At Play in the Yard - An Inside Perspective With CST's Chris Plevin

by Michael Eddy
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Stage Directions recently spoke with Chris Plevin, the director of production for Chicago Shakespeare Theater about the flexibilty of the company's new theater, The Yard. Plevin explains to us why he feels, "We have a space that now on every show can really respond to the artistic and creative aspirations of the stories that we were trying to tell." 

First here is a bit of background on the project:
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which last year celebrated its 30th season, now has more reason to celebrate as they just cut the ribbon on The Yard, a new, innovative, and truly flexible theater space. CST has been operating two theaters on Navy Pier since they moved there in 1999. The Yard has been built under the canopy of the former Skyline Stage on top of Navy Pier, so it truly combines adaptive reuse with innovation and flexibility.

“The Yard is forward-thinking and responsive—and a fitting expression of the theater that Chicago Shakespeare has become,” said Criss Henderson, Chicago Shakespeare executive director. “The versatility of the space means that it is perfectly suited to the widest range of our work: from large-scale musicals and new commissioned works, to international imports, and programs for young audiences, and, of course, bold imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays, and the classics.”

When planning the expansion, CSTs leadership took both an economically and environmentally sustainable approach by deciding to repurpose elements of the underutilized former Skyline Stage on Navy Pier, transforming it into a fully enclosed, indoor theater. The new, 33,000 square-foot expansion connects through a spectacular, two-level glass lobby to Chicago Shakespeare’s existing building—home to the 500-seat Courtyard Theater and 200-seat theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.

The team that collaborated closely with CST on the forward-thinking design includes: Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), along with UK-based theater consultancy firm Charcoalblue.

Construction on The Yard began in March 2016, and was completed in a whirlwind 18 months. The build incorporated 2,500 tons of concrete, 375 tons of steel, and 15 miles of electrical conduit. Eighteen 95-foot-long micropiles were driven into the lake’s bedrock below Navy Pier to support the additional weight of the new structure. The fully enclosed, year-round theater chamber was constructed below the white tent of the former stage with exacting engineering specifications, resulting in less than six-inches of clearance at the narrowest point between the steel beams and tent canopy. The existing stage house and backstage support areas of the former Skyline Stage were all refurbished for reuse. The decision to employ adaptive reuse in the architectural design reduced building costs dramatically, bringing the total cost to $35 million—far less than half of the projected estimates for entirely new construction.

The Yard features a flexible design: nine audience seating towers which can be rearranged in a wide array of configurations, with audience capacities ranging from 150 to 850. “Nothing is more thrilling to theater-makers than flexibility,” noted artistic director Barbara Gaines. “The adaptable platform of The Yard gives artists a theatrical ‘blank slate’ in which to shape their work without the physical constraints of a fixed footprint—and gives audiences an exciting, new perspective from their seats for each production.”

The Yard’s towers have been pioneered especially for this design under the direction of Chicago Shakespeare’s Henderson and Charcoalblue’s managing partner, Andy Hayles, and fabricated by Montreal-based Show Canada. These complex structures (each measuring 12’ deep x 18’ wide x 37’ tall) house extensive theatrical technology, and connect into a network of HVAC components, and sprinkler systems to provide maximum audience comfort and safety. Additional modular main-floor seating risers and custom-built stage decking from Staging Concepts complete each configuration. [See page 28 for more details on the audience towers.]

“This theater is going to be unique in the world,” said Hayles. “You can’t really appreciate it unless you come again and again to experience how different this room can feel for each production. It’s not just going to be what is on the stage, but where is the stage.”

Now on to An Inside Perspective With CST's Chris Plevin
As we noted at the beginning Stage Directions recently spoke with Chris Plevin, the director of production for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as he was changing over from The Yard’s inaugural production, James Thierrée’s The Toad Knew to Teatro Línea de Sombra’s Amarillo. With a production and an audience configuration change under his belt Plevin walks us through production innovations at The Yard in his own words: 

Considered Infrastructure 
First I want to say that all of the architects and consultants, contractors and vendors, have been absolutely incredible. They are the epitome of a collaborative team, where others  would have run screaming, they stayed and they innovated. We were all equally fish out of water in figuring out what this was going to be and everyone made it work beyond what we imagined.

I think the choice to treat significant portions of the infrastructure as touring was important for us. The original Courtyard was never intended to be flexible. We have, despite that fact, over the years converted it and sort of forced it into a number of shapes that it was never intended to take on. Every time we do that we take what was an entirely hardwired infrastructure and flex it into different configurations.

In our schematic design process, we took all of the configurations and overlaid them and then took different catwalk layout schemes and placed them over each configuration. We knew that there was no perfect placement because if you put a catwalk everywhere where you’d want it to be, relative to all of the seating configurations, you’d wind up with all catwalk and no openings. We needed to find the catwalk layout that best served the most configurations. Then from there we added a certain degree of flexibility, from a rigging standpoint in particular, through installation of travelling beams that are over the catwalks and hang from the high steel. 

These rolling beam trolleys span across the void and allow us to position them wherever the stage might be. If we have a need to rig something directly over the center of the in-the-round configuration, for example, we might not have a rigging point off the permanent catwalk infrastructure. These beams mean that we can, from the catwalks, grab either end of this beam, roll it out into place where we want it to be, and then there’s a pin that we stick through the rolling beam and through a hole that is drilled through the primary steel of the building, which locks that beam in place. It offers us an immense amount of flexibility from a rigging standpoint and allows us to much more efficiently place those points as needed. We bought a very significant complement of chain hoists for the space and plan on adding an automation system in the near term.

