Tribute Marks Chaikin's Life on the Fringe


"Most people I know who are seriously interested in the theater don't really like it very much."

--Joseph Chaikin, from his book "The Presence of the Actor"


To read Joseph Chaikin's resume, you'd think him exotic. The last thing Samuel Beckett wrote before he died, "What Is the Word?," was a poem dedicated to him and for him to perform.

But Chaikin hardly gives the impression of the avant-garde iconoclast whose aesthetic ideas and principles have made him a singular figure in noncommercial theater.

At 60, he is slight and gentle, his manner Confucian. He sits listening on his boombox to Haydn piano sonatas in a sparsely furnished living room in a gated community near the university where he's staying during the symposium.

It makes you wonder how he got his fierce reputation as one of America's most uncompromising and innovative theater artists of the past 30 years.

Yet it also helps explain his stature as a much-beloved actor, director, theorist and writer whose career is being honored today and Saturday in a national symposium at UC San Diego.

To interview Chaikin, moreover, is no ordinary experience.

Because of a stroke suffered in 1984 while undergoing open-heart surgery--his third life-saving cardiac operation to repair a heart valve damaged by childhood rheumatic fever--Chaikin is aphasic and partially paralyzed.

He speaks in clipped, sometimes broken sentences, as though navigating a foreign language. His simple, declarative remarks seem yoked together by intense feelings rather than perfectly correct syntax.

Their meaning, though, is unabashedly clear.

"Tell you story," he says, recalling an emblematic experience from his youth in Iowa, where he grew up after his Russian-Jewish immigrant family left New York's Lower East Side. "One guy. High school friend. Is good friend of mine. He talked to me about things.

"He was invited to see my family. My friend doesn't like Jewish, he said. I lied: 'Well, I'm half Jewish.' A lie. Then I went to see his uncle. It was on the farm. They were discussing anti-Jewish. I went outside. Never talk to friend again."

Anecdotal material like that may well come out of the symposium, given the affectionate regard in which he is held. But the chief features of the two-day affair will be a new Chaikin-directed production of Susan Yankowitz's "Terminal" (originally staged in 1969 by his groundbreaking Open Theater ensemble); short performances by Chaikin and several longtime associates; a cabaret act by critic and playwright Eric Bentley, and panel discussions of Chaikin's impact on the theater by experts drawn from around the country.

Though Sam Shepard, one of Chaikin's major collaborators, will not be there (he has rehearsals in New York for an upcoming Broadway production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Buried Child"), many others will. They include Yankowitz and playwright Jean Claude van Itallie, theater scholar Gordon Rogoff, directors Ellen Stewart of New York's Cafe La Mama and Mame Hunt of San Francisco's Magic Theatre, actors Shami Chaikin (his sister) and Ronnie Gilbert, from the original Weavers folk group.

"Joe's theater I like to think of as the theater of the future--not to make it a grandiose term," Bentley said earlier this week by phone from New York.

Bentley, who also is a theater historian, teacher, preeminent English adapter of Bertolt Brecht's work and for many years part of Brecht's coterie, cites Chaikin as a model "for those who think of themselves as avant-garde or experimental or whatever word is used for furthering the art of the theater in the midst of show business and for being distinct from show business."

Chaikin, who admits to dreaming of Broadway stardom in his youth, made his first mark as an actor with Julian Beck and Judith Malina's activist troupe in Greenwich Village, the Living Theater, during the late '50s and early '60s.

He played the lead there in Jack Gelber's "The Connection," a sensationalized 1959 play about drug addicts, and gave an acclaimed, Obie Award-winning performance as Galy Gay in Brecht's "Man Is Man," among many other notable roles.

"Joe offers something to the young people today who feel discontent with Hollywood and Broadway and who want a 'pure' theater," said Bentley, whose association with Chaikin goes back to 1965, when Chaikin played his second Obie-winning role (outside the Living Theater) as Coolie in another Brecht play, "The Exception and the Rule," which Bentley adapted and coproduced.

"Joe got out of purely political theater early on by doing such things as 'Terminal,' " Bentley pointed out. "I think of Joe's move as not just smart but as deep.

"Fringe theater is no longer political in the simple sense of making propaganda for some immediate political end. The Living Theater is finished. When it appears today, it has no political thrust. It's for the museum. I think this is Joe's cue to those who think of themselves as avant-garde."

Chaikin's entire theatrical canon--epitomized by "Terminal's" buoyant, fugal orchestration and nonnarrative, imagistic style--may in fact be characterized as total flight from commercial, middlebrow theater.

"I prefer not naturalistic," he said, noting that he and Shepard are co-writing a play about cooking called "A Chef's Fable" for the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta this summer.

Still, Chaikin likes such mainstream work as Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," which he also is planning to direct in the future, in addition to the early plays of Tennessee Williams, which he has directed, and Edward Albee's plays--especially "Counting the Ways" (which he calls "very funny"), "The Sandbox" ("very beautiful") and Albee's adaptation of "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson McCullers.

"What Joe means, I think, is that he's distant from the sort of theater most Americans consider typical modern drama," Bentley says. "I think he means that one has to see modern life at a remove from domestic drama."

* "Joseph Chaikin: A Life in the Theatre" begins at 10 a.m. today with an introduction by Allan Havis and continues through Saturday night with panels and performances at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla. Registration: $85; $45 for UC faculty and staff; $25 for all students. Fee includes admission to all lectures, panel discussions and one "Terminal" performance. Single tickets to individuals events: $6-$12. (619) 534-4574.

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