Robert Sickinger, a pivotal figure in the development of Chicago's off-Loop theater scene, died Thursday morning at his home in Delray Beach, Fla. Sickinger was 86. His daughter, Erika, said her father died from natural causes.
To the extent that any individual founded off-Loop theater, a case can be made that Sickinger was that man. Coming to Chicago from Philadelphia in the early 1960s, he was the artistic director of the Hull House Theater and turned the Jane Addams Center, located near the corner of Belmont Avenue and Broadway, into a hive of edgy, creative activity, mostly using the energy of performers from the surrounding community. Famous Sickinger productions included “The Brig” and “The Threepenny Opera.” Those who worked with Sickinger included Jim Jacobs (who went on to co-write “Grease”), David Mamet (then a student at the Francis Parker School in Chicago), and the actor Mike Nussbaum.
“There would be no Chicago theater without Bob,” Nussbaum said Thursday.
“He was the guy who really started it all,” Jacobs said. “He proved that people off the street in Chicago could do quality theater in avant-garde material. Here was a guy grabbing a dentist and a street cleaner and a rock ‘n’ roll jerk like myself and letting them do Pinter and Ionesco for critics. It was a whole new thing. “
“Bob was a key person in the development of the indigenous Chicago theater,” said former Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen. “He opened my eyes, certainly, to the fact that there was talent right in front of us in this town.”
By 1969, Sickinger and the Hull House leadership were at odds and he resigned his post, heading off to New York, leaving a legacy of neighborhood Chicago theaters. “I had true love once, in Chicago,” Sickinger told the Chicago Reader in a 1989 interview. “That was pretty much a perfect experience. And when you've had true love, nothing else is as good.”In a statement, Mamet wrote: "A half-century ago, in those happy days before the invention of the term 'artistic director,' Bob Sickinger ran Hull House the only way a worthwhile theater can be run: by a director, full-stop. His theater not only surpassed but eclipsed the then-existing forms: the 'Culture' of the Goodman and Ravinia; the amateur, or hobby productions of 'community theater' and even the Art-Theatre, 'Little Theatre' productions of the Chicago '20s. All these were dedicated, at some level, to the enjoyment of the participants. Bob's theater was for the audience, and his virile direction made the very term 'vision' recognizable as effete. We who worked with him wondered, in our rare moments of leisure, if he actually could speak English. For, far from discussing character, motivation, feeling, plot or theme, he simply said 'Be more "with it," you know ...?' And so we did."
Mamet also famously wrote about Sickinger in an essay titled “Why I Write for Chicago Theater.”
“Bob Sickinger was one of the greatest directors I’ve ever known,” Mamet wrote. “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.”
“My father always said that he wanted that to be his obituary,” Erika Sickinger said Thursday.
Survivors include wife Jo-Ann Sickinger and, along with Erika, children Robert Porter, Robin Sickinger, Denise Stabenau and Judi Fazzie. Plans for a memorial service are pending.