13 sep 17 |  Chicago Sun-Times

With The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare sets engineering poetry in motion

By Hedy Weiss

Near the end of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the title character is warned that he will be defeated in his maniacal quest for power when “Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane,” a geographical impossibility. But his clever enemies follow through on this threat by camouflaging themselves behind giant tree branches that, as the soldiers move forward, appear to be a forest on the move.

Touring The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s (CST) grandly innovative new venue on Navy Pier — where “The Toad Knew,” a work by the French spectacle-maker James Thierree, will officially inaugurate the space on Sept. 19 — you can only wonder what the Bard might have made of a theater that in many ways is designed to be its own movable “forest.”

In an extraordinary example of architectural, engineering and theatrical re-purposing — devised by the Chicago-based firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and the UK-based theater consultancy firm, Charcoalblue, in consultation with CST’s executive director, Criss Henderson — The Yard marks the transformation of a single, large, underused outdoor venue (Navy Pier’s former Skyline Stage, renowned for its white tent-like “roof”) into an enclosed structure whose nine, 35,000-pound steel “towers” can be easily moved into 10 dramatically different configurations seating audiences of 400 to 800  people, and conforming to the scale and spirit of each production.

Each of the towers is a self-contained ecosystem with heating and ventilating connectors, electrical connections, acoustical panels and a sprinkler system. And these towers, as well as the seats and stage, can be moved into place by a team of just three technicians thanks to the use of “air skids” inserted beneath each tower that can be pressurized to lift the structures 3/8 of an inch off the ground on a bed of compressed air.

“The technology is much like that used in a hovercraft,” said Andy Hayles, managing partner of Charcoalblue. Added Gary Wright, senior consultant at Charcoalblue and lead designer: “We wanted to make a theater building designed by theater people and for theater people, that would be as uncomplicated as possible to use.”

According to Henderson, who studied many “pop-up” and other theaters in Britain, France and beyond: “From the very start of this $35 million project [considered a relatively moderate cost for such a major undertaking, and considerably less than had it been wholly new construction], our major goals were to make the building as sustainable as possible, and to do the least possible demolition, although eighteen 95-foot-long micro-piles had to be driven into Lake Michigan’s bedrock below Navy Pier to support the additional new weight of the towers.”

The focus on sustainability extends to the new gracefully curving “tunnel” that now connects Chicago Shakespeare’s current home with the 30,000-square-foot Yard. It is clad in light-and-color-altering glass that can shade the interior and also reflect the newly landscaped exterior site (including the skyline and immediately adjacent Ferris Wheel). And as architect Gordon Gill quipped: “It is destined to become Chicago’s favorite new selfie backdrop, even competing with The Bean.”

The next project by The Yard team? To transform Steppenwolf Theatre’s eyesore of a garage. But plans are still under wraps.