9 Sep 17  | Chicago Tribune

Flexible, intimate and innovative, The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare has its opening night

by Blair Kamin

Like a pimply adolescent morphing into clear-skinned maturity, Navy Pier is slowly transforming itself from a hyper-commercialized shopping mall-by-the-lake into an appealing public space.

The latest step turns the visually-awkward Skyline Stage, originally an open-air venue, into a flexible indoor theater that expands the footprint of one of the pier's star attractions, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Called The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, the innovative new venue features nine movable seating towers that can be arranged in a variety of configurations. Its lobby is a clean-lined arc of glass that can act like a mirror, reflecting the jagged silhouette of the skyline and the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.

What I saw Tuesday night, when the project had its official opening, was encouraging: Lights bathed the white fabric roof of the Skyline Stage in an array of bright colors. The nine towers, arranged in a horseshoe shape, offered good sightlines and an appealing intimacy.

The only thing missing — besides easy access to bathrooms, which drew some complaints from audience members — was a time-lapse video showing the towers being turned from a proscenium configuration into a theater in the round or a thrust stage.

The $35 million project, designed by Chicago's Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture with the British theater consulting firm Charcoalblue, is a solid example of working creatively within severe constraints of time, budget and a challenging site. It's no match for the visual poetry of the nearly two-year-old Jeanne Gang-designed Writers Theatre in Glencoe, but a show-stopping building like that one was never in the cards, given the challenges that confronted the design team.

The biggest challenge involved the need to retain parts of the Skyline Stage, a theater designed by Benjamin Thompson Associates of Boston and VOA Associates of Chicago. The two firms shaped Navy Pier's 1995 transformation, which retained the pier's iconic headhouse and east end buildings but replaced everything in between with a popular but kitschy mix of shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities and spaces for small conventions.

One of the inserts was the Skyline Stage, which, upon its opening in 1994, departed sharply — painfully so — from the continuously horizontal silhouette of the pier's original passenger and cargo sheds. With its humped fabric roof and stubby leglike columns, the open-air theater resembled a giant insect.

In an ideal world, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater would have torn it down faster than you can say "To be, or not to be." But getting rid of the fabric shell and its stagehouse would have doubled the cost of the project, according to Criss Henderson, the theater's executive director. The nonprofit theater company, which moved to the pier in 1999, did not want to follow the profligate, pre-Recession path of cultural institutions that built more than they could afford.

So the future of the Skyline Stage, said architect Gordon Gill, centered on the question: "How do you leverage that lemon for lemonade?"

The answer retained the Skyline Stage, renovated its stage house and crammed a new, steel-framed indoor theater inside the Stage's tent. In places, there are only 6 inches between the tent and the new theater's steel beams. The aforementioned curving lobby links the theater to Chicago Shakespeare's glassy, saw-toothed original building by VOA. Inside are the nine towers, each one about as big as a London double-decker bus and weighing 35,000 pounds.

To support their load, the designers and structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti shored up the structure beneath the theater, which sits on a deck above the pier's parking garage. Eighteen 95-foot-long piles were driven to the bedrock of Lake Michigan. Because the Skyline Stage had to remain in place, construction materials had to be carefully slipped beneath its roof rather than lifted in by crane.

The outcome works in concert with changes to the pier's public spaces, designed by James Corner Field Operations of New York, which were unveiled last year on the occasion of the pier's centennial. This becomes apparent as you approach The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare.

Its new two-story lobby nicely frames an outdoor deck that overlooks the pier's pedestrian promenade and Lake Michigan. The deck, which has curving planter boxes but too much pavement, can be improved with moveable chairs and tables like those that helped bring New York's Bryant Park to life.

The lobby itself is sheathed in an attractively sleek wall of coated glass, which can become transparent or opaque depending on the level of sunlight. That feature doesn't just save energy. It endows the wall with subtle drama; it can either reflect its surroundings or open views on the activity inside.

The lobby's interior, two stories high with a mezzanine, is a bit pinched, but walls at its ends, washed in blue, help direct patrons to a pair of bridges that lead into the theater and its nine towers. Depending on their configuration, the theater can accommodate anywhere from 150 to 850, also counting seats on the floor.

Made of steel with wood finishes and fabric-backed theater seats, the three-level towers essentially function as spaceships that dock to the mother ship of the new theater building. Each has its own heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, electrical cabling for audio and video features, plus sprinkler systems. Between shows, they are lifted 3/8 of an inch off the ground on a bed of compressed air. It will take stage crews one to two weeks to move them into new configurations.

The risk of such a flexible system is that it will feel temporary and makeshift. But that was not the case opening night. The seating arrangement, while straightforward in character, has a built-in intimacy; the towers form a series of neighborhoods within the theater as a whole. Like all good theaters, the Yard accentuates the drama on stage and the connection between audience and actors. In that, it's true to its name, which derives from the "yard," or "pit," where the "groundlings" of Shakespeare's day gathered close to the stage because they were unable to afford a perch in the seats above.