At the heart of Navy Pier is a pioneering home for the world’s great theater artists: Chicago Shakespeare. Annually, the Tony Award-winning company produces as many as 650 performances of 19 productions: large-scale musicals, newly commissioned works, programs for young audiences, international imports, and, of course, audacious imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a dizzying amount of creative output that has long meant the company’s campus — home to the 500-seat Courtyard Theater and 200-seat theater Upstairs — is bursting at the seams. That is, until now.
In September, the Theater unveils a new, third stage called The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. This fully enclosed venue introduces a new trend in theatrical design to North America and creates an expanded campus — a world-class artistic home for extraordinary productions.
Chicago Shakespeare Executive Director Criss Henderson describes The Yard as nothing less than a “state-of-the-imagination” theater. It features a world’s first in adaptive design: nine moveable audience seating towers — each the size of a double-decker bus stood upright — that can be reconfigured to accommodate audience capacities from 150 to 850. Between performances, compressed air skid technology (imagine a mini hover-craft) allows each of the 35,000-pound towers to be moved by a three-person team into multiple configurations.
The design is a game-changer in global theater, according to Andy Hayles, Charcoalblue managing partner. “There is no theater anywhere where every single part of the balcony and the circle can be moved,” he says. “This is the world’s first.”
That means people will come from around the world to experience it — a fact not lost on Mayor Rahm Emanuel who notes, “With The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, Chicago is again leading the way in architectural design and innovation. With the addition of this third theater, Chicago Shakespeare will amplify our city’s position as a global destination for tourism.”
Perhaps most exciting is the creative opportunity for theater artists. “The flexibility of The Yard will offer us a new kind of venue, one that allows us the freedom to reconfigure and recalibrate a playing space each time we approach it,” says Chicago Shakespeare Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.
The first season of work showcases the versatility of The Yard, with daring artistry, international imports and more productions for students and family audiences. The Yard debuts as a large-scale proscenium seating nearly 800 for James Thierrée’s “The Toad Knew” (Sept. 19-23, 2017). For Teatro Línea de Sombra’s “Amarillo” (Oct. 17-29, 2017), it will transition into an intimate 350 seats with an expansive stage space. “Q Brothers Christmas Carol” (Nov. 21-Dec. 31, 2017) will transform the theater into a festive nightclub with cabaret tables surrounding the stage, in addition to traditional seating. It will take the shape of a Shakespearean-style thrust for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Feb. 3-March 10, 2018). Rounding out the season is “Macbeth” (April 25-June 24, 2018) staged by Aaron Posner and Teller (of famous magic duo Penn & Teller), who are in conversation to devise the configuration best suited to their artistic vision.
The Theater’s Board is in the final stretch of a $55 million capital and endowment campaign.
Steve Solomon, Chicago Shakespeare Board Chair and Exelon Vice President of Corporate Relations, concludes that with the addition of The Yard and the completion of the campaign, “Chicago Shakespeare will have the resources to match the art on its stages and solidify its place among the world’s greatest theaters.”
More from Make It Better: