With its gorgeous balcony overlooking tall ships, promenading visitors to Navy Pier and a shimmering Lake Michigan, the neatly arranged office of the artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is probably the nicest such digs of any theater in America. Especially on a sunny July day.
When the occupant of the office turned to face the view on a recent idyllic morning, she first moved her hand toward the window, then brought it back to her heart, where it fluttered.This is one of the ways Barbara Gaines likes to depict her gratitude and love for all the good things and good people that have happened to her and the tiny theater she founded in Chicago some 20 years ago.
"Don't think. . . ," she says, the sentence suddenly coming to a halt. "Don't write that I have. . . ," she adds, and stops again.
Then, in another of her favorite gestures, she exhales a large breath and her tiny frame seems to crumple. Finally, she looks up and speaks.
"I just don't know how this ever happened to us," she says.
One can understand her mystification. The 55-year-old Gaines is sitting pretty atop the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, one of Chicago's great cultural success stories as it approaches its fourth season on Navy Pier. The theater has more than 23,000 subscribers and claims with justification to be the largest employer of actors in Chicago. Each year in its new home, it has renewed more than 85 percent of its previous subscription base, an impressive figure. Even in a rough economy, most of its mainstage performances sell out, and teachers from both city and suburbs routinely clamor to get their students in to see its matinees. With savvy planning, the theater even has figured out how to appeal to summer tourists, offering a seasonal diet of Shakespeare with reduced running times, teen-friendly parodies like "The Bomb-itty of Errors," and family-oriented musicals like "The Wizard of Oz."
When the construction of the $23.2 million theater was announced five years ago, many naysayers suggested that its mainly elderly audience would resist moving their subscriptions from the troupe's former home at the Ruth Page Theatre on North Dearborn Street to the tourist-driven, traffic-infested Navy Pier with its costly parking and carnival atmosphere. Clearly, that view did not prove to have much foundation. And even more remarkably, while cultural architecture is often the subject of controversy, the new theater on Navy Pier seems to have few, if any, detractors.
"I think it's the best space for doing Shakespeare that I have ever seen anywhere," says Sir Peter Hall, the creator of Britain's Royal Shakespeare
Company. "And I love the fact that it's there amidst the Ferris wheel and the hot dogs. I think Shakespeare would have wanted something even more down market than that."
We cannot know, of course, what Shakespeare would have wanted. But the more significant and largely unexamined matter is the nature and substance of Gaines' growing body of artistic work there amid the fast-food restaurants and the virtual-reality rides.
She's less of a mystery, for sure, than the playwright whose works she most admires, but she's still something of an enigma. She has arrived in this lofty place--one of the very best jobs in the American theater--without much formal training in direction and without any significant directing experience at any other theater or in any other city.
And this seemingly vulnerable woman, who does not hesitate to describe herself as "frail," made her way from doing Shakespeare on the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park to persuading the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the City of Chicago and other public bodies to contribute more than $18 million to help build one of the best venues for classical theater in the world. And now that all that is in place, she shows no sign of slowing down or stopping. Not only is Gaines directing "Love's Labor's Lost," which begins previews Friday and opens on Sept. 13, but she also talks openly and grandly about her plans for turning this theater into "an international magnet for the best artists in the world."
"In our profession you meet a lot of people who talk about doing things," says Michael Bogdanov, co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company in London. "That theater is testimony to someone who actually does things. For almost anyone else, building that kind of facility would take a lifetime of work."
Yet Gaines rejects any characterization of herself as a go-getter. "I have so much frailty," she says, "I am amazed the theater was built."
She was born Barbara Schwarz in 1946 to a family steeped in television. Gaines' late father, Mickey Schwarz, was a busy director of television commercials and her grandfather was an editor and producer. An industry kid, she liked to hang out at studios. "My dad taught me," Gaines says over lunch one day on Navy Pier, "that there was a creative solution to every problem."
After stints in Manhattan and Long Island, the Schwarz family (Gaines was one of three children) settled in suburban Portchester, N.Y., when Barbara was 10 years old. She says her family was a close one--her 82-year-old mother, Rhoda Schwarz, follows her daughter's career closely from her home in Baltimore. But despite the easy potential entree into the film and television business, Gaines says she wasn't interested. "I found film so boring," she says of the production process. "It didn't move fast enough to keep me interested."
When she was a teenager, Gaines came to Northwestern University's long-established National High School Institute, known as the Cherub Program, a summer experience for young people interested in theater that has trained a lot of future professionals. "A shiver went down my spine as soon as I was on the stage," she says. "This felt like home to me."
She returned to Northwestern for college, and that's where her budding fascination with Shakespeare was nurtured by Wallace Bacon, the late founder of what is now NU's Department of Performance Studies and a noted interpreter of the Bard's works.