NEW YORK — Bob Sickinger, a director whose mostly nonprofessional productions in the 1960s seeded a Chicago theater scene that evolved into one of the country’s greatest, died May 9 at his home in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Erika said.
Mr. Sickinger was something of a Pied Piper, an alluring, commanding personality with an irresistible idea, that theater is not presented to a community but arises from it. The program he nurtured in Chicago is considered by many to be the beginning of off-Loop theater, a network of dozens of troupes and theaters that is the city’s equivalent of off- and off-off-Broadway.
“To the extent that any individual founded off-Loop theater, a case can be made that Sickinger was that man,’’ Chris Jones, the chief theater critic of The Chicago Tribune, wrote after Mr. Sickinger’s death.
When Mr. Sickinger arrived in Chicago from Philadelphia in 1963 and took over the Hull House theater program at the Jane Addams Center on the city’s North Side, theatrical productions in the city were largely limited to Broadway road shows. The Second City improvisational troupe was in its infancy, and the venerable Goodman Theater was known largely for its drama school. The birth of the influential ensemble Steppenwolf, whose success inspired theater companies in Chicago and elsewhere, was more than a decade in the future.
Mr. Sickinger, whose taste ran to the provocative and difficult — he was a Samuel Beckett aficionado — produced and directed challenging, sometimes distressing contemporary plays, introducing Chicago audiences to writers like Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Athol Fugard, and Leroi Jones. He took on subjects that had been taboo in an unadventurous theater environment, presenting Jack Gelber’s grim portrayal of drug addiction, “The Connection,’’ and John Herbert’s harsh prison-rape drama, ‘‘Fortune and Men’s Eyes.’’
Though the theater and Mr. Sickinger took some heat for his thumb-in-the-eye aesthetic, critics praised many of the productions as revelatory. Of his very first show — Frank Gilroy’s ‘‘Who’ll Save the Plowboy?’’ — Richard Christiansen, a longtime critic for the Tribune, wrote, ‘‘This is the most important achievement for theater in Chicago since a group of young actors took over an old Chinese laundry and turned it into a cabaret called Second City.’’
More remarkable was that Mr. Sickinger found his casts and crews among nontheater people — students and other artistically inclined people who were making a living by other means — and inspired many to pursue lives in the theater, among them the actor Mike Nussbaum and the playwright David Mamet.
In a 1984 essay for Vanity Fair, Mamet called Mr. Sickinger ‘‘one of the greatest directors I’ve ever known’’ and recalled his days at Hull House: ‘‘I was 16 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.’’
Mamet added: ‘‘It was the first time in my confused young life that I had learned that work is love.’’
William Robert Sickinger was born in Philadelphia, where his father, Francis, ran a trucking company. He was drafted before he finished high school and served in the US Army, partly in the Philippines, at the end of World War II. Afterward he went to Bloomsburg State Teachers College (now Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania), where he gave up football for the theater. He later studied English and speech in a graduate program at Temple University.
While working as a public school teacher in Philadelphia in the 1950s, he started several small theater companies. When a fellow Philadelphian, Paul Jans, became executive director of the Hull House Association in Chicago, he hired Mr. Sickinger to run the theater program.
Mr. Sickinger’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Erika, he leaves his wife, the former Jo-Ann Pastor, whom he married in 1974; three other daughters, Robin Sickinger, Denise Stabenau, and Judi Fazzie; a son, Robert Porter; two sisters, Patricia and Charlene Snyder; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Amid financial troubles at Hull House and his own conflicts with the board, Mr. Sickinger left in 1969 and moved to New York, where he had limited success. He wrote and directed a handful of off-Broadway shows, including ‘‘22 Years,’’ a play about Charles Manson, and a musical adaptation (with music and lyrics by Mel Atkey) of the Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s tale ‘‘A Little Princess.’’ He directed a 1980 film, ‘‘Love in a Taxi,’’ featuring Jim Jacobs, a Hull House alumnus who had cowritten the musical ‘‘Grease.’’ Mr. Sickinger also ran an answering service, which had many actors as clients.