New theatrical territory -- and a man who maps it out
New York — Joseph Chaikin is an actor, a director, and an occasional writer. But he thinks of himself mostly as an artistic explorer with a special interest in mapping out the new and untried.
He has pursued his explorations in excellent company -- as a member of the Living Theater and leader of the Open Theater, two legendary troupes. Now he directs the Winter Project, a group fo performers and designers who disperse throughout the year, then gather annually in New York for a period of concentrated creation.
Their offering for 1981, onstage through May 24 at La Mama ETC, is "Tourists and Refugees No. 2" -- a "revised and expanded" version of a work originally presented last year. And a magical, funny. moving show it is.
The theme is homelessness, as represented by two distinct groups. Tourists are homeless by choice, temporarily. Refugees are homeless by necessity, perhaps forever. Tourists are happy, careless, relaxed. Refugees are tense, deprived, perhaps desperate. But they are all traveling the same highways, railways, and oceans --ers running for their lives.
Physically, the show is an endless stream of people, passing and circling across a mostly bare stage. All are played by six versatile actors, identified in the program not by character or costume, but simply by the color of their hair. The first portion concentrates on the tourists, with sharp caricatures of the privileged classes enjoying their privileges. Then the refugees arrive, unveiling their sad stories, and the mood turns dark and poignant.
There's no story, just that fascinating flow of characters, ranging from outright cartoons to more complex portraits: the black woman who hides from her white surroudings, the comical businessman who doesn't dare unwind, the gawking couple who stumble on something really inexplicable, the talkative old woman whose gossip takes a comic turn, the tour guide whose chatter turns out to be pure poetry. And the refugees, who chant their woe in unearthly tongues, translated for us by compassionate companions.
It's a provocative show, and hugely entertaining. Credit goes to the actors, who not only embody the characters, but helped create them; to the designers, whose ingenious work evokes a whole world on a sparsely furnished stage; and to three inventive musicians whose contribution is indispensable.
But the most praise must be reserved for director Chaikin, who has shepherded the entire work to its present state. I visited him recently at his home in Lower Manhattan, where he discussed the show and its development.
It began as a single idea: being homeless. This is a typical method for Chaikin and his colleagues. "You start with an idea or a set of images," he says, "and a bunch of people meet around it. Then you see if it endures, if it's active.m In this case, it incubated slowly, then picked up.c
Chaikin didn't know the theme of homelessness would involve him so deeply until he started working on it. Then he found it was "important and interesting on every level." The show revolves around concepts of home that emerged during the "Incubation period" -- home as a geographical center, a place of comfort, a place of recovery, a country, a planet, the presence of a loved one, or just a simple bed.
Work on the show proceeded with predictable unpredictability. Typically, mornings were spent on warmups and improvisations -- "trnsforming something we've thought about into something we express, from spoken dialogue to imagery and stage work." After a group lunch, the members would review, "deciding what to pursue and what to eliminate." Overnight everyone would "think about things."
Chaikin is happy to work this way with the Winter Project, since "they have a lot of experience in this kind of activity, and can tolerate a lot of uncertainty from step to step." They know how to build a show one piece at a time, unlike ocnventionally trained actors who work from previously prepared texts.
"We share a strong vocabulary," says Chaikin. "I feel a director should be stimulated and inspired by the actors he works with. Some of this group are directors and writers as well as actors. And they can all thinkm -- which used to be discouraged in performers. . . ."
Unfortunately, Chaikin's work with the Winter Project may be coming to an end because of "shortages of everything, including time and money." In his early days with the Open Theater, he had 18 months to develop a show. By contrast, "Trourists and Refugees No. 2" was limited to five weeks. The production budget is small, too, not to mention salaries.
It's certain that Chaikin will keep busy. He recently earned rave reviews with his one-man performance of various "Texts" by Samuel Beckett, presented at the Public Theater here, and he will repeat that show in London next month. For the future he's thinking of a new version of "Antigone," and a piece bases on the Book of Psalms. He has things in mind, and he generally needs modest resources for his lean brand of theatrics. Yet if those resources are in too short supply, it's doubtful whether any of these works will emerge as group collaborations, a la "Tourists and Refugees no. 2," if they emerge at all.
Chaikin finds as much inspiration in musice and visual art as in other people's stagecraft. He has worked alone, and in groups, and as a team with playwright Sam Shepherd. He stands up for what he believes in -- leaving the radical and renowned Living Theater, for exaple, partly because it seemed confused to him and partly because he felt it didn't care enough about just-plain acting. While he has intense beliefs, he usually avoids "political theater," preferring to be "more a student than a speaker" when it comes to social issues.
He is concerned about the hard times now faced by exploratory theater in general -- such top groups as Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group have also hit financial trouble lately. But he is hardly daunted. Though his future plans are uncertain, Chaikin's talent is riding high. Stimulating work is sure to follow, whatever shape it eventually takes.