Theater 34.1 (2004) 2-3
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Joseph Chaikin, 1935-2003
I didn't know Joe Chaikin before his aphasic stroke in 1983. In fact, I didn't meet him until we were brought together by fate and Gordon Rogoff and Morton Lichter in 1995 at Exiles Theater, their school and festival in Cork City, Ireland. Gordon, my colleague at Yale and a member of the Open Theater in its heady early days, somehow suspected that I might be able to insinuate myself as dramaturg into the updating of their seminal work, Terminal, which the reconstituted company was there to work on. I had no such confidence. Here were people with a collaboration stretching back nearly three decades. Along with the Living Theater, they were the American theater movement of the sixties. I had read the books about them and seen their photographs and videos in theater history class. Surely I'd be tolerated but ignored. But what I found in Susan Yankowitz, Paul Zimet, Tina Shepard, Ellen Maddow, Shami Chaikin, and Joe were generous artists whose confidence in their shared experience only made them—how apt—more open. They let me in, in no small part, I suspect because Joe was so quick to turn and ask, "What do you think?" [End Page 2]
After that first meeting, I worked with Joe on other projects from workshops to full productions, including another evocation of Terminal that toured Europe and was shown in New York at PS 122, an evening of two Arthur Miller one-acts, the production of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss at the Signature Theater Company in New York, and The Glass Menagerie at the Yale Rep. Across these extraordinarily varied projects, Joe's good humor and passionate decency were in constant evidence, not only because he was a nice guy, but because they were intrinsic to his directing method. Working on these deeply disturbing family dramas, despite his constant protestation ("I am antinaturalism") Joe took pains to tweeze out the good in every character, which could occasionally drive his actors to distraction. "You love your brother/sister/mother/
the guy." "But I'm yelling at them!"
Joe loved to laugh, and—perhaps even more than laughing himself—he loved to make his audiences laugh. It was therapeutic and he knew it; his life was proof—laboratory tested. I knew this for certain when he asked me to go with him to a Film Forum screening of Robert Frank's 1968 film, Me and My Brother. Up on the screen, the prestroke Joe Chaikin spoke and acted without halting; beside me, this Joe was smiling, even laughing, to see himself as he had been. It brought to mind his constant refrain to actors, designers, dramaturgs, artistic directors: "I'm supporting comedy." It's also what he knew about Beckett that is so tough to teach young theater artists: "I can't go on. I'll go on." Now that's comic.
When Joe knew a moment had played itself out, he had a two-word directive
for the actors: "And shift." Occasionally with a maestro's gift for timing, he would add a luftpause to it: "And . . . shift." Now Joe Chaikin has transitioned; those angels he and Sam Shepard concocted for Joe to perform in The War in Heaven have come and carried his soul away with them. It's we who are left darkling. To be sad Joe's gone, that's only natural, but he wouldn't want it to last. Let sorrow have its moment of sway and . . . shift.
Catherine Sheehy is chair of the Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism Department at the Yale School of Drama and resident dramaturg of the Yale Repertory Theatre. She is a former associate editor of American Theatre and former managing editor of Theater.