Hull House: Birth and Transition to Service Work
Image of Hull House's initial environs, courtesy Jane Addams Memorial Hull House collection at UIC.
In the late 19th century, Chicago's West Side was vied with New York's Lower East Side as America's most infamous immigrant neighborhood. Immigrants, new to this country and with few if any notions of American language, heritage and culture were asked to assimilate while simultaneously living in deplorable, unsanitary conditions and on shoe-string (or lower) wages.
In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Chicago's first settlement house
"To provide a center for higher civic and social life, to initiate and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago."
In practical terms, this meant a variety of social and cultural programs, from establishing Chicago's first playground to classes on American-style cooking. It also meant a wide variety of cultural activities.
As early as 1890, Addams mentions Shakespeare readings in her diary, and by 1890, she mentions separate, distinct Dramatics programs existed within Hull-House.
Full blown-theatre productions was added as early as 1899, and was an important part of Addams initial focus:"One of the conspicuous features of our neighborhood...is the persistency with which the entire population attends the theatre... the theater, such as it was, appeared to be the one agency which freed the boys and girls from that destructive isolation.. and gave them a glimpse of that order and beauty which even the poorest drama endeavors to restore the bewildering facts of life."
But changes following Addams death in 1935, along with changing demographics of Chicago (most residents were no longer foreign born) and the ongoing Great Depression, prompted a shift away from cultural activities to focus on service work. As such, the number of theater performances sponsored by the Hull House dwindled through the 1940's to the early 1960's.
1960: Robert Sickinger and the Hull House Theater Renaissance
Article/Interview from the Chicago Daily News on Sickinger's new Hull House Theater program
Although existent during the 1940's and 1950's, theatre and dramatics at Hull-House were neither a priority for the association, nor well known in the city of Chicago. That began to change 1960 when Robert "Bob" Sickinger began working with the Hull House.
Gaining the trust of Hull House Executive Director Paul Jans, Sickinger was given the official title of Theater Director in 1963, due largely to his work with the Philadelphia Civic Theatre and experience getting results from amateur actors.
Sickinger's plan for Hull House was both innovative for theatre and extended the Hull House's original mission. He and Jans created plans to put theaters at each of the Hull House's four community centers. The theaters were to be small by commercial standards, at 100-300 seats each, but notably larger than those usually given to community theater in Chicago at that time.
Chicago, at that period, was home to almost no indigenous theater, relying instead on traveling Broadway plays. Thus there were few, if any, outlets for Chicago-based actors and playwrights to pursue their ambitions (much less careers). Furthermore, Chicago's theatre scene was firmly planted in the Loop, with few, if any, outlets to neighborhoods.
Sickinger, either out of a sincere desire to retain ties to Hull House's roots, or of a desire to see his proposal succeed, pitched the idea in terms of Hull House's values. Their report, titled A Return to Neighborhoods: A Proposal by Which Hull-House Association Will Activate Theater in Four Neighborhoods of the City of Chicago details the ways in which Sickinger's theatre would be sources of community, not just four buildings in communities. He believed that "The theater should be used as a lever to help the people of the neighborhood find that they are capable of participating in as well as watching cultural activities," according to at least one interview.
The plan was for the creation of community theaters that would be of a high quality, enhance the skills of amateur actors, and which would become the kernel of a much broader theatre renaissance in Chicago's neighborhoods. In addition, the theaters were to stay true, in a modernized way, to Jane Addams original vision of what theatre should be: social realism, making theatre not just entertainment but also an important space for reflection amongst both theater participants and actors.
The Chicago Daily News commented on Sickinger's plan, quoting him as saying "Chicago theater pays very little notice to the importance of the neighborhood in the city's cultural structure. The need and hunger for good theater is here, but we're not supplying it... You can't build an interest in the theater in a city by importing shows. You've got to grow it from within by creating a demand for it from an audience that has been moved directly by theater in their own neighborhoods."
The reviewer concludes "It's an adventurous program, relying heavily on material new to its audiences, and it could be pie in the sky or small potatoes. But Sickinger has intense faith that he is working in a strong, useful tradition, and his strong conviction and tested experience tell him that an experimental, original program is the only kind that can pump lasting life into a city's theater."
Early Success of the new Hull House Theater
Set of Sickinger's production of "Who'll Save the Plowboy?" by Frank D. Gilroy (Image courtesy Bob Sickinger)
The first production to be housed in the new Hull House Theater at 3212 N. Broadway was to be of Frank D. Gilroy's "Who'll Save the Plowboy?," focusing on the life of Albert, a middle-aged man who's hopes and dreams - of a happy life, all end up for naught as he finds himself forced to confront his own mediocrity and failure.
The potential for irony was therefore pronounced as the play went up in November 1963. Sickinger's plan was to create a theater that was to be something more than just an activity for the artists.
The play, however, was by all accounts a success, receiving favorable media attention and also had an impressive sell-through. Richard Christiansen, of the Chicago Daily News, called it "the most exciting, significant, and promising Chicago theatrical event in years."
Building on Success
Poster from the Chicago Premiere of "The Connection" by Jack Gelber - one of many works to be premiered by the Hull House Theater for Chicago audiences
The Hull House Theaters soon gained increasing attention, both in Chicago and around the country. The only major media review of Sickinger's initial plays were in the Chicago Daily News, but by 1965, even New York media were covering Sickinger's plays, with reviews of spring 1965's The Dumb Waiter coming from both the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
The theater was attracting national attention, and more local media coverage as well. The Chicago Sun Times, in an article headlined "Hull House a Theater Leader," stated that "they draw the city's top-flight theatergoing audience."
The Theater was undergoing popular, as well as critical success: the theaters were operating at capacity, and as a response, the theaters were adding performances so that they could increase their season ticket subscriber base from 4,500 to 6,000. To help meet this increased demand, the Hull House constructed a new Uptown Theater, seating 1,441, more than the original theatres combined.
During this time period, the Hull House Theaters introduced a number of new works to Chicago, but also became a place for premieres of new plays. The theatres became known for their bold staging's of new and existing works, and their dedication to social realism.
Yet despite all this success, the theater could not do one thing: make money. The theatre was still without permanent directors until it received a National Council on the Arts grant in 1967. Even with grants of its own, the theatre was still dependent on Hull House financing, and when Jans, always the theatre's primary supporter, resigned in April 1969, funding was soon withdrawn, with Sickinger resigning a month later.
Although the Hull House Theater Renaissance lasted only a few years, it had lasting effects which continue to resonate through to this day.
Along with the Second City, the Hull House theaters were a major player in the genesis of the vibrant Chicago theater scene of today. Many of that worked with Sickinger went on to write plays, act or found their own theatre companies, continuing the trend which Sickinger started.
Notable amongst those inspired by Sickinger and his Hull House Theater is known Chicago playwright and author David Mamet, who had this to say:
"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."