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Joseph Chaikin

Lawrence Bush
September 15, 2017

Joseph Chaikin, one of America’s most influential figures in theater, was born on this date in 1935. Chaikin was founder of the Open Theater in 1963, for which he directed fourteen original plays over the course of a decade, including The Serpent, a critically-acclaimed production based on Biblical texts and current events. Among his numerous awards were six Obies, two Guggenheims, and the National Endowment for the Arts’ first Distinguished Service to American Theater Award. In 1984, Chaikin underwent open-heart surgery and suffered a stroke that caused aphasia. His recuperation and recovery of speech inspired several theater pieces, including collaborations with Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Susan Yankowitz. Chaikin died of his lifelong heart disease on June 22, 2003.

“When the Vietnam War led the [Living] Theater into the streets . . . the police rode in with clubs. A glancing blow caught the side of my head. I saw a flash of red and pain and then I felt Joe’s body covering me, and I took shelter under his protection.”—Judith Malina in the Village Voice

Watch a trailer for the 2011 documentary, The Presence of Joseph Chaikin:

Watch the first part of a brief documentary about the Open Theater and its 1969 production of The Serpent:

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.