August 27, 2020, would have been the 85th birthday of Sheldon Patinkin–longtime chair of the Columbia College Chicago Theatre Department, noted director and teacher, and cherished friend and mentor to many in the Chicago theatre community. Born August 27, 1935, Sheldon passed away on September 21, 2014.
Sheldon Patinkin was Chair of the Columbia College Chicago Theatre Department from 1980 — when the College moved into what is now the Getz Theater Center of Columbia College Chicago at 72 E. 11th St. in Chicago’s South Loop — to 2009, when he assumed the title of Chair Emeritus, continuing to teach and direct at the College until his death. Sheldon’s own account of his experience as Chair of the Columbia College Theatre Department is chronicled in a 1998 interview for the Columbia College Oral History Project. As previously reported in this blog, on September 28, 2015, Columbia College’s president, Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim, formally dedicated the Getz Theater Center’s lower-level studio performance space (formerly the New Studio Theatre) as The Sheldon Patinkin Theatre.
Sheldon was also an Artistic Consultant at Chicago’s internationally lauded Steppenwolf Theatre and co-founder of The School at Steppenwolf, and taught at The School for 17 years. As stated on Steppenwolf’s website, The School at Steppenwolf was established in consultation with Sheldon by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry, Steppenwolf’s then-artistic director Martha Lavey, and Lavey’s successor as artistic director, Columbia College alum Anna D. Shapiro ’90, HDR ’15, a former student of Sheldon’s. They developed a 10-week “ensemble studies” curriculum designed for actors to intensively practice their craft with and through each other, inspired by values that Steppenwolf believes informs not only great ensemble work but great acting: the ability to act spontaneously, instinctively and with joyful abandon, while maintaining the specificity and discipline required of great dramatic writing. The Columbia College Theatre Department’s current Allen and Lynn Turner Theatre Chair, Carin Silkaitis, who joined the Columbia College Theatre Department in 2019, is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf.
A beloved mentor to thousands of performers, directors and creative spirits, Sheldon was also a leading creative voice for over five decades at The Second City, America’s premier comedy theatre and training center and the Columbia College Theatre Department’s partner institution in the department’s groundbreaking BA Program in Comedy Writing and Performance. As a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, he developed friendships with director Paul Sills and producer Bernie Sahlins, forming a company called the Playwrights Theatre Club. After Sills and Sahlins cofounded The Second City in 1959, Sheldon became the theatre’s general manager, eventually succeeding Sills as Artistic Director. By the mid-1960s, he was a leading artistic voice at the theater, directing many of the resident company shows.
As previously reported in this blog, the lasting influence of Sheldon Patinkin is noted in the new book Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, by Mark Larson, which chronicles the development of a grassroots professional theatre movement in Chicago following World War II through the personal stories of those who participated in the Chicago theatre movement. His influence traversed the entire movement’s history and reached into every aspect of this extraordinary artistic community,” says Larson. “The Sheldon Effect continues.”
Shortly before his death, Sheldon established the Sheldon Patinkin Award at Columbia College Chicago to assist outstanding Theatre students in their journey to a professional career. For more information, and to contribute to the Sheldon Patinkin Award, please contact Columbia College’s office of Development and Alumni Relations.