In 1986, Barbara Gaines, one of the city's leading actresses, put together a company of performers and put on "Henry V" in the patio at the Red Lion Pub on Lincoln Avenue. "We only had two weekends to invite people we hoped would be potential supporters," she says of her dream to turn the venture into a year-round Chicago company devoted to the works of William Shakespeare. "We couldn't afford a rain cancellation. Not one. So we prayed for no rain.
"And one night, it rained everywhere else, on top of the nearby Biograph Theatre, across the street and on all the buildings around us," she says. "But never on our courtyard, and I thought at the time, Shakespeare must be holding an umbrella over us."Maybe he still is."
She's referring, of course, to the beautiful, comfortable, inviting auditorium and multimillion-dollar Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, which opens this week with "Antony and Cleopatra."
"Never in my wildest dreams did I envision this," says Gaines, artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater troupe, formerly called Shakespeare Repertory. "It's rare that a city thinks enough of the arts and Shakespeare to build them a theater."
Rare indeed: This is the first indoor theater built expressly for Shakespearean works in Chicago and one of the few in the U.S. The seven-story, 75,000-square-foot building boasts two theaters (a 525-seat mainstage arena and a 175-seat studio space), its own English pub, dressing rooms, fly space and a glass lobby, whose seven levels jut out over the Navy Pier promenade below. A 60-foot marquee, lit by more than 600 bulbs and engineered with fiber optics that give it an assortment of special effects, alerts visitors to the theater, which is east of the Skyline Stage and near the Ferris wheel.
"We wanted something that glittered like a jewel," architect Rick Fawell, of VOA Associates, says of the lobby. "I did a thesis in college in which I designed a theater inside out, and that was sort of the idea here. We created a space where the patrons themselves are on a stage, on view to the passers-by below."
Fawell's design isn't a flat glass wall but an assortment of prisms that vary the facade and allow patrons to stand in the lobby almost literally overlooking the promenade. It also affords a magnificent view of the city's skyline. "I tell people, if you don't like the production, at least you'll love the view from the lobby," Gaines jokes.
But, of course, the main focus will be on the theater, and here Gaines and executive director Criss Henderson say their input resulted in the theater of their dreams. They wanted to re-create the courtyard feel of theaters of Shakespeare's time. But they also wanted an indoor theater and they wanted to keep some of the stage design of the Ruth Page Auditorium, where the troupe performed since 1987.
"It had to be a thrust stage (which juts out into the audience as a platform) with a proscenium," Gaines says. It's an unusual combination that was also used at the Ruth Page.
Why that design? "I think the thrust is inviting for audiences. They don't feel they're observing so much as participating. Someone said, when standing on our stage, it's as if you could reach out and touch the audience."
The proscenium behind the thrust, meanwhile, allows for the best of both worlds. Gaines says: "The proscenium gives you depth and allows for some great joy or drama. ... But most of the time, the audience is near the action."
For inspiration, the architects turned to the Swan, a theater constructed within an old building for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon. "We went to many theaters, including the Globe," the recently built new home for Shakespeare in London, Fawell says. "The Swan is probably the closest."
But this theater is one of a kind, inspired in many ways by one of Shakespeare's favorite topics: nature. Forest green chairs cover the main-floor seating area, and the three levels of curved balconies are constructed of honey-colored ash wood. Textured Ohio sandstone in the rear walls adds another pastel shade (and enhanced acoustics), while the ceiling far away is painted midnight blue and dotted by Italian lights-the next best thing to a real nighttime courtyard sky, says Gaines.
The troupe's first outing, "Antony and Cleopatra," is directed by Gaines. "R&J," a contemporary drama about a group of male students who put on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," will open in late November in the studio.
Is Navy Pier ready for the Bard?
"We talked about this for nine years, and I kept saying no at first," says Gaines. "I couldn't have been more wrong. This is the most spectacular location for any theater."
"A high percentage of tourists visit Navy Pier," says Henderson. "They'll go home with the knowledge that Shakespeare is a large part of Chicago. What better message to send to the world?"
The new theater's stage is unique in that it combines two familiar forms: the thrust stage, in which the stage juts out into the audience as a platform, and the more traditional proscenium.
The thrust, which often is a preferred manner of Shakespearean staging, enables the actors to play scenes literally in the midst of the audience, who surround it on three sides.
The proscenium, which refers to the rectangular arch that traditionally separates actors and audiences, sits behind the thrust here and is available for moments where great space and distance can underscore the drama, such as battle scenes or, to use artistic director Barbara Gaines' example, Lear carrying the body of his dead daughter Cordelia near the end of "King Lear."
The new theater boasts 525 seats. The main floor has 333, both out in the open surrounding the thrust stage and under the two levels of galleries.
From the stage jutting out into the seats to the bricks on the wall, the theater has been designed for the best possible sound.
The south wall: A series of walls and spaces reduces noise. Inside the theater is terra cotta brick, followed by a foot of cement block, 2-3 feet of air space and another layer of cement block. A 5-foot corridor is part of the lobby but also provides air space.
The north wall: There are built-in "structures" between the theater wall and the parking wall that act as sound barriers. Strips of a material like that found in wetsuits absorbs vibrations from the garage.
