Shakespeare Ahoy! The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Sets Sail on Navy Pier

Chicago theatre is a work in progress. The Steppenwolf recently renovated its studio. Restoration is underway at the Oriental Theatre, and renovation completed for the Palace, the Chicago Theatre, and the Arie Crown. The Goodman will open a new complex next season (see page 29). Meanwhile, young theatres move into spaces abandoned by established companies, adding to the thriving theatre scene.

Usually, construction progresses slowly. But the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST) has moved faster than a speedboat. Just two years ago, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) and the CST (then called Shakespeare Rep) agreed to build new theatre on Navy Pier. A steel frame went up this February, and the theatre opened its season in October. The building, with a mainstage, black box studio, assorted offices, and function rooms, occupies 77,000 sq. ft. Executive director Criss Henderson says the CST never slighted the main theatre when allocating square footage. "Offices and lobbies started to shrink; the theatre always won out," he notes.

What's unusual is that the building is constructed vertically on a narrow site, about 75' wide, on top of a bridge structure under water, with front-of-house space focused toward the city and Lake Michigan. Views become progressively more panoramic as spectators climb a wooden staircase to the sixth and seventh floors, where the studio theatre and offices are located. The structure hangs against a seven-story garage; were the two buildings fully attached, sound would carry too easily from one to the other.

VOA Associates, the Chicago architecture firm at the helm, took advantage of the parking structure, sliding a British-style pub, a bookstall, restrooms, and a good deal of back-of-the-house space into its second level, the main theatre floor. "This made the theatre feasible," says architect Rick Fawell. "Dressing rooms and loading need to be on the same level as the stage, but we could stack offices and other spaces."

An English garden, with herbs and plants the Bard mentioned in his plays, stands just outside the lobby. The first floor of the building is retail space that belongs to Navy Pier, save for an 18'-high trap room space for the stage. (The telescoping trappable stage and thrust forestage is 700 sq. ft. downstage of proscenium/thrust, 625 sq. ft. upstage of the proscenium.) The loading dock is far superior to the single door at the previous theatre. The old dock "forced so much added labor, worry, and expense," Henderson recalls; the new load-in ease will facilitate production scope and special effects.

The Swan Theatre served as a model for the project, but all involved sought to improve on the British prototype. "We looked carefully at that theatre, but we wanted to improve on sightlines," says Fawell, noting that comfortable individual seating substitutes for bench seating here, and it boasts a full fly tower, whereas the Swan has a more limited and limiting backstage.

The CST has a mainstage slightly larger than the Swan's, with 525 seats, 333 of these on the main floor, the others in a dress circle and gallery. What is central to both is the intimate thrust: The new space is a courtyard-style theatre with a thrust stage, backed by a full stage house and an extended rear staging area, 90' altogether.

"In Shakespeare's theatre, the scenery was Shakespeare's words. The words have greater relevance if they're placed into a context and scale of humanity," suggests David Taylor, who headed this project for Theatre Projects Consultants, the firm that co-planned the building and took charge of the design of many internal aspects, including drapes, lighting, and rigging. "Every face in a courtyard theatre is a live piece of scenery," Taylor continues, "reflecting and framing what's going on. We wanted to make this the most interactive space possible."

"We didn't want it to be an opaque massive box," says Fawell. "We wanted it to be light and airy, so we wrapped the entire theatre box itself in glass [lobbies]." Inside the theatre, brick walls, ash wood balconies, and seats upholstered in forest green bring a sense of the outside in, while helping to keep external sounds out. In the lobbies, earthtones of wood and sandstone dominate. The price tag? $22.2 million, $12 million from the theatre.

Another $18. 2 million came from the MPEA. CST also raised $10 million toward a $13 million goal,to cover operating expenses for the first two years and establish an endowment fund. Artistic director Barbara Gaines says a slew of visiting British directors thought it was money well spent, and quotes Sir Peter Hall, who said. "You have one of the best, if not the best, Shakespeare spaces in the world. I am very jealous."

Gaines wasn't always the envy of her colleagues. Since she founded the theatre in 1986, she has been doing excellent productions in the less than excellent Ruth Page Theatre. James Noone, who designed her final production there, both parts of Henry IV [See July 1999 ED] and her Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the CST, loved the old place. "It was a dump," he says. "You could do anything to it, spill paint on the floor, and nobody really cared." On the downside, there was no fly space, no backstage hallways, and the theatre couldn't stay clean--"A red floor would be black by the end of tech rehearsals."

