Joseph Chaikin, avant garde actor-director who founded the revolutionary Off Off Broadway’s Open Theater, died Sunday June 22 of heart failure in his Greenwich Village home. He was 67.
Best known for “Viet Rock” and “The Serpent” and for his collaborations with Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, he rejected conventional theater. Brooklyn native but Des Moines-raised, he studied at Drake U. and became a member of the Living Theatre (1947-63), after which he founded the Open Theater. Productions were sometimes invitation only and works often freewheeling. He recounted his iconoclastic ideas in his book “The Presence of the Actor” and recounted them for William Goldman’s “The Season.” But he also taught Method Acting and traditional concepts.
His directing 14 original plays for Open Theater, and his work also appeared at the Public Theater (appearing in Sam Shepard’s “Savage/Love” and “Tongues”), Yale Rep, Manhattan Theater Club (for which he directed “Endgame”) and the Mark Taper Forum.
His recovery from a stroke inspired several theatrical pieces, including “The War in Heaven” (in collaboration with Sam Shepard), “The Traveler” (by Jean-Claude van Itallie), “Struck Dumb” (in collaboration with van Itallie) and “Night Sky” (developed with Susan Yankowitz).
In 1992 he directed Bill Irwin in Obie- winning “Texts for Nothing” by Samuel Beckett at the Public,
Honors include the Vernon Rice Award for outstanding contribution to theater; five Obies, including the first Obie for Lifetime Achievement; two Guggenheim Fellowships; the National Endowment for the Arts’ first Distinguished Service to American Theater Award; the Edwin Booth Award; and honorary doctorates from Drake and Kent State.
At the time of his death, he was working on a workshop production of The War in Heaven and casting for a Philly production of “Uncle Vanya.”
Survivors include three sisters including Shami (who performed in some of his productions) and a brother.