catherine Sheehy.
We have three playwrights who work with us, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Megan Terry, and Michael Smith. We have done more than a dozen of their plays, some of them very short. Mr. van Itallie works directly with the actors, weaving his work into the context of theirs; the other writers regularly observe the workshop and bring us scripts from time to time. We have no rules about a playwright's involvement. It all depends on his interest in the particular problem we're working with at the moment. The main thing is for the writer to feel free, to have the same kind of op portunity for scope that we try to give the actors.
Sometimes we move in silence or use words or phrases, rather than connected sentences in a logical sequence. The mode of the lan guage depends on the form of the improvisation, its goals, and our own warm-up. The choreographer may suggest a movement or a rhythm. We're always looking for non-conventional move ment and physical freedom.