Neil Patel struggled with moving scenery limits when he designed Merchant of Venice [see January 98 TCI]. He created three large caskets that seal the fates of Portia's suitors, but limited fly and trap ability sealed his, and he made the boxes smaller. "You had to come up with simple solutions," he says, adding that for Shakespeare's multi-scene plays, scenery should be able to come on and off in interesting ways.

Donald Holder, lighting designer for the Henrys, loved the intimacy of the Page and "the raw, unfinished condition of the audience environs," but nevertheless found sightline restrictions and the need for spare scenery "challenging...It was largely up to the lighting designer to create the atmosphere, provide a visual framework for the piece, and to create the world in which the play takes place," he says.

Sound designer Robert Neuhaus recalls the late 80s at the Page, when the theatre had nothing by way of equipment, and a shoestring budget. "We borrowed, we begged, we did everything but steal," he says. "The engineer and I crawled around in the catwalks running cable and speakers. We had to create a makeshift open-air sound booth in the balcony, with equipment on a table. We ran some things off cassette desks and reel tapes."

The first dressing-room monitor system was a baby monitor. In the second season, the sound and lighting systems started taxing an ancient electrical system, requiring rewiring. Eventually the theatre started buying equipment, including mini-disk decks, but was always limited by storage problems and an inability to control the space. Now a computer-based playback system consisting of three Denon DN-M1050R mini-disk recorder/players, a Denon DN-720R cassette deck, a Denon DN-680F compact disk player, and a Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder,will stay locked in a rack, in a theatre that CST doesn't have to share.

Acoustics at the Page were good--if you were in the right seat. "Once you got upstage of the process, you heard nothing, an acoustic vacuum a black hole," Neuhaus continues. Air conditioning proved problematic in the early days; fans and blowers reduced sound clarity. The close proximity of actors to audience helped, but the presence of a dance school in a room above did not.

The "costume hallway," as everyone called it, stood three flights above the theatre, and costumes had to be dragged up and down in a creaky elevator. "It was amazing how many large and complicated garments were wrestled to sewing machines in that narrow hall," says Nan Cibula-Jenkins. The fire escape was the costume paint area. "Initially, there was no phone connection with the costume 'shop,' so phone calls had to be relayed from the stage management office in the basement. It was a wonderful way to get one's exercise during tech week," says Cibula-Jenkins.

The new shop is modest, but a shop it is, with two large tables, washing and drying machines, and a sink. Now drapers and stitchers work onsite. "They can see the actors rather than having the stuff shipped to them," Cibula-Jenkins observes. "They felt it was their show." The full-time staff has grown from one to three. Jewelry is still made offsite, because the facility has no crafts space.

Navy Pier is abuzz 24/7. Planes fly overhead. Boats come in and out, sounding horns. Outdoor concerts and other entertainments are common. And people pull in and out of the adjacent garage constantly. Ambient noise can reach 100dB.

The Talaske Group, Inc, a firm out of Oak Park IL, took on the acoustical problem. "In midwinter days, we coordinated with the cruise boat operators and performed noise measurements at the site, during horn blasts," says Rick Talaske. "That gave us the engineering data we needed to specify a proper building system." He then worked with VOA to develop a multi-layer wall construction to protect against external sound, utilizing the exterior window skin as part of the isolation system.

Fawell says triple-width masonry, with block, stone, and brick on the interior, is grouted solid, to eliminate noises from the garage. The walls are nearly 2' deep. "We used brick shapes on the interior to diffuse sound on the side walls and to absorb the sound of rear walls," he says, adding that they maintain a consistent brick facade within. Balconies framed with wood railings, wood columns, and twinkle lights under catwalks used during intermission (for a starry night effect) combine with the brick to create a sense of warmth. to create a warm effect.

Talaske and his associates observed performances at the Page and came to understand the theatre's contemporary approach to Shakespeare. "We learned that high level music and loud audio effects were very much part of their standard technical repertoire, and we developed the acoustics of the space to reflect mid- and high-pitched sound needed for sound clarity, and to absorb low pitch sound, to avoid excessive bass buildup or 'boominess,' " says Talaske.

