When Robert Sickinger came to Chicago in the early 1960s, Chicago had great theater. But most of it - think The Goodman Theater - was largely confined to the Loop.
Sickinger, who died Thursday at the age of 86, was hired to be the director of the Hull House Theater, on Chicago’s North side. When he arrived in 1963, the theater was still at the corner of Broadway Street and Belmont Avenue - the building’s an athletic club now.
Donna Marie Schwan was Sickinger’s assistant, and, eventually, his friend.
She said Sickinger, along with Paul Jans, the new executive director of Hull House, were looking to the past to do something new in theater.
“They were basically trying to do something like what Jane Addams originally had in the community. So he went out in the community and had open auditions. I mean, sort of the original ‘Chicago’s Got Talent’.”
Those open auditions not only drew people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity or venue in which to perform or sing, they were a pipeline to Chicago’s talented actors. Through them, Sickinger uncovered talents like actor Mike Nussbaum and Jim Jacobs, who eventually wrote Grease.
Those are some of the same people who went on to build Chicago’s network of neighborhood theaters, to create spaces like Steppenwolf. And that, said Schwan, is how Sickinger transformed the city’s theater scene.
Schwan said “He basically brought grassroots theater to Chicago.”
At Hull House, Sickinger developed a reputation for his fresh adaptations of classic plays.
But he was also known for the number of contemporary works he staged. Playwrights like Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter and LeRoi Jones had Chicago premieres thanks to Sickinger.
Sickinger’s tenure in Chicago was brief. He left for New York in 1969, after things went awry at Hull House. At the time of his death, he and his family were living between New York and Florida.
But Schwan said Sickinger’s influence can still be seen in places like The Goodman Theater.
“Chicago was very formal culturally. And what he did is he said ‘let’s bring in these wonderful works, these new works that are being done by our contemporaries, and see what they look like when they do them.’ And that was a phenomenon.”
Still Schwan thinks his greatest gift was his ability to inspire everyone - theater owners, actors, and regular people like herself.
“What happens when you create that kind of inspiration, where people have that kind of opportunity, it’s an energy that is irreplaceable, you can’t get that kind of energy going. That’s why these tv shows about auditioning and talent are so popular, because people are discovering themselves and what they can do in a way they otherwise would never have had.”