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Donald Hicken to retire from Baltimore School for the Arts

Baltimore School for the Arts Theater Department Chairman Donald Hicken.
Baltimore School for the Arts Theater Department Chairman Donald Hicken.

Donald Hicken, an acclaimed director, award-winning educator and beloved mentor to such actors as Tracie Thoms, Jada Pinkett Smith and Shalita Grant, will retire in June after 36 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts, according to a press release.

Hicken, 70, has been at the school since it was in the planning stages and is chairman of the theater department.

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Other former students of Hicken's include such well-known actors as Josh Charles and the late American rap legend Tupac Shakur.

Grant, who received the first-ever nomination for a Tony Award by a school alumnus (for 2013's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"), credited Hicken with first recognizing her talent when she was barely in her teens and auditioning for a coveted spot in the school's freshman class. At the audition, Grant performed a two-person scene from Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" as a solo performance, which meant that young Shalita had to slap herself in the face.

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In a letter that she wrote earlier this year nominating Hicken for the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education, Grant wrote:

"I cry whenever I ask myself this question: 'Where would I be if Donald had said no?' It breaks me heart when I think about how my life would have turned out. I'm certain I wouldn't have attended Juilliard. My life and the students who've graduated the theater program all have BSA and Donald to thank. Donald has single-handedly put me on the path to be the woman I am today."

Hicken didn't win the Tony, but he was one of two finalists -- a singular honor, considering that more than 4,000 educators from 47 states were nominated for the award.

The High School will conduct a national search for Hicken's replacement.

"People tell me that my successor will have big shoes to fill," Hicken said. "I've been telling them, 'I'm taking my shoes with me.' It feels like it's time to bring in someone with a fresh vision."

Hicken also has an established career directing in Baltimore and Washington, particularly at Everyman Theatre, which became his professional home. He's on tap to direct the production of John Patrick Shanley's romantic comedy, "Outside Mullingar," which opens Dec. 9.

Everyman audiences have become accustomed to occasionally seeing Hicken's most talented students on stage in small roles. That cross-fertilization provides the theater with a first look at new talent, and the students with a valuable professional credit.

Hicken also founded an international exchange program in 2006 that's rare for a public high school. The program brings acting students from the United Kingdom to Baltimore every October, and sends Baltimore teens to England in the spring. Hicken plans to pay his own way to England for a few years after he retires, he said, which will allow him to see the current freshmen in the program through to graduation.

Until her death in 2014, Hicken was married to actress Tana Hicken, widely acknowledged as one of the finest stage performers in the Baltimore-Washington region. Tana Hicken's fire and intensity on stage was an interesting contrast to her husband's approach behind the scenes, where he has become known for his gentle manner and humane vision.

"Donald has life-changing impact on all the students he teaches," Chris Ford, the high school's director, said in a news release. "They learn the power of sustained effort and the responsibility of empathy. Beyond that, he has shaped BSA to be the unique, powerful and nurturing place that it is today."

Retiring from teaching job will allow Hicken to take on additional directing assignments. In addition to his work with Everyman Theatre, Hicken said he's eager to become more involved with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, as well as with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusettes, where he has a summer home.

Hicken will be honored at the School in mid-June -- and the longtime teacher already has begun stockpiling facial tissue.

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"I'm a hopeless cryer," he said.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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