On Sept. 16, 2003, Joe Chaikin would have turned 68. It’s 40 years since I met him.
In September 1963, Joe’s 28. I’m 27 and in grief over my mother’s death. My ex-lover (male) is sleeping with my ex-fiancee, and I’m feeling painfully alone. I’m sitting in a car on Greenwich Avenue with Gordon Rogoff, the critic. I complain, “No theatre will even consider producing the two short plays I’ve just written. War and Motel are too unusual.” Gordon tells me, “There’s a guy who teaches at the New School, Joe Chaikin. He’s as unhappy as you are with the realistic bias of Broadway. He’s started his own group of actors. They meet a couple of nights a week in a loft. Joe’s looking for playwrights to work with him. Why don’t you go over there?”
At 8 in the evening, I go to an old industrial building near Eighth Avenue on 24th Street. On the landing, two floors up, I find an attractive short kid with curly brown hair trying to open a big red metal door with a key. “Can you do this?” he asks with a grin. “It’s a new key.” He has startling blue eyes. I try vainly to turn the key in the lock. I wonder: Am I helping this kid break in?
The kid says, “I’ll be right back.” He disappears down the stairs. For several minutes I’m alone on the landing. Should I leave? Finally the kid returns with a woman and a young man with terrible skin and a mass of black hair who pulls a new key from his pocket. “Presto,” he shouts and opens the door.
The man and woman enter the loft. The kid follows them. Shall I go in? To no one in particular I say, “Gordon Rogoff sent me.” Unexpectedly, the kid holds the door open. Does he smile at me? I enter the big dilapidated loft. Unbidden, I sit in a detached row of empty, falling-apart theatre seats. Some 10 people drift in—mostly young, mostly from downtown.
Why can’t I keep my eyes off the kid? He leans against a wall. He pulls some ragged papers from his jeans. He looks down at the papers and mumbles. Oddly, everyone listens attentively. It dawns on me that the kid is Joe Chaikin. I’m struck by the intense quality of everyone’s attention as Joe tells the group what he’s been thinking for the past few days. He throws out a few disconnected, potent remarks—“pebbles,” he calls them, as if they’re thrown into a pond around which we all sit. Some of Joe’s “pebbles” have to do with feelings it’s taboo to express publicly—grieving, joy and fear.
No one’s paid to come here; everyone chips in to pay rent on the loft. Everyone’s alarmed by the escalating Vietnam War. The Open Theatre wants to throw off the stifling blanket of smug morality our generation grew up under in the ’40s and ’50s. How is the facade that’s been painted for us by our parents, and by preachers, politicians and advertisers—the facade that we’ve been trained to present to the world—different from how we feel? Joe looks for ways to theatrically proclaim that much of what we were taught since birth is a lie. Curiously, as we listen, everyone’s ego seems to have receded. Because of this, the room feels lighter.
Next, there’s a physical warm-up for the actors and any of us who want to join in. Moving against the background of the loft’s peeling dark blue walls, I feel as if I’m in a garden of dancing human flowers. Accepting some suggestions, Joe sets tip an improvisation exercise based on his “pebbles.” He asks that in all the exercises the actors use few words: Joe feels that words are merely the tip of the emotional iceberg.
The actors improvise with discipline and humor. Lee Worley is among them, as is Gerome Ragni, the man with the mass of black hair. Michael Smith, a playwright, takes notes. Other early Open Theatre actors include Joyce Aaron, Jim Barbosa, Paul Boesing, Sharon Gans, Cynthia Harris, Barbara Vann and Sydney Schubert Walter. Afterward, Joe critiques, then restructures the exercise, and the actors start again. One early exercise at the Open Theatre Joe calls “Inside-Outside.” It contrasts the behavior a person presents to the world with what he or she really feels.
After the workshop, I feel exhilarated and refreshed. I’m not grieving now. I’m inspired by the thought of creating plays together with actors. I want to show War and Motel to Joe and to talk with him about Artaud and Gordon Craig.
On Eighth Avenue, in the large, brightly lit Waldorf Cafeteria, over coffee, I say excitedly to Joe, “Your work is wonderful, but how do you make these acting exercises into plays?” Joe’s sweet face lights up: “I’ve been waiting for someone to come along and ask me that question.” Our collaboration and deep friendship has begun. It will last 40 years.
In addition to War and Motel, Jean-Claude van Itallie’s plays include America Hurrah, The Serpent and a dramatization of The Master and Margarita.
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