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Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Yard Opens at Navy Pier

Chicago Shakespeare Theater Rendering of The Yard

The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s (CST) new, innovative theater at Navy Pier, opened September 12.

Introducing a new trend in theatrical architecture, The Yard combines adaptive reuse with innovation in flexible design. Bulley & Andrews (B&A) constructed the new theater, working alongside CST and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), to bring this impressive new performance space to life.

“The Yard is forward-thinking and responsive–and a fitting expression of the theater that Chicago Shakespeare has become,” said Criss Henderson, CST’s 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.”

Complex Construction

To create the revolutionary new space, elements of the underutilized former Skyline Stage on Navy Pier were repurposed, transforming it into a fully enclosed, indoor theater. The new, 33,000 square-foot expansion connects through a spectacular, two-level glass lobby to CST’s existing building. Significantly reducing energy costs for the Theater, the two-story lobby curtain wall was fabricated with 3,200 square feet of electrochromic SageGlass®, which adjusts the windows’ level of opacity depending upon the level of sunlight (akin to transition lenses used in eyeglasses). When the glass is at its most opaque, the Theater’s curved façade is virtually mirror-like — reflecting the stunning views of the Chicago skyline and lakefront.

Construction of The Yard began in March 2016 and was completed by B&A in a whirlwind 18 months. More than 200 architects, engineers and designers, and 400 construction workers contributed to the complex build, which 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 iconic white tent with exacting engineering specifications, resulting in less than six inches of clearance at the narrowest point between the steel beams and tent canopy.

The construction timelapse video below showcases the complex nature and expert coordination The Yard project required.

Dynamic Design

The Yard features a first in flexible design: nine audience seating towers — each the size of a London double-decker bus, stood upright — which can be rearranged in a wide array of configurations, with audience capacities ranging from 150 to 850. Between productions, compressed air skid technology (commonly utilized in industrial and aeronautical settings) lifts each of the 35,000-pound towers 3/8 of an inch off of the ground on a bed of air, allowing them to be moved and repositioned by a three-person team.

“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 were pioneered especially for this design under the direction of CST’s Criss Henderson and Charcoalblue’s Andy Hayles, and fabricated by Montreal-based ShowCanada (best known for its work with Cirque du Soleil and on large-scale theatrical events like the Olympic Opening Ceremonies). 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 complete each configuration.

This dynamic design makes The Yard the most flexible theater in the world.

“The Yard, an innovative, immersive theater, will create electrifying performances and inspire all who walk through its doors,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “I am thrilled that Chicago Shakespeare now houses three world-renowned venues that will attract audiences from our city and cities around the world.”