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Bob Sickinger was one of the greatest directors I’ve ever known. He worked in the Hull House settlement house, at Broadway and Belmont in Chicago, and he invented the Chicago theater of today. He was a maniac. Grown men and women lived in fear of his wrath and blossomed at his praise.
We were all amateurs, and so we worked nights, from six P.M. till three or four A.M.
We did Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, The Threepenny Opera, The Typists and the Tiger, The Brig, The Connection… This was in 1964. I was sixteen years old. I was a member of the chorus, I tore tickets, I was on the scene crew, I fetched coffee. There was drama every night, onstage and off. Sickie exuded drama. 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 proud of ourselves in some nameless way… we didn’t call ourselves artists, but we knew we were something. We were proud to be engaged in the business of a collaborative art. We didn’t think of it as Great Theater, which happened only very long ago or far away; and we wouldn’t demean it by thinking of it as “Theater,” which happened downtown and was boring and stank of culture.
The only existing category our Hull House Theater came close to was “community theater,” which in 1964 meant sex farces or the director’s wife in Shaw.
No, we were something new: we were the neighborhood getting together and talking about the world.
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.
It was the first time in my confused young life that I had learned that work is love.
Twenty years later Mr. Sickinger’s legacy is a city with ninety-three small, distinct, and vital theaters.
They are run, in the main, by young people. And those young people are serving a theatrical apprenticeship in responsibility. They are learning that a theatrical company is accountable to its audience, that if the artist does not improve, the audience does not grow. They are learning that their work must be an extension of themselves, and if this seems like a general and specious comment, let me point out that most young people in the theater in New York or L.A. will spend their years from twenty to thirty sitting in casting agents’ offices praying to be accepted, or sitting in studios praying for that enlightenment which will enable them to be accepted by the casting agents. Those people develop the habit of subservience, either to “the Business” or to “technique,” either of which is fine in its place, but neither of which, given first priority, conduces toward art.
In those same years, between twenty and thirty, the Chicago theatrical worker will act in forty or fifty shows staged by his own company. He will direct, he will probably write one or more plays, he will sweep up, he will apply for grants, he will compose advertising copy. He will also probably do something very special and unique to Chicago theatrical tradition: he will probably teach. Very many of the small Chicago theaters help support themselves by giving classes. The members of the company teach the skills they themselves are learning (acting, voice, mime, movement, improvisation, makeup, playwriting, etc.), and so support themselves and their group.
Each Chicago theater that is also a school promulgates and strengthens its individual aesthetic. In giving classes the theater draws to itself and trans future members; and, as importantly, it reinforces and makes accountable the actor-teachers of the company. When they go out onstage, they are charged with the heavy and rightful burden of behaving in that way they exhort their students to behave.
So the Chicago actor gets a good apprenticeship in responsibility. Responsibility not to his “technique,” which is secondary, and just a twentieth-century way of being hammy and self-conscious, but to his ideals.
He has advertised his ideals to the audience, and they have expectations. He has described his ideals to his students, and they are watching closely. The ideals he shares with his co-workers have created an organization that feeds, clothes, protects, and defines him.
That’s the Chicago theater: a Kabuki version of Macbeth, ten new plays by ten new writers no one has heard of yet, The Comedy of Errors with every member of the company a juggler, a group-written comedy about life in an emergency room, etc., forever. No director’s wife as Candida, no feeling reinterpretations of Brecht, no Shakespeare in Eton collars, no sex comedies… just young men and women learning their craft and performing in what they have decided is the most exciting profession in the world.

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