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Theater People: in the beginning there was Robert Sickinger



These days, small, independent, and adventurous theaters are so much a part of this city's fabric it would seem a desolate place without them; but when Robert Sickinger came here in 1963, what he found was just that. "I believe in the grass-roots theater," he said then. "You can't build an interest in the theater in a city by importing shows. You've got to grow them from within."

What seems so obvious now was akin to a cry in the wilderness 25 years ago. And Sickinger was a controversial figure--an idealistic prophet to some, a self-promoting charlatan to others.

Today, not many people here know of Sickinger or the stir he created during the six years he served as director of Hull House Theater. Yet the development of a strong network of legitimate professional theaters throughout Chicago's neighborhoods is a direct result of the seeds he planted.

Sickinger came to Chicago in 1963 at the request of Paul Jans, the new executive director of the Hull House Association. The two had worked together at the Lighthouse Settlement in Philadelphia, where Sickinger had directed an experimental studio theater.

In his Northwestern University doctoral thesis "Hull-House Theatre: An Analytical and Evaluative History," Stuart J. Hecht cites a proposal by Sickinger and Jans in which they call the city a "theatrical desert." Sickinger intended Hull House to become an oasis in that desert by providing an alternative to the diet of Broadway road shows and conventional community groups that then constituted Chicago theater.

Sickinger built under the Hull House aegis an elaborate network of activity including several theaters, a touring company, a "chamber theater" that performed staged readings in people's homes, acting classes, and a writers' workshop. The hub of all this was the Jane Addams Center, located in a former American Legion hall at Broadway and Belmont; the Hattie Callner Memorial Theater, named after an associate of Jane Addams's, opened in 1963 with Frank Gilroy's much-admired offBroadway hit Who'll Save the Plowboy?

Over the next six years, Sickinger emerged as a pioneer of new American and European drama and a director noted for bold, visually strong productions. Under his guidance, Hull House Theater presented local premieres of plays by Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, and Leroi Jones, among others. There were also occasional shockers like John Whiting's The Devils (about sexual obsession among medieval nuns), Jack Gelber's The Connection (dope addiction), and John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes (homosexual prison rape). And always there was the work of Samuel Beckett, whose exercises in existentialist comedy often confounded both critics and audiences.

With the classics, Sickinger opted for nontraditional productions. His mounting of Sophocles' Electra was set in a 19th-century funeral parlor. His version of Albert Camus' Caligula portrayed the Roman emperor as the head of a motorcycle gang who lip-synched to "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." "People weren't seeing theater like that in Chicago," says Roberta Custer, an actor and writer now affiliated with Remains Theatre who got her start in Sickinger's shows. "He was a very instinctual director, and he had a wonderful eye; and somehow, with no budget, he'd put on shows that today, in a professional theater, would cost $300,000.

"He knew what he wanted but didn't always know how to get there," Custer says, "so he just made you do it until you got it right." Estelle Spector, a director and teacher who choreographed the musical The Boy Friend for Sickinger, says, "I perceived as I worked with him that he didn't want to make definitive choices up front--he wanted the process of creating to happen." Spector remembers asking him what style he planned on using for The Boy Friend. "He said, 'If I knew what I wanted on top, I wouldn't need myself.'"

For the most part, audiences flocked to the shows. As for the critics, Sickinger vacillated between being their darling and their devil--which didn't matter much to him one way or the other.

"I always gauged a show's opening night for the critics," he says now. "Generally, they wanted it fast and loud, more explicit and not quite as subtle, and we gave it to 'em. Then, after the critics came, we'd relax into the show and make it more what we thought it should be." Actress Bea Fredman recalls Sickinger telling the cast after a press opening, "All right, they've been here. Now you can do your work."

Sickinger's penchant for innovation and unorthodoxy was a magnet for professionals, amateurs, and students at all levels of experience. His wife, Selma Sickinger, oversaw a program in which high school students--I was one--took acting classes in return for volunteer work in the office or backstage. Many of those who worked under Sickinger were motivated enough to pursue professional careers; Hull House Theater alumni include Rokko Jans, Paul Jans's son and a noted stage and film composer; Marji Banks, now featured in the Royal-George hit Steel Magnolias; Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey, who went on to write the hit musical Grease together; William Friedkin, who taught acting classes before becoming a movie director; Mike Nussbaum, who starred on Broadway in David Mamet's American Buffalo; and Mamet himself, who was in the chorus of Threepenny Opera while a student at Francis Parker School.

Sickinger had his detractors, too. His choice of plays attracted some critical sniping, as well as complaints about obscenity. Sickinger also ran afoul of Hull House board members who felt that he was emphasizing the arts at the expense of social service.

Tensions came to a head in 1969, when Paul Jans, Sickinger's steadfast supporter, resigned as director of the agency. Within a month, the board announced Sickinger's resignation. Eventually Sickinger and the agency reached a settlement.

Today, the proliferation of neighborhood-based theaters, which have almost entirely supplanted the Loop as the focus of theatrical activity, remain as Sickinger's legacy. Several major off-Loop theaters were founded by Hull House alumni, and most of the theater spaces whose creation Sickinger oversaw are still in use. Sickinger, though, no longer works in theater. At 62, long since divorced from Selma, remarried and with a large family, he runs an answering service in New York.

"It's called EFLS," he says, in the same upbeat, effusive voice he once used to coach actors and coax donors. "It stands for Everything For Living Space." He laughs. "I still work with actors, thousands of 'em--they use this service. I often run into people who were in shows at Hull House.

"I tried to direct theater and film when I came to New York," he continues, "but I found it very difficult. I probably moved the wrong way--I should have gone to California. But I don't miss it, really. I had true love once, in Chicago. That was pretty much a perfect experience. And when you've had true love, nothing else is as good."

On Monday, May 1, Bailiwick Repertory, the current occupant of the Callner Theater, is hosting a tribute to Sickinger in honor of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the theater--and ironically, 20 years to the month since Sickinger's forced resignation. The tribute--a benefit to raise money for technical improvements in the theater's lighting and electrical system--begins at 7 PM with a reception, scenes and songs from Sickinger shows, a "roast" of Sickinger by local theater notables, and comments by the garrulous Sickinger himself. The tribute will be held at the theater, 3212 N. Broadway; tickets are $50 a person, or $75 for two, and reservations may be made by calling 883-1091.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.

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