Friday, May 10, 2013

Remembering Robert Sickinger, a pioneer of off-Loop theater

Posted By on 05.10.13 at 01:35 PM

Robert Sickinger
  • Anita Evans/courtesy Columbia College Chicago
  • Robert Sickinger
I've been trying to figure out what to say about former Chicago theater director Robert Sickinger, who passed away yesterday at age 86, that I hadn't already said in my 1989 interview with him in the Reader. Ultimately I defer to David Mamet, who, like me, got his start in theater as a teenager at Sickinger's Hull House Theater in the 1960s.

"Bob Sickinger was one of the greatest directors I've ever known," Mamet said, in the essay "Why I Write for Chicago Theater," when he still wrote for Chicago theater. (The essay is posted on Sickinger's website) "He had a boundless passion for Beauty on the Stage, and a complete conviction that said beauty was just and exactly what he said it was. The company was the community: high-school students, housewives, businessmen and women, working people. We bathed in his pride and we became proud of ourselves. . . . We were the community talking to itself, and we learned (I learned) that when the community goes home, it had better have either been reduced to thoughtfulness or had a damn good laugh. And we learned that if you could do both, God bless you. We learned that if you want it to be perfect, strive to make it so, and don't go home until you're done."

In 1963, when Sickinger arrived in Chicago from Philadelphia to guide a theater program at the Hull House Association social service agency, "Chicago theater" consisted mostly of touring companies of Broadway shows at downtown theaters or else Chicago Park District community groups. Sickinger created a theater program that focused on the kind of cutting-edge, sometimes shocking experimental drama then emerging from Europe and off-off-Broadway. Sickinger was a burly, gruff-spoken guy who said "fuck" a lot—because, he admitted to me much later, that was the only way he could communicate to the amateur actors he directed in shows like The Connection (Jack Gelber's drama about junkies waiting for a fix), The Brig (Kenneth Brown's grim re-creation of regimented rituals in a Marine prison), Fortune and Men's Eyes (John Herbert's groundbreaking look at homosexual prison rape), Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, and Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera. Sickinger took ambitious, artistically inclined amateurs—people like Mamet, a high school student, and Jim Jacobs, an advertising copywriter who went on to coauthor the musical Grease—and instilled in them high professional standards by unorthodox means. When an actress friend of my parents, Bea Fredman, told me about Hull House Theater, I enrolled in the teenagers' apprentice program that Sickinger's then wife Selma ran, taking improv classes at night and paying for them by running lights. As Mamet says in his essay, "We were all amateurs, and so we worked nights, from six P.M. till three or four A.M."

Hull House Theater generated an appetite for homegrown, grass-roots theater in people like Mamet, Jacobs, and others who went on to establish the first professional off-Loop theaters on Lincoln Avenue in the late 60s. By that time Sickinger himself had left town, after financial pressures forced Hull House to curtail its theater program. The last time Sickinger was back here was two years ago, at a Columbia College Chicago International Theatre Symposium that I organized. He was frail and elderly, but still the sharpest and most youthful person in the room.

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