Talaske was concerned with the extreme thrust: "A high percentage of time, actors are oriented away from sections of the audience," he notes, explaining that a major goal was to provide a clarity of sound in all seats and avoid a situation where half the audience laughs while the other tries to figure out what was said. Working with the limited width of the audience chamber, Fawell developed a room shape where sound could be reflected across the room, off the sidewalls and balcony surfaces. "Also, there is a corner surface created between the sidewall and the underside of the balconies, and a small section of the balcony face also reflects sound across the room," Fawell notes.

The Talaske Group provided basics for actor paging and stage management, and for audience callback after intermission, using instrumentation that included a a four-channel main station supply, a one-channel remote wall station, a portable wall station back, a remote beltpack, and headsets. Left, right, and two different center loudspeaker positions are set in default positions but total removal and reorganization of these is possible, depending on design. In addition, a grouping of portable loudspeakers, for surround and special sounds, fit into thrust stage lips and catwalks.

Jonathan Laney, senior audio consultant with the Talaske Group, says Level Control Systems was tapped to provide sound cue automation similar to the lighting console programming. The digital signal processing unit optimizes the speaker system and allows space mapping so that sound cue can be moved through the speaker system and a designer can pan from front to back as well as right to left. The theatre is equipped with two LCS LD-88s as well as an SCSI Card (LD-165S) and a Remote LCS controller (RIF-108).

With speakers in four corners, it can move a sound around the room, digitally enhance it, and in the meantime start another sound cue. CST audio engineer Drew Hoge says "once you figure out how the computer thinks, you can make it do the work of six people." Laney notes that the LCS system has a high learning curve and requires a trained LCS programmer on board with the sound designer to program the unit. It took Hoge a month to become comfortable with the new set up. He spent time on thephone and with manuals, and flew to California to learn the system from the manufacturer, putting in a couple of 80 hours weeks before and during techs, programming and "repairing strange things." Once, when he fixed a bug that had several cues playing at once, an amplifier gave out, and nobody was sure if it was another program problem or the equipment itself.

Problems in programming as well as the shakeout of all the technical systems after installation extended into techs. LCS flew a technical representative to Chicago to work with Hoge and sound designer J.R. Conklin for two days. "There are all sorts of new systems for the crews to learn, new rigging and lighting and audio," Laney notes, adding that with the construction time window so compressed, some things weren't ready by previews.

Although Gaines doubled tech time from one week to two, she wished she'd had three. Previews became tech rehearsals and problems weren't sorted out until the night before opening. Most problems revolved around audio. In contrast, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind found everything functioning except the house light work control, a computerized back stage panel that has no counterpart at the light board console. Instead of an electrician snapping on work lights, someone needed to go backstage to turn on work lights.

It's small annoyance at an exciting theatre where Akerlind found an intelligently put-together inventory with extremely well done downstage sidelight positions. The fully networked system includes 300-plus lighting instruments, an ETC Obsession II, ETC Performance lighting dimmers, standard and multi distribution, and programmable strobe and low voltage cue light systems.

Obsession II, a new model that does "a lot more tricks than the Obsession I" but still has bugs, gave Akerlind some trouble, but not as much as electrical inspectors who almost shut the theatre down after a misunderstanding. Teching with house lights on while final touches were being put on a balcony didn't help. "In a normal situation, those things would have stressed everyone out, but we were all so excited, it was a charmed experience," he says.

Akerlind found the deep courtyard thrust "naturally fantastic for history plays and tragedies," but wonders if filling out the face will be problematic in comic moments. Bronx-based Pook Diemont & Ohl Inc. installed the counterweight rigging above the entire downstage thrust portion of the stage for use with complement of chain motors and controllers, and they provided adjustable platforming.

Noone tried to show off the space without overshadowing the play in the theatre's debut production, deliberately using the depth, the trap, and the flies "so people will get a sense of possibilities this new space will have." Using broad strokes to create Egypt and Alexandria, columns drop down from their hiding space in the fly tower and gold swag is lowered and raised out of sight as well.

A great staircase rises from middle of thrust, filling the entire proscenium stage and through the huge doors of the scene shop that open onto the stage. "We go 60' back with a piece of scenery," Noone says, to share "the sense of grandeur in the new space. Tunnels through the stairs allowed actors to get around. The only drawback is it's a much bigger space to fill, and coming up with a budget to fill it can be difficult. But the intimacy of the new theatre is just as wonderful."