"Antony and Cleopatra," chosen, in part, because Gaines had a dream of Cleopatra sailing up the Chicago River, Oct. 15-Dec. 12.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of Shakespeare's most popular and fool-proof comedies, Jan. 21-March 12.
"All's Well That Ends Well," a dark comedy, April 20-June 4.
Take a virtual tour: Visit the theater, preview the season schedule and find out about tickets at metromix.com/go/shakespeare
THE HISTORY OF NAVY PIER
1916: The Pier, later renamed Navy Pier, opens to the public, combining shipping and public entertainment. The Pier is part of Daniel Burnham's Master Plan of Chicago.
1921-22: Start of "Golden Age" of the Pier; "Pageants of Progress" draws 1 million visitors.
1927: Officially renamed Navy Pier as tribute to WWI Navy veterans.
1941: Pier is leased to U.S. Navy.
1946: The University of Illinois transforms the Pier into a two-year undergraduate branch campus. It is in operation until 1965.
1967: After McCormick Place convention center is destroyed by fire, Navy Pier hosts conventions.
1970-75: Navy Pier falls into disuse.
1976: East Grand Ballroom is renovated.
1977: Pier is designated a Chicago landmark.
1978-82: Navy Pier hosts ChicagoFest.
1989: The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority is created to manage and operate Navy Pier (and McCormick Place). Its goal: to make the Pier into an exposition and recreation facility.
1994: As part of a $150 million redevelopment project, improvements made to the Pier.
1995: Redesigned Navy Pier opens, with mix of year-round entertainment.
1997: Navy Pier and Shakespeare Repertory Theater officials announce plans to build Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
1999: Chicago Shakespeare Theater opens.
A new era for classical drama in Chicago begins this weekend when the opulent Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier opens with Barbara Gaines' production of "Antony and Cleopatra." Although the works of William Shakespeare have long played a part in this city's theatrical life, there has never been a building for classical theater to approach this posh palace.
Inspired by the Swan Theatre in England's Stratford-Upon-Avon and costing at least $23 million to construct and outfit, this grand structure is a veritable mini-theme park for the Bard. With a beautiful and intimate 525-seat mainstage at its heart, the theater also features a flexible studio space and a whole raft of other facilities, including an English pub and garden and a complex of meeting rooms. And the views, of course, are delightful.At an event held in the space last month to celebrate the lighting of the neon sign heralding the first show, the staff and board of directors of what used to be known as the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre were in giddy moods.
"Welcome to your new home, Mr. Shakespeare," grinned Bernie Sahlins, a longtime supporter of the theater and a man who remembers the days when Chicago's city fathers had no interest whatsoever in supporting the development of a classically oriented non-profit theater. Artistic director Gaines spoke emotionally of the 1986 production on the roof of the Red Lion Pub that led to the formation of her singularly successful company (she spent all of $3,000 on that debut effort). And speaker after speaker waxed lyrical about how the Chicago Shakespeare Theater would immediately take its place at the forefront of the world's classical theater companies.
That's forgivable hyperbole; there's some heavy international competition out there. But it certainly appears that those who argued that Shakespeare Rep's subscriber base would be scared away by the well-documented parking and overcrowding problems at Navy Pier were wrong.
Subscription sales for the debut season are going so well that single tickets to the inaugural season may be quite difficult to snag. (If you want to see "Antony and Cleopatra" in the next few weeks, move fast. At press time, only a few single tickets remained.)
"I find it hard to believe," says managing director Criss Henderson, "but there were people out there who did not even know that we existed. But a lot of those Shakespeare lovers have found us now."
In its last year at the Ruth Page Theatre, Shakespeare Rep had 8,000 subscribers. As of this weekend, some 95 percent of the old subscription base had renewed their commitment for the 1999-2000 season. But the more surprising news is how many new people have joined them.
According to Henderson, close to 16,000 subscription packages have now been sold for the three-show season. ("A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "All's Well That Ends Well" are the productions that follow "Antony and Cleopatra.")
Since this theater has only about 500 seats and shows run for about six weeks, that means about 85 percent of the available capacity has been sold before the Queen of the Nile says a word. Add the likely bounce of this weekend's opening, with all its media attention, and the result should be a pre-sold percentage that rivals that of Steppenwolf Theatre or the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
So should this new theater have been built with more capacity?
"Everybody told me to get a theater with at least 1,000 seats," says Gaines. "But I wanted to keep it small and intimate. What matters to me is not the number of people in the theater but to create a supreme experience for the people who are there. I never want us to become as big at the Stratford Festival (in Ontario) or the Royal Shakespeare Company."
Theaters fail or prosper, of course, based on the quality of the audience experience. And while increases in subscription numbers often accompany splashy new theater buildings, the trick is to retain the gains once attention has moved elsewhere.
But such challenges should not detract from a very special weekend for Gaines (who has remained unshakingly loyal to a group of accomplished Chicago actors) and her gorgeous theater.
"I've always tried to emphasize the text and tell a good story," Gaines says. "And I've never forgotten that it is Chicago actors that gave this theater its life."
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