Berkeley actor Robert Sicular talks Bay Area theater, new play ‘Finks’

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Kevin Berne /Courtesy

Berkeley actor Robert Sicular has seen theater in the Bay Area evolve over the course of his decadeslong career as a thespian. From Shakespeare to more obscure, rarely-produced plays, Sicular has played a range of roles not only in the Bay Area but across the country. Currently, he is part of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Finks,” which opens June 6 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

“Finks,” written by Joe Gilford, takes place in the 1950s during the Red Scare, when many individuals in the entertainment industry were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. This investigative committee looked into anyone who may have had Communist Party ties and ensured that they were no longer involved in the production of films. Gilford’s own parents, actors Jack and Madeline Gilford, were blacklisted — “Finks” tells a fictionalized version of what happened to them.

Sicular plays then-U.S. representative Francis Walter, who was the head of HUAC. “I’m up there grilling them, getting them to name names,” Sicular said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And when they’re uncooperative, threatening them with jail time.”

“Finks” is the most recent stint in Sicular’s long-running career, but his reasons for choosing to act in “Finks” go far back to the beginning of his career. Sicular was born and raised in Berkeley, where he still resides. Born into a creative family, he has been acting since the age of three. Each member of Sicular’s family was involved in the arts, and his parents were very encouraging of Sicular following suit. By the time he was a teenager, he knew he wanted to make a career of being an actor.

“Berkeley High is when I knew I wanted to be an actor, for better or worse, for the rest of my life,” Sicular said. “We had an amazing arts program at Berkeley High. I think it’s still pretty good, but back in those days, it was pretty incredible.”

Sicular then went on to attend UC Berkeley, where he became involved with the theater department. It was during his days at UC Berkeley that he featured in a production of “The Devil and the Good Lord” by Jean-Paul Sartre and played his favorite role of any Bay Area production that he has acted in before or since.

“It’s a four-hour epic and takes place in Germany in the 16th century. I played a badass warrior who is also fiercely intellectual,” Sicular said. “It hasn’t been done very often because it’s a long show.” But Sicular emphasized it was worth it, saying, “the greatest compliment I ever got was people saying, ‘I didn’t want it to be over!’ ”

Since his time at UC Berkeley, Sicular has played a multitude of roles in his ongoing career. And throughout the years, he has experienced firsthand how theater has changed within the Bay Area.

The increasing expensiveness of the Bay Area has severely affected production time. Previously in Sicular’s career, rehearsals would run for five to six weeks with a similar run time for the show. Now, the standard is three to four weeks of rehearsal with the same show run time.

“There’s a lot of crunch,” Sicular said. “It’s just much more stressful and doesn’t leave quite as much time for experimentation.”

Despite all of this, Sicular believes that the quality of theater in the area has remained consistent throughout the years. He credits this to the artists who have committed to staying in the Bay, rather than leaving for New York or Los Angeles. Their commitment has helped theaters companies in the area, including TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, continue to thrive.

Not only does Sicular enjoy working with TheatreWorks, he also has a personal connection to “Finks” specifically. His parents were quite politically active during the Red Scare — they were involved in the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee in order to fight for those who were being wrongfully blacklisted. His mother even wrote a play about Sicular’s parents’ experiences.

Meanwhile, his father was himself blacklisted, though not for being an entertainer. He was drafted into the army after getting his master’s degree and worked in San Francisco hospitals treating soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Right at the peak of the Red Scare, Sicular’s father was suddenly discharged from the army after a person he worked with claimed he had Communist Party ties. Because of the negative connotations of a general discharge and a blacklisted label, Sicular’s father had a difficult time finding a job. Along with other discharged veterans, he worked to get his discharge changed to honorable — meaning he left the army with a good record instead of for reasons based in misconduct — and they eventually succeeded in doing so.

“I always thought it was kind of wonderfully ironic that when he was older he got free health care from the veterans’ association. It was, you know, justice,” Sicular said. “So, things like that. Personal connections attract me to roles.”

For Sicular, it seems, acting, no matter how much it changes, will always be about the people he is surrounded by.

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