When I was in high school, a teacher of mine named Ray Fulmer gave me a box of theater books that he was clearing out of a closet before his retirement. In that box I found lots of acting editions of old plays, books of monologues for students, a few prizes (Joe Egg!), and The Presence of the Actor by Joseph Chaikin. I'd never head of Chaikin, even though I had just begun the inevitable obsession with Beckett that all isolated theater geeks enjoy during their theatrical awakening. The book, deeply personal, insightful, filled with evocative black and white photographs, was thrilling. Other books about acting and theater that I enjoyed at the time - Uta Hagen, Stanislavsky, David Mamet, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski - all seemed dogmatic, finger-waving or too theoretical compared to Chaikin's book. Chaikin seemed more intrigued than certain, more astonished and political than academic or philosophical. He seemed to come from a place that I recognized.
I was too young at the time to really know why the book struck such a chord. All I knew is that the idea of the Open Theater, the idea of the way Chaikin worked and believed in theater, created a sense of what theater could be that outpaced any actual theatrical experience I'd ever had or had previously been offered to me. I still imagine my work in the way Chaikin inspired me to imagine, and believe in the importance of plays and actors in the way that he inspired me to believe.
Which is why I was so thrilled to discover the existence of the as-yet-unreleased documentary The Presence of Joseph Chaikin by Troy Word. The film, which is still seeking release and to complete financing, is absolutely wonderful. I cannot wait to see how audiences respond to it, and how much good it will do for young and experienced theatermakers alike once it has wide distribution.
In service of that, director Troy Word took a little time to talk to me about his film, his hopes for it, and his relationship with Chaikin's work. Please enjoy and share.
Joseph Chaikin's work with the Open Theater, his collaborations with Sam Shepard, and his book The Presence of the Actor are significant parts of the history of New York and American theater, but I would guess that he's still relegated to cult status to most people. Why do you think Chaikin remained, during his lifetime, largely outside the mainstream?
When Joe arrived in New York in the 1950‘s he wanted to become a rich and famous actor. But his role as Galy Gay in the Living Theater’s production of Brecht’s “Man is Man” changed his life forever. Inspired by Brecht, Joe abandoned his pursuit of fame. He had many opportunities to work in mainstream commercial plays and movies, but that wasn’t his quest. He committed his life to experimental theater and exploring new ways of communicating. He felt commercial success corrupted the discovery process. I think that was the major reason he disbanded the Open Theater at the height of their fame.
What inspired you, personally, to create this film?
I met Joe at a party late in his life. The hosts were friends of mine and introduced us. Our conversation was limited due to Joe’s Aphasia. But he had an amazing presence. His eyes were clear and penetrating. He used very few words, but I felt an instant connection with him. Weeks later my friends gave me a copy of the recording “War in Heaven” that Joe did with Sam Shepard. I found it to be incredibly moving. I wanted to learn more and started researching him. I have no background in theater, but as I learned more, I became obsessed with his story. His artistic quest, the constant threat of mortality, and the perseverance to overcome Aphasia is inspirational.
Chaikin's personal story - his childhood trauma and lifetime of illness - is a large part of the narrative of the film. How do you feel his brushes with death and dying informed him as an artist?
As a child, Joe’s heart was severely damaged by Rheumatic Fever. In an effort to save his life, he was sent from Brooklyn to Florida and the National Children’s Cardiac Center. There, surrounded by children who were dying, he was separated from everyone and everything he knew. It was in this environment he started creating plays with the other children. Theater happens in the present. I think that had a powerful resonance for young boy faced with mortality. The immediacy of theater was connected to survival for Joe. His life long quest exploring that immediacy sustained him.
Ethan Hawke tells a powerful story of Chaikin, as director, insisting that the cast perform Shepard's The Late Henry Moss only days after September 11th, 2001. What do you think artists working today can learn from Chaikin's zeal?
For me, that is one of the most powerful moments in the film. Until the end of his life, Joe never lost his faith in the power of theater to change the world.
What most surprised you about Chaikin's life and work as you crafted this film?
I was amazed at the incredible list of people that admired and collaborated with Joe. Some of the most important artists and thinkers of the late 20th century. Beckett, Miller , Sontag, Shepard, Grotowski, Brook, Campbell, Genet, Ginsberg, Paley the list goes on and on. In fact, the last thing written by Beckett before he died was dedicated to Joe.
What are your hopes with the film?
First of all, that it is finally released. It has been a 10 year journey getting the film finished. We are working to raise the final funds to pay for the Archival footage rights which are the most expensive part of the film. The film has been financed by me with some help from Joe’s family. We are exploring a Kickstarter campaign for the final push to get the film released. I want to try and make it available to the widest possible audience. It has been almost impossible to access material on Joe and his work. I hope the film will serve as a window into his life and work and inspire a new generation of theater artists.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What's your background?
I am a commercial still photographer specializing in Fashion, Beauty, and Celebrity photography. Before I started this project I had no real background in Theater or Documentary film. Now I am obsessed with both.
I'm sure you've watched many works directed by Chaikin or featuring him in order to create this film. Could you highlight works for us that you feel truly captured the best of his art?
What is interesting to me about the Open Theater work is that it still feels very modern. Maybe it’s the deceptive simplicity of the stagecraft. But I think the major themes of the works still resonate today. “The Serpent” is very powerful. Of the later works , “War In Heaven” was my inspiration for the film.
What do you hope audiences learn or feel when they watch The Presence of Joseph Chaikin?
Above all, I hope they are as inspired by his life as I was. He touched and inspired so many great thinkers. It is impossible to quantify the extent of his influence. He was a true artist, dedicated to the journey of discovery, not fame or fortune. That is something we all can learn from.
The website and trailer for the documentary can be found at the link below