Joseph Chaikin, an actor and director who invigorated the American stage with his experimental Open Theater in the 1960’s and early 70’s, died on Sunday at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 67.
The cause was congenital heart failure, said his sister Shami, an actress who performed in some of his productions and who was with him when he died.
As founder of an avant-garde theater company celebrated for shaking up the presentation of drama in the 1960’s, Mr. Chaikin collaborated with Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard and staged works in the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Yale Repertory, the Manhattan Theater Club, the Mark Taper Forum and many other theaters. He received five Obie awards, two Guggenheim fellowships and many other honors.
”Working together, we teach ourselves,” said Mr. Chaikin in 1963, shortly after breaking away from the anarchic Living Theater of Judith Malina and Julian Beck to found his own ensemble in a warehouse on Spring Street. With his cherubic curls, long serious brow and mix of intensity and vulnerability, he became the face of theatrical revolution, a relentless experimenter in a tatty suede jacket, ever on the prowl for new methods of dramatic expression.
Quickly, the Open Theater became America’s most storied performance group, an experiential retreat where actors and audiences tried out a new stage vocabulary blending mime, dance and storytelling, often to provocative effect.
With acting, less was more, Mr. Chaikin argued. ”Traditional acting in America has become a blend of that same kind of of synthetic ‘feeling’ and sentimentality which characterizes the Fourth of July parade, Muzak, church services and political campaigns,” Mr. Chaikin wrote in a collection of jottings, ”The Presence of the Actor” (1972). In the book, he argued that the conventional actor discovered only what he set out to seek — ”the stereotyping of ourselves.” Rather, he said, ”the most articulate performances are always those which have been pared away.”
Joseph Chaikin was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 16, 1935. His religious Russian-Jewish family moved to Des Moines, where he was schooled. He dropped out of Drake University to pursue an acting career in New York, where he studied at the Herbert Berghof Studio and won some parts in summer stock and Off Broadway before joining the Living Theater in 1959.
The Becks ran New York’s most politically engaged and avant-garde theater, and taught him, Mr. Chaikin later wrote, to regard the stage as a force for revelation and an antidote to bourgeois existence. He played the role of Leach in Jack Gelber’s corrosive drama of heroin addiction, ”The Connection” and went on to play Galy Gay, the once-mild-mannered ”human fighting machine,” in Brecht’s ”Man Is Man.” But after the Living Theater was raided by Internal Revenue agents who arrested the Becks for tax evasion, Mr. Chaikin left the company and in 1963 established the Open Theater.
Among its highly praised productions were ”The Serpent,” which mixed elements of the Garden of Eden and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ”Viet Rock,” a savage critique of the Vietnam War. The company also produced Jean-Claude van Itallie’s satirical trilogy, ”America Hurrah.”
But by 1973, Mr. Chaikin, fearing the Open Theater was becoming too ”institutionalized,” disbanded it. He went on to direct many other productions and returned to acting. He also directed a 1978 Public Theater production of ”The Dybbuk” which he said got him back to his Jewish roots.
In 1979, Mr. Chaikin starred in two Sam Shepard plays at the Public Theater, ”Savage/Love” and ”Tongues,” (on which he collaborated). In 1980, he directed Beckett’s ”Endgame” at the Manhattan Theater Club. After suffering a stroke, he returned to Off Broadway, directing the Ionesco works ”The Bald Soprano” and ”The Leader” in 1987. He continued directing through the 90’s, and, this year, did ”Medea” in Carmel, Calif.
In addition to his sister Shami, he is survived by his sisters Miriam of New York and Jerusalem and Faye Pearl of New York and a brother, Ben, of Phoenix.
Although long shadowed by heart problems, Mr. Chaikin continued to work energetically in the theater. After a five-week hospitalization in February and March, he went to Atlanta, where he was directing a production of Arthur Miller’s ”Broken Glass.” Last Thursday and Friday he was in Philadelphia auditioning actors for a Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival production of ”Uncle Vanya” for next spring. He was supposed to have a meeting at his home yesterday for a workshop production of ”The War in Heaven,” which he wrote with Mr. Shepard.
”He always felt he had to work,” Shami Chaikin said. But over the weekend, she added, he felt weak and thought he might have to use a wheelchair. ”Everything started to fail,” she said. He took a sleeping pill and went to bed, and awoke with distress. She said she asked him what was wrong.
”I don’t know,” he said. She said those were his last words and he spoke them questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.
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