Shakespeare Theater announces $35 million expansion on Navy Pier

2 March 2016

by Hedy Weiss and Fran Spielman

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Wednesday announced a $35 million expansion project on Navy Pier.

The project transform the theater’s “neighbor” — the white-tented, open-air Skyline Stage — into The Yard, an enclosed, flexible, acoustically isolated, year-round performance space.

It will use mobile “audience towers” that operate almost like a giant LEGO kit, allowing the theater to reconfigure its interior into nine different formations to change the capacity from 150 up to 850 people.

The new playing area has been named The Yard — an homage to the open-air pit area of London’s Globe Theatre where audiences stand, as in Shakespeare’s time, to watch performances. It will connect to Chicago Shakespeare’s primary home on the Pier by means of a gently snaking, glass-fronted lobby with a stunning view of Lake Michigan.

The Yard will be funded in part through a $15 million investment by Navy Pier, Inc., which is already engaged in the overall redesign and upgrading of the Pier, one of the city’s major tourist destinations.

According to Sheli Z. Rosenberg, board chair of Chicago Shakespeare, the theater’s “Our City, Our Shakespeare Campaign” has, to date, “secured $40.4 million of the $55 million overall initiative planned, with $20 million for construction of The Yard, $15 million for theatrical equipment (including The Yard’s movable ‘towers’) and an additional $20 million for artistic and endowment funds.”

The project has been designed by Charcoalblue, the UK-based theater and acoustics firm whose portfolio includes scores of projects in Britain, Australia and New York — with clients ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and The Young Vic to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Collaborating with Charcoalblue will be the Chicago firm of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Andy Hayles, managing director of Charcoalblue, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he narrated a video of the convertible theater known as “The Yard” during Wednesday’s news conference at the Shakespeare Theater.

“It’s a complete honor, as you can tell, for a small theater guy from London to be designing a theater in your amazing town,” Hayles said.

He added, “You are going to see some amazing theater here in a building that you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you walk through the door.”

Hayles said towers are all-new technology. Each steel-and-timber tower — roughly the size of a city bus, stood on-end — has its own heating and ventilation, lighting and sprinkler system. Once stage workers are fully trained, four of them will be able to bring the towers, with three levels of seating into place.

“It’s a relatively simple process, Hayles said. “Like fitting together the pieces of a pie.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was dazzled by the new convertible theater that, Shakespeare Theater’s Executive Director Criss Henderson said, is part of a “global trend” in theater architecture.

“It is quite an incredible vision. And as a city that re-imagines theater, this will anchor the revitalization of Navy Pier on the centennial,” the mayor said.

“People from around the world come to the city of Chicago for this great theater company. That would be enough for us as a city to say to Shakespeare, ‘Thank you.’ But, then, they take that to all of our neighborhoods and all our schools throughout the city of Chicago and do not leave it just anchored here.”

He added, “Every summer, through our ‘Night Out in the Parks,’ they are across the city bringing Shakespeare to people throughout Chicago. All you have to bring is your chair that you left for dibs in the winter. It’s free. You get your lawn chair that was beat up from the garage. You get to see Shakespeare. That’s the price of entry.”

Shakespeare’s artistic director and founder Barbara Gaines said the heavy schedule of productions, educational programs and international series has the existing two-theater complex “bursting at every seam” and has long needed a third theater.

“We’ve long needed — I mean LONG needed — a third theater. It’s been clear to us for a long time that there is an enormous audience for Shakespeare and for Shakespeare-inspired work. … We are literally leaving audiences wanting more. What a great position for any theater in the world to be in,” she said.

The Yard is just the latest expansion in the history of Chicago Shakespeare, which began in 1986 on the rooftop of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park, quickly established itself at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts on the Gold Coast, and moved into it current home on the Pier in 1999. The company now fills both its 510-seat Courtyard Theater (with a thrust-style mainstage and deep proscenium), as well as its flexible 200-seat upstairs venue, throughout the year, with as many as 650 performances of 19 productions.

In addition to its subscription series, and its World Stages series (which presents productions from around the globe), CST presents Short Shakespeare shows and other productions for school groups, serving about 40,000 high school students and teachers a year — a number Henderson believes this new facility will enable CST to almost double. In addition, it produces family musicals for the summertime crowd, and Shakespeare in the Parks, which brings a mobile stage into various neighborhoods throughout the city. A number of special events (notably “Blackwatch,” at the Broadway Armory) have also been staged beyond the Pier.

As Henderson noted: “Clearly we have been bursting at the seams and have needed to expand to a three-theater campus. And while our heart will always be on our beautiful wooden thrust main stage, which will continue to be the principal focus of our productions of Shakespeare, other classics, new works and musicals, The Yard will allow us to stage great spectacles, expand our student programs, and extend exceptionally successful productions that now must close because of scheduling demands.”

And as the company’s artistic director, Barbara Gaines. explained: “The building itself will be a work of art, capable of changing dramatically to fit the needs of each artist who comes to work in it. I think of it as a dream palace that can shift with every show, and that will be a surprise each time the audience visits it. It will just be an incredibly colorful tool box. The towers themselves can be thought of as pieces of scenery. And the great thing is that in certain configurations we’ll almost be able to replicate our existing main stage.”

Essentially “a new box constructed beneath an existing tent” (Skyline Stage’s existing stagehouse and backstage support spaces were preserved), even the iconic tent will be put to use as a screen for projections and special lighting effects designed to draw attention to the theater.

Construction on The Yard is set to begin this spring, with opening planned for Fall 2017. CST’s annual operating budget, now at about $17 million, is expected to initially expand to between $19 and $20 million.

Chicago Shakespeare Board Chair Sheli Rosenberg used Wednesday’s news conference to launch a fundraising campaign to be known as, “Our City, Our Shakespeare.” It’s aimed at raising the $14.6 million needed to bridge the gap between the $40.4 million already pledged or contributed and the $55 million needed to build and endow the new theater.

“I’m hesitant to ask you all to pick up the envelopes,” Rosenberg said.

That prompted Emanuel to interject with one of his patented one-liners.

“Don’t hold yourself back. This is not the moment to hold back,” the mayor said.

Asked about programming for The Yard’s inaugural season, Gaines and Henderson chuckled and would say only: “We’re thinking about it.”