15 sep 17 | Chicago Magazine

Chicago Shakes’s New Venue Will Literally Let People Reshape the Theater Experience

An inside peek at the Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s malleable new multimillion-dollar venue

By Brian Golden

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the venerable Navy Pier institution with a name that conjures images of staid, wood-paneled rigidity, may seem an unlikely candidate to construct the city’s slickest new performance space. But as Barbara Gaines, CST’s founder and longtime artistic director, says, “Reinvention was Shakespeare’s middle name.”

This month, CST christens the Yard, a $35 million adjustable theater designed by the London-based Charcoalblue and Gordon Gill of the heavyweight local firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The structure features nine audience towers, each 37 feet high and weighing 35,000 pounds, and a massive air compressor that elevates the towers just enough that they can be easily moved. “The most important thing for artists is flexibility,” says Gaines, “the ability to start each play with a true clean page.” Here, she considers four possible configurations.

The Yard raises its maiden curtain on September 19 for The Toad Knew, a surreal, circus-like production from Swiss director (and Charlie Chaplin’s grandson) James Thierrée. The towers will be aligned in a max-capacity 850-seat configuration around a proscenium. This configuration allows for the largest stage area and killer views of the performers’ stunning aerial acrobatics.

Spring 2018 will see director Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller) reuniting to craft a magic-filled Macbeth in a bigger space designed to maximize sightlines for illusions. Gaines groans when recalling how the duo’s 2015 The Tempest left several seats off-limits because “the angles of the magic are a science.”

In 2011, Gaines invited the National Theatre of Scotland to perform Black Watch, an immersive look at military life. The show was a hit, but the staging—the audience on both sides of a narrow stage—meant CST had to mount the production at Edgewater’s Broadway Armory instead of at Navy Pier. That won’t be an issue again.

On Gaines’s wish list for a production in traditional Shakespearean style: King Lear. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have this play that asks what is the nature of man,” she says, “and have a partially naked Lear literally surrounded by humanity?”