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Joseph Chaikin, 67; Led Experimental Theater Movement of 1960s-70s

June 27, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Chaikin, a leader of the experimental theater movement of the 1960s and '70s whose work as an actor and director and as the founder of New York's Open Theater group earned him international recognition and three Obie awards, died Sunday of heart failure at his home in New York City. He was 67.

Chaikin had struggled with health problems from childhood, when rheumatic fever damaged one of his heart valves. In later years he went through three open-heart surgeries, and in 1984, he suffered a stroke that caused aphasia, making it difficult for him to speak for the rest of his life.

Despite repeated physical setbacks, he worked continuously. Two days before his death he auditioned actors for an upcoming production of "Uncle Vanya," the Anton Chekhov play he planned to direct next spring.

"Joe was an inspired man of the theater," said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where "The Traveler," based on Chaikin's life, had its premiere in March 1987. Jean-Claude van Itallie wrote the play and collaborated with Chaikin on a number of other productions.

"Joe spoke from the heart, the very heart that was failing him," Davidson told the Los Angeles Times this week. "In his worst aphasiac moments when you couldn't understand the words, you could still understand him. His passion to communicate and share his view of the world was that strong."

Chaikin's name was not as well-known as those of some of his peers in experimental theater, but colleagues placed him in the ranks of England's Peter Brook, who attracted leading reviews in the early 1970s when he changed the times and settings of Shakespeare plays that he directed.

Chaikin was drawn to more edgy classics, particularly the works of Samuel Beckett. He corresponded with Beckett, who, before his death in 1989, wrote a poem about Chaikin. Chaikin also collaborated often with playwright Sam Shepard, exploring their mutual fascination with destruction.

As an actor, Chaikin was most at home on a near-empty stage. His dark curly hair and wide eyes were all he needed to convey wonder, confusion and deep passion. Even before his stroke, he preferred playwrights who treated the spoken word as an obstruction. Eugene Ionesco was an early favorite.

By 1970, when Chaikin and his Open Theater group had won several Obie Awards -- top honors for off-Broadway productions -- the artistic directors of big name venues began to court him. He took it as a sign that his troupe was flirting with commercial success and disbanded it. Money and fame were the ruination of artistic risk-takers, he believed.

"We have wanted to continually transform and at no point to harden one approach," Chaikin wrote in a statement explaining the decision in 1973. "We can no longer be transitional and in progress without becoming an institution."

Playwright Susan Yankowitz was part of the Open Theater group from 1969.

"Joe was not even tempted by commercial success," she told The Times this week. "He was a pure artist who did the most daring and intelligent work of anyone. He never compromised his integrity."

Yankowitz continued to collaborate with Chaikin after the group disbanded, including writing "Night Sky," a play about aphasia, which Chaikin directed in 1991. Chaikin had asked her to write it so that people would better understand his ailment.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1935, Chaikin first dreamed of being an actor while he was recovering from rheumatic fever in a rehabilitation home for children in Florida, where he lived apart from his family for several months.

"Playing is similar to theater," he told The Times in 1987. "Imagination comes from play. In the beginning there was the play, the mask, the body and the brain."

Before he reached his teens, his family moved to Des Moines, where his father taught Hebrew and Russian. Chaikin attended Drake University as a philosophy student and performed in Shakespeare plays at the university theater.

After three years, he left Drake and moved to New York City. In 1959, he joined the Living Theater, a fringe troupe whose work was inspired by political and social issues. Four years later, he formed the Open Theater, joined by one of his three sisters, actress Shami Chaikin.

Although it performed mostly in downtown loft spaces and church halls, the troupe occasionally performed off-Broadway to generally critical praise. One of the productions was of Megan Terry's "Viet Rock," an abrasive series of antiwar vignettes. Another was "America Hurrah" by van Itallie, a musical satire that was performed in New York and later in London, where it was hugely profitable. Disturbed by its success, Chaikin vowed he would never go mainstream again. From then on, his group survived on grants and gifts from patrons.

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