A Reading Of SHUT EYE
Looking back on it, I sort of can’t believe it happened. Joe Chaikin was one of our heros, and his book Presence of the Actor was a kind of bible for me. His experimental group The Open Theater (1963-73) was one of the templates for Pig Iron. And somehow, we lured Joe out of retirement in the year 2000 to make an original ensemble work with us.
Joe had suffered a stroke in the 1980s, and he was left with aphasia, a condition in which the regions of the brain that govern syntax were damaged. After that, he had to train himself to speak again, and for 15 years he’d abandoned what we now call “devised” work in favor of texts by Sam Shepard, Chekhov, and Beckett. It was easier for him to follow the thread of existing scripts.
But Allen Kuharski, our theater professor from Swarthmore College, arranged an introduction, and for reasons I cannot explain Joe agreed to make an original work with us. Deborah Stein, fresh out of college, was asked to write the script. Hiroshi Iwasaki joined us to design the set. And at age 26, I was co-directing a new piece with Joe Chaikin.
Here are some words from Joe, circa 1973:
“The study of character, like any study where one aims to go to the root, requires a new discipline. Since there is no existing discipline to use, an acting company must invent its own.”
This was Pig Iron’s touchstone, our reason for being. I’m surprised to find that it still seems true to me now, more than 20 years after I first read it.
We asked him, What do you want this piece to be about? He was 40 years our senior, and we put ourselves in his hands. Joe spoke in short, staccato haikus. So our script, the only text we had to begin creating Shut Eye was:
“Day… ordinary… office … working… eating… ordinary. Then ….later … night … sleeping… sleeping… dreaming…. Extraordinary.”
We couldn’t ask him to clarify. So we spent weeks playing with “Ordinary… Dreaming… Extraordinary.” We laughed a lot. “95% funny,” he instructed us. We could get on board with that.
We opened Shut Eye on September 12, 2001, at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. The night before, many of us had gathered at David Brick’s house, trying to comprehend what was happening, watching the news, hearing rumors, calling our families. We didn’t know if it was appropriate to open this work of fiction the day after 9/11. Or if anyone would come out to see it. No one really knew what was the right thing to do that day, or that week. But we went ahead and performed it, and it felt strangely resonant, and comforting, at that moment.
After that, the show toured to a few more places. To the Edinburgh Fringe, to Z Space in San Francisco, to DTW in New York and to several cities in Poland. In each town in Poland we’d have to borrow our 20-foot ladder from the local fire department to do the show.
Pig Iron changed after Joe. We trusted ourselves more. The work became more personal, and less stylish. Joe died in 2003. We were nothing short of blessed to have found our way to a rehearsal room with him. Miss you, Joe.
- Dan Rothenberg
Quinn Bauriedel, Cassandra Friend, Suli Holum, Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg, Dito van Reigersberg
Original music by James Sugg
Sound by Nick Rye
Text by Deborah Stein & Pig Iron
Directed by Dan Rothenberg and Joe Chaikin
More on Joe Chaikin:
Joseph Chaikin was an American theatre director, actor, and playwright who invigorated the American stage with his experimental company the Open Theater in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Chaikin collaborated with Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard and staged works in the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Yale repertory, the Manhattan Theater club, the Mark Taper Forum and many other theaters. He received five Obie awards, two Guggenheim fellowships and many other honors.