On Beauty: Joseph Chaikin, the Open Theater, and Postmodern American Theater

Julia Smith's picture

            During a class discussion, we looked at a Mark Rothko painting that was intended to invoke only an emotional response, and asked ourselves whether or not we could help making up a "story" to accompany the painting. One student said that she was reminded of a lake where her family used to have a house. This unintentional human response, trying to make meaning out of art, is puzzling to both artists and audiences around the world. Artists are now trying to eliminate the audience’s likeliness of "storytelling" and instead trying to make the audience generate more of a "feeling". Ideal art right now, therefore, is more abstract than literal. Although this movement is occurring in all art forms, I am choosing to narrow it down to the theater because it is my field of study. Most postmodern theater artists are now trying to separate themselves from "storytellers"; they are moving toward an abstract, emotionally based form. Chaikin helped to revolutionize postmodern theater by first starting to move away from storytelling. His ideals of natural human emotion, physicality, and ensemble hit exactly what we have been talking about in class: ideal art is emotion, not a story. America is moving toward an emotionally based new form of popular art.

            First, I want to define exactly what I mean by “storytelling” in the context of theater. The modern period of theater and acting is mostly due to Constantin Stanislavsky’s Method (and the derivation of that “method acting” system in America that is taught as a basic technique in most conservatories and universities.) In the 1890s, the Moscow Art Theater began to stage “natural” plays (realistic plays depicting everyday life) by playwrights such as Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen. (Roose-Evans 8). These plays told a specific, easy to follow plot arc, and the emphasis in the writing was about the internal psychological understanding and motivation of the characters rather than the action of the characters. Therefore, to accompany this new, modern style of theater, a new acting method had to be developed. Stanislavky’s method stressed the motivation and internal thought process of character. He believed that most of the work of an actor should happen in the mind rather than in the body. A big part of this is “emotion memory”, where an actor incorporates old feelings from an event in their past into the role that they are playing. ). Because of this, and the transference of this idea into American technique, many American actors have little training in physical acting, and plays have become more structured because there is less freedom. Moreover, Stanislavksy also urged actors to think about the action structure of a play as a continuous plot line; the actors should think about where their character is going and where he or she has been (Worthen 35). Therefore, Stanislavsky and the modern acting method stresses storytelling both for the actor and for the audience. The shift to a naturalistic play shifted acting style to carry the story. This form of theater was assimilated into modern theater by American playwrights, most notably Eugene O’Neill. It became, and it still is, engrained in our modern culture to want a plot, to want to be able to see a structure, or to make one up if one is missing. Joseph Chaikin aimed to change that.

            In 1963, Chaikin created a new company as part of the Off-Off Broadway movement. They decided to call themselves The Open Theater because they were open to change and progression, and hoped that the group would do so (Aronson 87). Chaikin had been a critically acclaimed actor in the Living Theater, a performance troupe who believed that in modern theater, mind was separated from body. Joseph Chaikin brought some of the things he learned in the Living Theater to the Open Theater. His main goal was to express emotion as an ensemble. He believed that the main problem with the Stanislavsky method was that it was too centered on the individual; each actor prepared for a scene himself or herself, each actor traced through the plot from the point of view of themselves, etc. Chaikin’s foremost goal for the Open Theater was to conceive and produce theater as an ensemble (Chaikin 192). Without the use of a playwright, this approach made his art less structured and more abstract, because the actors thought about the entire production instead of individuality. Ideas and characters became more fluid and collective because the actors were developing one giant piece instead of just forming their individual characters. In this way, the Open Theater began to express non-linear, story-less theater, and a goal for the Open Theater became for the audience “to feel rather than to think” (Roose-Evans 109). Because the revolutionary, postmodern theories of the Open Theater had such a significant impact on the theater community, they began to slowly shift the emphasis of theater from storytelling to emotion.

            Another difference between Stanislavsky and Chaikin is that Chaikin emphasized the physical. He did not even care about language. He wanted the actors to think outside of themselves as opposed to the intense psychological, internal work that Stanislavsky advocated. He was against “emotion memory” because he believed that it confined the actor, something he learned from the Living Theater (Chaikin 194). Therefore, he developed a system for developing plays based on improvisational exercises. He believed that the key to a truly organic performance was to have actors trained in non-verbal improvisation, because it would develop an actor’s understanding and response to a situation, which will in turn unconsciously generate psychological narrative. (Roose-Evans 108). These two main methods generated not only plays without a generic plot, but also plays without much verbal communication, which let the audience experience an abstract, emotional experience. This is the difference that Zadie Smith advocates in On Beauty, that we should be emotional and not intellectual, that we should be Chaikin and not Stanislavsky. This is the future of American art.

