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."
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.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT