Films: The Presence of Joseph Chaikin

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The Presence of Joseph Chaikin

The Presence of Joseph Chaikin

USA, 2011, 87 Minute Running Time
Genre/Subjects: Avant Garde/Experimental, Comedy, Drama, GLBT, Teen
Program: Documentary Films
Language: English

Producer: Troy Word
Editor: Encke King, Mary Lampson
Screenwriter: Encke King
Cinematographer: Troy Word
Principal Cast: Joseph Chaikin, Sam Shepard, F. Murray Abraham, Judith Malina, Raymond Barry, Ethan Hawke, Will Patton, Shami Chaikin, Peter Maloney

Troy Word's absorbing documentary gives insight into the daring life and work of the eponymous Brooklyn-born actor and director who, beginning in the turbulent 1960s, helped transform the New York theater world. “I am here by mistake,” Chaikin tells an interviewer. Indeed, the rheumatic heart disease that threatened his life from the age of six finally killed him at 68 (in 2003), but it was also the necessary engine of his art: obsessed with mortality, God, and a few other Great Questions, Chaikin never had time for the small stuff.

“Joe was open and vulnerable,” says actor-playwright Sam Shepard, a longtime friend and major figure in the film. “It was like being in the presence of a monk.” At first, the ambitious young man “wanted to be a star.” But as his interests deepened and his day-to-day existence darkened, he set out to overturn the “mythologized reality” of the stage—Stanislavski’s method included. The founder of Manhattan's innovative Open Theater, Chaikin mixed primitivism and radical politics in groundbreaking productions like The Serpent (set in the Garden of Eden), Terminal and Winter Project (which employed thematic improvisation). He used everything from yoga and masks to new forms of nonverbal expression to free up his actors.

After three traumatic open-heart surgeries, Chaikin was stricken with aphasia, which damages its victims' ability to speak. But not even that tragedy banked the fire that drove his innovation. Chaikin's onscreen admirers include playwrights (Shepard, Susan Yankowitz), actors (F. Murray Abraham, Joyce Aaron, Peter Maloney) and family members. “He was an underground hero,” Ethan Hawke tells us. “An enlightened being.”

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