Sheldon Patinkin managed, through some unfathomable store of energy and generosity, to be many things to many people. And he managed to make many of us feel somehow that he was ours personally. This became very clear following the inevitable gut punch caused by his passing on Sept. 21.
There’ll be no trashing of Facebook in this tribute, because that’s how at least five generations of the Chicago theatre community—a community Patinkin built, nurtured, sustained, enriched, scolded and taught; a community that stretches to New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, London and who knows where else—kept in daily contact with him and where, since he died, have been able to speak to each other and cry over and mourn and joke about and quote our friend, director, teacher and mentor.
As all these people took to social media—people from the formation of the Chicago improv movement, in which Sheldon was instrumental from the 1950s on to today (Compass Players, Second City, Second City Toronto, SCTV); people from storefronts to LORT theatres in Chicago (where he served officially and unofficially as an advisor and friend and teacher, and where he would trek on cold nights to watch your dress rehearsal or preview and give sorely needed notes); thousands of Columbia College students (where he served as chair of the theatre department for nearly 30 years and taught, directed, advised, mentored, hired, hugged, screamed at, raised and watched EVERY SINGLE FINAL SCENE of so many of us, including myself)—as we posted about, liked, commented and shared what he’d given, what I marveled at and will always marvel at is: How did he have so much to give?
We have a tradition of ensemble in Chicago theatre. But “ensemble” is a word we use, abuse and take for granted, and Sheldon—I realize far too late—may have been the keeper of the dim flame of what that word actually means, and must mean, for the kind of work he valued most to survive. “This isn’t about YOU!” he could sometimes roar at us at school when we were fucking around onstage or backstage or in class. A furious note about our transgressions was posted on the third–floor board, usually ending with an all caps: “YOU DON’T HAVE THAT PRIVILEGE!” Meaning the group was not ours to jeopardize, the art form itself not ours to disrespect.
To Sheldon, ensemble was not necessarily a cuddly, feel-good notion of team spirit and togetherness. It was a principle of group survival and the only true means of flourishing artistically.
I could never speak for the entire ensemble he coaxed into being. It’s not my place to do so. I’ll just report the first example that pops to mind of something he gave me and taught me.
I went to Columbia College to study acting beginning in the fall of 1982, and eventually embarked on what was shaping up to be a perfectly pleasant career as a smarmy character man, when I read a play I inexplicably felt like directing. I asked Sheldon how one might go about directing something, and he said, “Why don’t you take Directing II?” (which he taught). I explained that there was no more money for college and he sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, “Eh. Just come to class.”
So for two years I directed plays with small budgets and used the school’s theatres, and for good or ill became a director. With a shrug of his shoulders, Sheldon gave me free grad school and a new career and an entire life. I doubt it’s because he saw anything special in me (he may have even told me that later), but because that’s just how he was. If you wanted to know something, he told you; if he had it to give, he gave to whoever asked or needed.
He would be very surprised, I think, if he heard me quote Shakespeare, but here goes: “When comes such another?”
David Cromer is a director trained in Chicago and based in New York.