Set and costumes were black. Cibula-Jenkins differentiated Romans from Egyptians with silver and gold accessories respectively, and by putting Romans in heavy clothing, the Egyptians in more ephemeral, shimmery see-through garments. Through shadow and light, Akerlind isolated characters from the set. Five entrances around the main theatre, along with regular proscenium entrances, allowed Gaines to immerse the audience in the action. She says the depth and thrust enabled her to juxtapose emotions and suggest Shakespeare's cosmic landscape.

Gaines is a kid with new toys: a thrust, a proscenium, state-of-the-art equipment. "But with Shakespeare," she says, "if you don't have fantastic actors who can speak the language, you don't have what is most important."

CST Audio List (Partial)

CENTRAL CLUSTER (3) EAW MK2194 speakers (2) Crest CKS800 amplifiers

SIDE STACK (4) EAW MK2194 speakers (2) Crest CKS800 amplifiers

SUBWOOFERS (2) EAW SB180P speakers (1) EAW two-band MX200i-TGI speaker controller (1) Crest CKS1200-2 amplifier

UNDER BALCONY--Lower (13) EAW UB12ST64 speakers (3) Crest CKV400 amplifiers

UNDER BALCONY--Upper (4) EAW UB12ST64 speakers (1) Crest CKV400 amplifier CONTROL ROOM/PROCESSING (1) EAW MM12S speaker system (1) Crest CKS400 amplifier (1) Crest NC-DSP-A DSP processing module (8) Audio Accessories WQP01EC24N2 patchbay

COMPUTER CONTROL (2) LCS LD-88 digital audio processors (1) LCS LD-16SS CSI card (1) LCS RIF-108 remote LCS controller

HOUSE MIX/PROCESSING (1) Crest X-8 console w/accessories (1) Klark-Teknik DN 504 four-ch. limiter (1) Lexicon PCM80 digital effect (1) Lexicon PCM90 digital effect (1) pair Beyer DT-250-80 headphones

PLAYBACK/RECORDING (3) Denon DN-M1050R mini-disk recorder/players (1) Denon DN-720R cassette deck (1) Denon DN-680F compact disk player (1) Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder

EFFECTS/MONITOR (2) EAW FR122e speakers (3) EAW JF80Y speakers (3) EAW UB82 speakers (2) EAW SM122e speakers (4) Crest CKS800 amplifiers

WIRELESS MICS (1) Shure UA840A UHF/power distro system (2) Shure U124D/87 UHF wireless combo mic systems (6) Sennheiser MKE2-5 RDC lavalier mics

INTERCOM (1) Clear-Com MS-440 four-ch.main station & supply (2) Clear-Com KB-112 one-ch. remote wall stations (2) Clear-Com P-BOX portable wall station box (10) Clear-Com RS-501 remote beltpack (10) Beyer DT-280-TGI headsets-single muff (2) Clear-Com HS-6 handsets

HEARING ASSISTANCE (1) Sennheiser SI1015/NT two-ch. IR transmitter (4) Sennheiser SZI1015 IR emitters (20) Sennheiser RI-250IR headset/receivers

CST Lighting List (Partial)

Mainstage Extensive telescoping trappable stage and thrust forestage (700 sq. ft. downstage of proscenium/thrust, 625 sq. ft. upstage of proscenium.) Supplier: Staging Concepts (24) single-purchase counterweight linesets in upstage stagehouse Multiple rigging beams above entire downstage thrust portion of stage for use with chain motors and controllers

Rigging installation: Pook Diemont & Ohl (PDO)

Performance and architectural lighting system (1) ETC Obsession II console (378) ETC 2.4K performance lighting dimmers (6) ETC 6.0K performance lighting dimmers Standard and multi distribution (300+) lighting instruments (including ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Source Four PARs, and Mini-Strips) Programmable strobe system TPC-designed low voltage programmable cuelight system, by ETC Fully functional performance lighting ethernet nodes for DMX distribution

Performance lighting and architectural controls installed by Chicago Spotlight

Studio Theatre Pipe grid Telescoping portable seating riser platform system for multiple courtyard performance configurations Performance and architectural lighting system (1) ETC Express console (192) ETC 2.4K performance lighting dimmers Standard and multi distribution Fully functional performance lighting ethernet nodes for DMX distribution

The Goodman Theatre has found a way to expand its audience, now at 96% capacity, and to expand its repertoire. Chicago's prominent theatre is reinventing half a block in the city's North Loop and radically expanding its space.

