Joseph Chaikin, Director and Actor Who Founded Avant Garde Open Theatre, Dead at 67

Obituaries   Joseph Chaikin, Director and Actor Who Founded Avant Garde Open Theatre, Dead at 67 Joseph Chaikin, the avant garde actor and director who founded off-off-Broadway's Open Theatre, for which text tended to be a jumping off point for a company to experiment, died June 22 of heart failure in his Greenwich Village home, according to The New York Times.
Joseph Chaikin
Joseph Chaikin

Mr. Chaikin was 67, and his best known creations were Viet Rock and The Serpent, both for The Open Theatre. Mr. Chaikin was part of a community of theatre people that rejected conventional commercial theatre and its stodgy fourth-wall pretensions, though he did teach the Method and conventional theatre classes over the years.

The Brooklyn-born artist studied at Drake University and with Herbert Berghof and others before becoming a member of The Living Theatre (1947-63), the postwar company devoted to works that were distinctly non commercial in nature.

After leaving The Living Theatre (where he acted in Jack Gelber's The Connection), he founded The Open Theatre in 1963. Productions by The Open Theatre were sometimes by invitation only, and the company-developed works sometimes had an anything-goes feel. Mr. Chaikin and company were both praised and panned for mixing theatrical styles in productions. As a director, he was embraced for often bringing focus to what could have been chaotic.

"I felt a terrific longing for a kind of ensemble," Mr. Chaikin told author William Goldman, for the book, "The Season." "I wanted to play with actors, actors who felt a sensitivity for one another... In order to come to a vocabulary, we had to teach each other: we had no ambitions other than to meet and play around... Off-off Broadway's impulse was a terrific dissatisfaction with what is possible on Broadway... Off-off-Broadway is really an attack on the fourth wall. It want to destroy the fourth-wall business. I have difficulty believing most of what happens on Broadway. Mary Martin's like a character in a television commercial; nobody's like that."

His ideas are documented in his book, "The Presence of the Actor." Among Open Theatre's productions was Jean-Claude van Itallie's satirical trilogy, America Hurrah. The troupe was disbanded in 1973.

His work with the Open Theater included directing 14 original plays. He is the recipient of the Vernon Rice Award for outstanding contribution to the theater. And won a clutch of Obie Awards, including the first Lifetime Achievement Obie awarded by the Village Voice, in 1977.

He also earned two Guggenheim Fellowships, the National Endowment for the Art's first Annual Distinguished Service to American Theater Award, The Edwin Booth Award, and honorary Ph.D.'s from Drake University and Kent State University.

Chaikin's work was seen over the years at The Public Theater (appearing in Sam Shepard's Savage/Love and Tongues), Yale Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club (directing Endgame), the Mark Taper Forum and elsewhere.

According to his biography posted on Artservice's website, Mr. Chaikin underwent open heart surgery in 1984 and experienced a stroke which resulted in aphasia. His recovery inspired several theatrical pieces, including The War in Heaven (a collaboration with Sam Shepard), The Traveler (by Jean-Claude van Itallie), Struck Dumb (a collaboration with Jean Claude van Itallie) and Night Sky (developed with Susan Yankowitz).

In 1992 he directed Bill Irwin in an Obie-award winning production of Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett at The Public Theater. From 1994-1996, Mr. Chaikin worked with author Susan Yankowitz on a new version of Terminal, first created by the Open Theater in 1970.

Mr. Chaikin's 1996 collaboration with Shepard, When the World Was Green, premiered at the Cultural Olympiad of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and played at The Public Theater, American Repertory Theatre and Singapore Arts Festival and the Chekhov Festival in Moscow.

The Times reported he recently directed a Medea in California and last week he was in Philadelphia casting a Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival production of Uncle Vanya for 2004. At the time of his death, he was working on a workshop production of The War in Heaven, which he wrote with Shepard, according to The Times.

Survivors include sisters Shami, Miriam and Faye Pearl, and brother Ben.