Production Elements
As I said, we wanted to treat all of the production elements as touring systems so the speakers are all individually rigged and placed depending on the needs of the show. We worked with d&b Audiotechnik and did a bunch of modelling and prediction work in our design phase. We didn’t put a main center array in the space as we have in our Courtyard theatre. More audio than lighting infrastructure really has to move to be able to source to the audience wherever the audience might happen to be. 

In terms of lighting, we have power and data drops on the catwalk. The ETC Sensor3 dimmer modules can be switched to be dimmers, non-dims, or relays. With this space, it’s not just about the flexibility of the venue architecturally, but is also intended to just get as much flexibility as possible to our artists. 

No matter the system, we don’t need to have a permanent solution with conduit and permanence. That holds true for audio, lighting, rigging, and the staging as well. We want to reflect the flexibility and responsiveness of the towers; that responsiveness and the flexibility of the theatrical infrastructure to be in their toolbox.

There’s no permanent stage in place. The room without the towers in it; without the modular decking system and the audience and staging platforming is just a big flat, concrete floor. There’s absolutely nothing permanent in there. We wanted the ability to change heights, to change width, to change depth, to increase trapability when the situation demanded, etc. We wanted to be able to do something in terms of the terra-forming the floor; that it was entirely and completely flexible. That grew as well out of having concrete and I-beams and other structure in the floor of the Courtyard theatre that at times limits us. 

In terms of networking for the different disciplines, we relied wherever possible on digital protocols. We have all audio and all lighting done over networks. We have almost no hard DMX. We did really try to future proof in terms of the in-wall containment. We pushed a bunch of fiber through the walls. Again, not because we think we need it right now but because as video becomes more and more prevalent and the resolution of things increases and increases we think we’re going to find ourselves more and more needing that backbone. We’ve wired the entire building with fiber top to bottom. 

We distributed around the room, utility panels that offer us lighting data, audio data, fiber, multi-connections. They’re basically through the umbilical connections on which the theatrical infrastructure that is contained within the towers, gets its services. Everything home runs back to a rack room, which contains all of the dimmers, all of the amplifiers, all of the video sourcing. We also have some automation networking, as well. 

The Yard  Photo Credit: JamesSteinkampPhotography

Towering Results
The idea was to have as little of the production gear permanently affixed, and be able to use these patch points for all disciplines throughout the room to respond as needed. I think that’s really the through line; to make sure that we have the utmost flexibility at all times in all disciplines because the towers are kind of the beginning of that conversation and they certainly drive a lot of that conversation in terms of how the room is used but we didn’t want those towers to exist in an otherwise permanent context.

In regards to the audience towers, it was a hugely collaborative process between us, our theatre consultants, and Show Canada to engineer these audience towers. We spent years working to figure out not just what we needed to cram into these towers, but how to cram it in. They work really well though. It takes three people to physically move a tower. In terms of what it takes to make the tower move across the floor; you really only need two people. The challenge that we run into is that, because they move so well, and because they’re floating, there’s no friction. So, if you push them and you don’t have two people on the other side, they’ll just keep going, so three people minimum. We use two people on the back, two people on the front. That’s really all you need to move them. Now, we have added people just from a safety and monitoring standpoint. We have people up in the catwalks and people in the adjacent tower who are there, again, because the clearances in some of these moves is an inch. 

I think one of the greatest compliments that we received in our first week of performance in this space, is that people had no idea that this was a flexible temporary space just from entering the room if they had not been told. Many will be surprised when they come to the next show. 

CST The Yard Tower Configurations

Unrestricted Creativity
For me, from a design standpoint, I love being able to have conversations with directors and designers and say, ‘Let’s craft not just what is onstage but where the stage is going to be’ and discuss how close the audience is going to be to the stage,  and what that environment is with really very, very few constraints. Being able to have a conversation with our education teams and our artistic teams and our design and production teams about what do we want that relationship and environment to be with really very, very few constraints, a total blank sheet of paper in front of us, that is a rare opportunity. We have a space that now on every show can really be able to respond to the aspirations of the stories that we are trying to tell. 

I also think the thing that is inevitable will be designers, and this is one of the great things about this space, is we have the configurations that we have thought of and developed thus far. But I am absolutely certain that in the next 12 months, one of my designers is going to come in and say, ‘Can I use the towers like this instead?’ We will be re-thinking the way these towers are able to be positioned, ways we haven’t yet thought of and that will be exciting. Alternately, it certainly comes with its challenges, but it’s really exciting to be able to have that opportunity, and to be able to have a space where your designers can come in and say, ‘I want to do something entirely new in here that hasn’t been done before.’ In 95% of the theaters of the world, I think as it relates to the kinds of structural modifications that we’re talking about, the answer would be, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ In The Yard, we can say, ‘Let’s think about how we can do that.’ I think this space really does offer us the opportunity to engage in those conversations. It may be challenging to accomplish, but it’s actually something that you can have a conversation about. That is extraordinarily exciting. 

James Thierrée The Toad Knew, presented by La Compagnie du Hanneton at CST Credit: ©Richard Haughton

As we get into the process of preparing for the season to come, there will be many questions about the space. Not just because people haven’t used it, but because it’s the doubled-edged sword, right? You give artistic teams and production teams this unrestricted artistic sandbox to play in, and they do exactly what you ask them to do. They let their creativity be unrestricted and as all talented artists should, they ask things, things about ways in which they might use the space, which we hadn’t thought of. I think for us, it’s been a little bit of a tidal wave, ‘Wow, okay. These are things that we hadn’t necessarily anticipated people to ask us.’ It’s a surprise that, I think, is telling us that with this flexibility, it’s even more important for us to create and then adhere to earlier timelines with shows in that space. Because, the unknowns are always going to be greater, as you change the space so fundamentally. I think that’s something we’re going to be working through, I imagine, for the first couple of years of the space.