The current Goodman house, adjacent to the Art Institute, was never adequate. More lecture hall than theatre, "the space inhibits intimacy and subtlety," says Jeffrey Muskovin, former Goodman production manager, who is managing the building project. "It really forces us into a limited repertoire."

Zoning laws prohibit a fly tower, so the theatre has been making do with a compound plastic cyclorama, curved upstage and downstage. A curved ceiling prohibits a permanent grid and many lighting positions. Attempts to cope resulted in a jerry-rigged grid, with overhead clearance that varies from 6" to 2', depending on where a technician crouches; it usually takes the Goodman over a week to change shows.

Acoustics? Don't ask. The present space lacks adequate reflective surfaces. "Also, psychologically, the relationship between the audience and actors is really disadvantaged in that the sightlines of this house are very low and shallow," reports Muskovin.

All that's changing. When it opens on Dearborn St. this fall, the center will sport two theatres and a restaurant-retail complex, built partly behind the restored terra-cotta facade of two historic theatres. The Goodman has gutted the Harris Theatre, salvaged a little of the Selwyn, and is joining them with a third building. The cost for this 171,000-sq.-ft. project exceeds $45 million, acquired through fundraising ($26 million so far), financing, and a city subsidy of $18.8 million.

Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects Consultants, the outfit that provided programming and theatre consulting for the project, says the Goodman has been exploring options since 1986. These included building a new theatre within the existing house--something more intimate and with a balcony. When it became clear the Art Institute wanted its space back, and the present space became available, the project crawled forward.

It should be worth the wait. The Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, a proscenium with boxes and a balcony, will increase seating from the present 683 to about 800, but the room is actually smaller and more intimate, with the audience closer to the stage. The space offers plenty of trappable stage area and grid space. (Proscenium width: 45'; height: 25'-10"; stagehouse width: 101'; depth: 43'; height: 75'-6" to grid.) The house will reflect elliptical architectural patterns in wood and stone finishes, with side boxes fronted by curved wood rails and wood columns. An undulating wood balcony front will be a key acoustic as well as an aesthetic element.

The Owen Bruner Goodman will have a courtyard shape, with three levels of galleries on the sides and rear. Movable seats and platforms made of thick exposed timber allow in-stage, thrust, and runway arrangements, with seating capacity ranging from 300-450, depending on configuration. (Width: 54'; depth: 71'; height: 31' to grid.) Muskovin says the plan is to avoid a stigmatized second stage or studio, and create a house "with a lot of character, not a neutral black box, a space that in no way could be compared to the proscenium theatre next door."

Audio will be automated with a Level Control System, for the first time incorporating speakers into the playback. Both theatres will have a fully networked and architectural lighting system, each with an ETC Obsession console, hundreds of 2.4K ETC performance lighting dimmers, and fully functional performance lighting ethernet nodes for DMX distribution.

Such high-tech features permit large casts and multi-set shows in either space. "What makes it exciting is that now we can do a big Shakespeare in the small theatre or an intimate play in the big space," Muskovin says.

Muskovin applauds architects who were "in tune with and protective of the Goodman Theatre's program requirements. We told them the theatre was going to be designed from the inside out and form would follow function," he says. Nevertheless, much attention has gone to the exterior and the non-performance public spaces within, and the new Goodman ought to be a beaut. New and existing elements will be unified through a combination of transparent and opaque glass panels, one of those a glass wall through which passersby will see a laser light show projected on the cylinder's slanted ceiling.

Taking a cue from the architectural style established by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg of Toronto and Decker Legge Kemp of Chicago, the firm of Schuler & Shook is doing exterior lighting designed to draw the public in. "The Goodman is right in the middle of the development the city likes to call Theatre Row, and the exterior is competing with other large theatres in same neighborhood," Schuler & Shook principal Robert Shook notes. They will illuminate the lobby with bright vertical surfaces and back walls. A two-story-high atrium that joins the buildings features a skylight and an elliptical staircase; small fixtures along each tread of stair will add sparkle. Since the original structures are ornate, exterior lighting will be detailed, playing close to the building to highlight the facades.

Historical facades weren't the only givens. A subway system lies beneath half the project, for which plans and documents weren't available. "Once we started into the demolition and construction phrase, we discovered things weren't where we thought they were," Muskovin says. "We're still dealing with ripples of that."