Joseph Chaikin, who has died aged sixty-seven, was a beautiful dreamer. Right up to his death, when the weak heart he had suffered from since childhood finally failed, this purest and most visionary of theatre directors was still questing after truth in the strangest of places.
Even after a year of creative activity that would have sapped the energy of men half his age, especially one struck near dumb with aphasia, Joe, always Joe, was auditioning for a new production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. That it never made it to completion is a strangely fitting swansong, because Joe never liked things to be too set in stone. He preferred the bloodrush creativity of rehearsals, and, if things ever slipped into formula, he'd likely as not mess everything up before moving on to something else, as he did with The Open Theatre, the legendary troupe he led, only to disband when it looked like they might go mainstream.
It could be a frustrating tendency for those around him. At times, even the audience seemed like an intrusion. But anyone who saw Shut Eye, Chaikin's 2002 Edinburgh Festival Fringe collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Co at the Traverse Theatre, will recognise that Joe Chaikin's truth came not from easy realism, but from free-association based flights of fancy and lateral thinking rooted in the experimental spirit of the 1960s New York avant-garde scene. The result, often in collaboration with major artists such as Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, was a woozily soporific sense of magic - playful and free on every level.
Joe Chaikin grew up in 1940s Brooklyn, a Russian-Jewish boy imbued with a depth, stillness and imagination beyond his years. There was authority there, too. He'd gather playmates on the streets and perform little playlets of Tarzan, a macho matinee idol whom Chaikin, weak with rheumatic fever, would never be. It was through the illness, from which he would never fully recover, that he spent two years in a children's hospital. Here he continued his fledgling play-acting, and on one occasion had one group of patients mime a narrative's actions while another group read out the script. It was Chaikin's first act of anti-naturalism. He was 10.
By the time he joined The Living Theatre in 1959 to perform in Jack Gelber's drug buddy Beatnik classic, The Connection, Chaikin had already dropped out of university in Des Moines and joined an artistic underground, which, steeped in the language of social revolution, was on the cusp of cutting loose.
By 1963, cellar-bar culture was at its height and the world was ripe for change, as Chaikin and a loose assemblage of fellow travellers pushed boundaries in makeshift venues, until, at a meeting of progressive thinking actors, and playwrights, The Open Theatre was born. It was open in that it embraced then fresh philosophical, political, and artistic avant-garde trends, and seemed to be setting the template for new forms of expression. Partly through the company he kept, which included the likes of Peter Brook on the RSC's 1966 anti-Vietnam play, US, Chaikin's work became legend. But he was smart enough to know when to call it quits, lest something become an institutionalised museum, disbanded The Open Theatre in 1973.
In 1975, Chaikin underwent a first round of open-heart surgery, but by the following year was refreshed enough to found another company, The Winter Project. His 1979 works with Sam Shepard, Tongues and Savage/Love, tethered a primal journey to the urge within to even less explicit narratives than before.
Chaikin's next collaboration with Shepard, 1984's The War in Heaven, a monologue for an angel who dies the same day he is born, was also seen in a new production much later on a Scottish stage, this time by 7:84. By the time Chaikin performed the original, however, his affinity with absurdism saw him somewhat prophetically perform Beckett's Texts For Nothing in 1981. He shut up shop on The Winter Project in 1983, and, in May 1984, endured a second bout of open-heart surgery. The strain prompted a stroke, which in turn left him aphasic. Chaikin went on, spent a year learning to say ''yes'', and gradually, painfully, adding on a ''no'' you suspect he didn't use as much.
In the years that followed, Chaikin performed The War in Heaven worldwide; taught and directed to inspirational acclaim; appeared in Me and My Brother, a movie by Robert Franks, alongside Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and, in the last year alone, directed Medea and a play by Arthur Miller, as well as co-directing Shut Eye.
While Chaikin didn't make the Edinburgh trip for Shut Eye, preferring to stay in New York to work on his next gig, anyone who engaged him in conversation on the telephone will have been thrilled and humbled by the experience. Here was a man still alive to his own sense of wonder, and who spoke of Shepard and Beckett as his friends. This wasn't the name-dropping of some counter-cultural ambulance chaser claiming kin, but was the musing of an artistic equal, and a seeker who knew a thing or two as well.
What turned out to be Beckett's last poem before his own death in 1989, What Is the Word, was written for Chaikin in the same stuttering, two-steps-forward, one-leap-back syntax. There couldn't have been a warmer, more heartfelt tribute to a man whose whole life was about asking why as much as what.
Though Chaikin's final production never saw the light of day, the final speech of Uncle Vanya, in which Sonya makes an impassioned advocacy for life's struggle in the face of adversity, is one of a million epitaphs that could apply to Chaikin. Her final words are: ''We shall rest.''
Joe Chaikin never rested. Like Sonya, he knew the value of living, and, in the work he left behind, is living still in a place where ''what'' is the only word that matters.
The Herald, July 3rd 2003