            Although this sounds wonderful, there are a few cracks in Chaikin’s (and possibly Zadie Smith’s) theory. First of all, the Open Theater was created as a space free of public pressure. Chaikin wanted his actors to work untraditionally without the need to present themselves to an audience; he wanted them to work for themselves and disregard popular demand (Aronson 88). But, because the ensemble was focused on themselves instead of the audience, their art was not always meaningful or coherent enough to be enjoyed or appreciated. Because art is supposed to have an intended audience, perhaps Chaikin did not think this through enough. Postmodern art is still about generating an emotion from an audience, so energy cannot be spent only on the performance ensemble.  Another problem is that, because of the instability of the process and because of a lack of a playwright, works can be developed for months and still never be presentable to an audience. It is a very variable process. Because of these factors, conflict with playwrights, and monetary issues, Chaikin closed the Open Theater in 1973 (Kuharski 145).  Although the Open Theater lasted only ten years, its impact on the theater community was huge, and Chaikin’s work was not finished. He formed two other groups: The Winter Project and “Night Voices”, which continued to explore his techniques. In his later career, he also began to collaborate with some famous playwrights such as Sam Shepard and Samuel Beckett to create abstract forms of theater with a script (Kuharski 154).  This is certainly the direction that theater is going. Postmodern theater is shifting, but playwrights still need to be included. Playwrights can be part of the process, and words can add as much abstract emotion as physicality.

            This is the point where theater exists right now; we are still trying to figure out the best way to accurately express ourselves to the audience. I do not think that question will ever be able to be definitively answered, but at least we are heading in a certain direction. The future of theater rests in our contemporary communities. Many modern, critically acclaimed companies learned their improvisational techniques from Chaikin and his followers, including two prominent Philadelphia based groups, Headlong Dance Theater and Pig Iron Theatre Company. They continue to promote what I am sure will be the future of theater, and are paving the way for popularity of a new kind of drama.







Works Cited



Aronson, Arnold. American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History. New York: Routledge,             2000.


Chaikin, Joseph and Schechner, Richard. “The Open Theatre”. The Tulane Drama             Review, Vol. 9, No. 2. (Winter, 1964), pp. 191-197. JSTOR<             <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0886-            800X%28196424%299%3A2%3C191%3ATOT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H>


Kuharski, Allen. “Joseph Chaikin and the Presence of the Dramaturg”. Dramaturgy in             American Theater: A Source Book. Ed. Susan Jones, Geoffrey S. Proehl, and             Michael Lupu. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1997.


Roose-Evans, James. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook. New             York: Universe Books, 1984.


Worthen, William B. “Stanislavsky and the Ethos of Acting”. Theatre Journal, Vol. 35,             No. 1, Aporia: Revision, Representation and Intertextual Theatre. (Mar., 1983),             pp. 32-40. JSTOR < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0192-            2882%28198303%2935%3A1%3C32%3ASATEOA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X>





Angela's picture


It's a myth that Stanislavski stood for psychological theater. He began his research by trying it out, which influenced Americans like Strasberg, but ultimately threw it out in favor of a more movement based technique.


Anne Dalke's picture

On the Evolution of American Theater


what interests me about your project is of course your willingness to try out the ideas about literary evolution, which we've been exploring in our course, in the domain you where you are studying: that of theater. You give a useful overview of the history of the evolution of dominant theatrical forms, from the Stanislavsky Method (which focused on internal psychological motivation), through Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater (which was more collective, non-linear, language-less and story-less), to contemporary pressures to make art that is meaningful and coherent enough for audience appreciation.

All interesting (and much information I didn't have before, so thanks). Where you leave me puzzled is in your finale. The claims that theater-makers are "still trying to figure out the best way to express yourselves to audiences," a "question that will not ever be able to be definitively answered," seems to call for a diversity of theatrical forms, and a delay in pronouncing which one(s) have been most generative, a call that surely can only be made retrospectively. So I'm confused by your prediction that the use of playwrights--and words!-- is "certainly the direction that theater is going," and by your saying that we are "heading in a certain direction," which you are "sure will be the future of theater." How can you be sure?

Your final prediction is that improvisational companies are "paving the way for popularity of a new kind of drama." Again: how can you be so sure? What's the data for that? Aren't most audiences conservative? Don't they/we mostly prefer simple, comprehensible story lines? Yep, I think along w/ Brecht's Galileo that "Knowledge is Only Won Through Doubt."

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