2 March 2016  |  Chicago Tribune

New Chicago Shakespeare stage will transform Navy Pier

by Chris Jones

Behold the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Chicago Shakespeare announced on Wednesday its long-anticipated plans to expand its footprint on Navy Pier and take over the space formerly occupied by the concert and performance venue known as the Skyline Stage.

The plans involve a dramatic and innovative repurposing of the space that will change the face of the Pier, which itself is undergoing a huge, multi-year renovation. They also will greatly expand what Chicago Shakespeare is capable of producing and presenting at one of the city's most important entertainment and tourist destinations.

"We are building a theater for the future," said Barbara Gaines, artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare.

The new $35 million indoor venue was designed by the Chicago architects Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill in consultation with the British theater design firm Charcoalblue. New lobby areas will attach the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater to the existing Chicago Shakespeare building to the east. Construction is soon to be underway. Opening day for the Yard is projected for fall 2017.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater executive director Criss Henderson said Tuesday that the campaign for the new venue has a goal of $55 million, including an additional $20 million for expanded programming costs.  Of that amount, Henderson said, some $40 million has already been raised. Navy Pier has kicked in $15 million toward the cost of the Yard, even though Chicago Shakespeare will control the year-round programming.

The new theater is to be built under the existing white canopy of the Skyline Stage, which will become a canvas upon which lights can be projected. The new theater also will retain the current indoor stagehouse of the old, summer-only venue, essentially attaching a huge, soundproof concrete box that will contain the audience and, in most configurations, the performers.

Those audience members will be seated on one of nine towers — each roughly the size of a city bus — that can be moved around on casters to create theatrical events in a whole variety of configurations, allowing the space to seat up to 850 patrons or offer a more intimate experience, as the projects demand.

"We think we will have one of the most forward-looking and innovative spaces in the world," Henderson said, "in terms of flexibility, sustainability and responsiveness."

Each tower will seat about 50 patrons, and come with its own heating and cooling equipment, as well as lighting positions and other technical capabilities that allow for maximum creative adaptability.

Henderson said that the Yard could be variously configured as a proscenium, Broadway-style theater, a thrust stage or something more akin to an arena-type experience, allowing for such works as "Black Watch," a touring production from Scotland that Chicago Shakespeare presented at the Broadway Armory.

Andy Hayles, a partner in Charcoalblue, said that while flexible seating towers exist in a few theaters around the world, especially in the United Kingdom, this is the first time that nine of them have been employed in one venue.  "A lot of people will come to see this from all over the world," he said.

In some ways, this is fundamentally a cost-effective solution to the Skyline Stage space, which Chicago Shakespeare long has coveted. An entirely new building likely would have cost twice this amount. Moreover, given the visibility of the space from both the new Ferris wheel and from the residencies at Lake Point Tower, there likely would have been a battery of opinions and possibly objections to any new design. But by retaining the exterior tent, those issues have been avoided, even though Chicago Shakespeare still will be getting an indoor venue with a large number of seats, ideal for the populist and student-centered entertainment it often favors. The new space also will allow it to perform hit shows, such as "Ride the Cyclone" and the recent production of "The Tempest," for much longer runs, especially since the Yard can duplicate the configuration of the existing theater.

From Navy Pier's perspective, the new venue allows it to leverage Chicago Shakespeare's artistic savvy, and gain parking, restaurant and other revenue from its patrons. Skyline Stage did not prove successful as a concert venue, partly as a consequence of its size and configuration, but mostly as a result of heavy competition from larger outdoor venues.

By focusing on theater, and on family-friendly spectacle, Navy Pier will have a more reliable cultural niche and income stream.

"This will further solidify the Pier as a civic space," said Marilynn Gardner, the chief executive officer of Navy Pier. Gardner also said the new plans to project onto the surface of the tent will look "truly spectacular."

"The idea," Hayles said, "is that patrons will not know the configuration of the theater until they arrive inside the theater."

"What is most important," said Gaines, "is that this new theater triggers the imagination."