29 Jun 17 | American Theater

The Yard Beyond the Bard

By Kerry Reid

A new lakefront flexible space gives Chicago Shakespeare Theater the room to expand, and not just physically.

To create a new space that can accommodate a variety of productions

Remodel a former outdoor music venue on Navy Pier into a fully enclosed, flexible space adjacent to Chicago Shakespeare’s existing two-venue edifice

What Worked
Using some of the ideas already in play at venues like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s spaces

What Didn’t
The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare opens in fall 2017, so tweaks are expected as the company and the visiting artists learn to use the space

What’s Next
Possibilities include extending runs or moving productions from one theatre to another, as well as expanding opportunities for the World’s Stage and Family Series programming

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s humble origin story—a 1986 production of Henry V on a pub rooftop—rivals Steppenwolf’s church-basement nativity in Chicago theatre lore. The company, founded by artistic director Barbara Gaines, eventually spent 12 years on the small proscenium stage of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago’s “Gold Coast” neighborhood, averaging three productions per season.

CST took a huge leap forward in 1999 with a move to a gleaming six-story edifice with a glass-walled lobby on Chicago’s Navy Pier. One of the most popular tourist attractions in the Midwest, Navy Pier contains the Chicago Children’s Museum, an IMAX theatre, docking facilities for boat tours of Lake Michigan, and a dizzying array of trinket shops and eateries. Recently, it’s been undergoing a facelift to bring a touch of upscale appeal to its carnival-like atmosphere.

For the last 18 years on Navy Pier, CST has mounted most of its mainstage Shakespeare offerings in the 500-seat Courtyard Theater, inspired by the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, plus in a 170-seat black box that’s hosted everything from full musicals to solo work.

But the company is about to embark on a “next generation” theatrical experiment with the Yard, a year-round flexible-use venue connected to the existing Chicago Shakespeare building through a glass-walled lobby, built on the adjacent site of the former Skyline Stage outdoor music venue.

“The need for an additional platform first surfaced in 2004,” explains Criss Henderson, CST’s executive director. “We moved out here as a little company from the Ruth Page, and it was a big move for us. We enjoyed tremendous success through that move primarily through our broadening of our surface and our expansion of programming.”

Programming includes the acclaimed World’s Stage series and more family shows. “The fact is that, to realize our full potential and to be able to serve next-generation artistic leaders and artists of the company and of the city, this third artistic platform was identified as an early need,” says Henderson.

The “aha!” moment for Henderson came over margaritas and Mexican food in Dallas, at the 2013 TCG conference. There he and Andy Hayles of U.K.-based theatre and acoustics company Charcoalblue began kicking around ideas for the old Skyline Stage.

Originally designed as a 1,500-seat outdoor music venue covered by a large white permanent tent ceiling, the venue hadn’t ever quite reached its potential, especially once Chicago’s Millennium Park opened downtown in 2004 and began offering free concerts.

Chicago Shakes used Skyline Stage for a few shows, including the 2014 World’s Stage presentation of The Magic Flute by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, which turned out to be the last show in the original Skyline Stage space. (As an attendee of that production, I can attest that acoustics were tricky.) Hayles and Henderson realized the space offered more than just another place to expand—it gave them a chance to reimagine many of the shows CST has been doing beyond the canon.

Over the years the company has gathered experience with site-specific work and off-site venues, from a hyper-intimate 2013 production of Cora Bissett and Stef Smith’s Olivier Award-winning drama about sex trafficking, Roadkill, set in an actual apartment in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, to a World’s Stage presentation of National Thea­tre of Scotland’s renowned Black Watch in a cavernous old National Guard armory.

“We were learning what was exciting to us about space,” says Henderson. “By the middle of 2014, after having [considered] a lot of expensive, really fixed large-capacity venues, we sort of took all our experience and said, well, wait: The most exciting spaces these days are those that are found and that can capture the energy of a pop-up—that energy of specificity.”

Charcoalblue’s résumé includes—in addition to projects with Arkansas’s ­TheatreSquared and Baltimore Center Stage—the RSC’s temporary theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, used between 2006 and 2010 while the RSC refurbished its Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan venues. Officially called the Courtyard Theatre but affectionately dubbed “the Rusty Box,” the venue provided the kind of flexibility Henderson and CST envisioned for their new addition.

“Criss and Barbara had both been to the Courtyard Theatre,” Hayles notes. He and his team pondered, “If we built a large, windowless auditorium box underneath the existing tent of the Skyline Stage, and put a modestly priced lobby box in front to link to the existing lobby, could we unlock this problem?”

The result is a major new venue that is coming in on a much shorter timeline and lower budget than other brick-and-mortar performing arts venues. Construction began in March 2016, and final costs of construction will be $35 million. (About $15 million of that is from Navy Pier, which makes money off the parking fees; the rest is from private donors.) In addition to Charcoalblue, the design team includes the Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Though Henderson stresses that the Yard is a fully enclosed space that can be used in all kinds of weather, reusing the tent also aids in lowering heating costs, and can provide a “blank canvas” for “lights and projected images,” bringing attention to the space from outside the theatre. Hayles notes that the design also repurposes the fly tower from the Skyline Stage, providing further savings.

But the key elements are the nine seating towers, each about the size of a city bus, if it were set up on its nose, and weighing about 35,000 pounds. Designed by Montreal’s Show Canada Industries (which also designs for Cirque du Soleil), each tower has its own HVAC and sprinkler systems.

Showing me the model for the Yard, Henderson moves four towers into a tight square. “This is my favorite show right now,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but I’d love to see us somehow suspend actors above the floor, so they’re not moving in a horizontal plane, but up and down in a vertical plane.”

Despite the size of the towers, Henderson notes that their caster system requires only two people to maneuver them, and that seats on the theatre floor can also be moved easily. “A concrete riser is the worst enemy of the theatre, in my opinion,” he adds.

The Yard also addresses some ongoing programming challenges. For example, CST couldn’t extend the hit 2015 run of the musical Ride the Cyclone. The Yard gives shows the possibility to extend, or move from one venue to another, depending on audience demands.

“There is more oxygen in our schedule now,” says Henderson. “Nobody expected us to do 625 performances a year. For the last 16 years, the hardest part of my job was cramming all the work in.” Among the shows that suffered were the family offerings in the “Short Shakespeare!” line. These educational matinees (which tour Chicago parks in the summer) had to be staged around whatever mainstage show was in the Courtyard.

Henderson finds it fitting that the Yard will open in September with The Toad Knew by James Thierrée and his La Compagnie du Hanneton. Thierrée has appeared in the World’s Stage series twice, including with 2007’s Au Revoir Parapluie (Farewell Umbrella).

The magician Teller, of Penn and Teller, and writer Aaron Posner, who created an acclaimed 2015 Tempest, will also, Henderson says, have a better platform for their new collaboration, Macbeth, playing the Yard in 2018.

As to what won’t work—well, that of course remains to be seen. “We would have all loved to completely acoustically isolate the auditorium chamber; we couldn’t afford to do that,” says Hayles. “We’re doing all the finishes we can to do the best that we can, but pure acoustic isolation will not be a feature of the Yard. It might be that you hear just a bit of a boat horn going off now and then.”

But he adds, “It ought to be an auditorium that each time you visit, you won’t quite know what you’ll find.”

The unpredictability is built in, Henderson explains: “There is a huge amount of theatre technology tucked away in the Yard. But the question has always been, from the start, ‘What is the relationship between actor and audience?’ That is the primary concern. What story are we telling, and what is our relationship in the room to the people we’re telling it to? That is what Chicago theatre is all about. And this room will really be able to explore that.”