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PLAYING IN 'THE YARD' - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Few things are more rewarding than spending time with students who are discovering something for the first time. On a brisk day in March, the topic was Shakespeare: a crisp, shortened version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, with formidable Chicago talent presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the glorious new versatile performance space known as 'The Yard.'  Part of the fun, a terrific experience from beginning to end, is that this is an old-fashioned field trip with six Chicago school groups filling up the place. It is all part of the educational program that provides over 40,000 students access to world-class productions at CST.

For me, it was a little like going back to school again, but without the bus ride. All of a sudden I am in and among a hip, sea of exuberant, young people for a 21st century cultural happening - an extraordinary example of just one of many opportunities offered up by the arts community for students across the City of Chicago.

At CST in years past, the educational outreach was designed alongside the main stage program, often competing for valuable space, time and resources. Fewer students were served in those days and there were all kinds of logistical challenges. Add in that Navy Pier has been constantly evolving and it gets complicated. That expansion – the new Centennial Ferris Wheel, food court, a state-of-the-art upgrade to the IMAX Theatre, the reconstruction of the plaza and main pavilion - is moving briskly and there is more to come.

At the epicenter, however, tucked magnificently in the middle of all the rest, is The Yard.

Not so quietly, the CST has been executing a long-range plan to transform the former Skyline Stage area into a new performance space. On this day, like many when there are two shows, 300 students from six schools attended the 10:30 a.m. performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

From the main lobby, The Yard is a sunlit stroll west along a window wall - the technical term is 'electrochromatic facade' - that reaches 30 feet high. The facade panels can be individually adjusted to block UV rays - think transition lenses in eyeglasses.

The hallway leads to access on both sides of the main floor. As you come around the corner and enter The Yard for the first time, you never really know what you might find. The 90 ft. towers that move independently to frame the performance area encircle the thrust stage for this production which was mounted and performed primarily for students. Except for a few chaperones, there appeared to be no one much over 18.

Cast member Chris Sheard (Lysander) welcomed the group from the stage, telling the students Shakespeare's language is like music, you have to adjust to the language, listen to the tone and watch the expression on the actors faces as the story unfolds. He encouraged everyone to stick with it and the context of the story will reveal itself.  

The play was superbly condensed into a lean and understandable Elizabethan fairy tale with a delightfully talented cast including Christina Clark(Hippolyta/Titania), Sean Fortunato(Theseus/Oberon), Travis Turner(Philostrate/Puck) and Jarrett King (Eqeus/Quince). The lovers played by Ally Carey, Faith Servant, Andrew L. Saenz and Sheard brought youthful cheers from the students when they kissed. This crowd was attentive, respectful and definitely 'stuck with it.'

The entire cast participated in the post-performance talk back. The engaging questions asked by the group included the challenges of "doubling" characters, stage construction and elevation, the actor crossway underneath, the production process from adaptation, tablereads, rehearsal, tech, opening, and, what the actors favorite part of the story was. Carey was asked how she got interested in Shakespeare recalling a touring company performance of Midsummer, following which she wrote a letter to her teenage self predicting to someday be a Shakespearean actor. Not so many years later, Carey admits that the older you get, Shakespeare becomes "more right!" When asked about character development, King said that he starts by trying to find elements of the character that are like him. Every student was leaning forward by this time.  

Watch how Navy Pier's former Skyline Stage was redesigned into a forward-thinking, new venue and how its nine mobile towers are creating a space that reconfigures with each production. Video courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

We all have stories like this in our lives, which is, in essence, why CST has invested resources into this program. As more students participate, there is a higher likelihood that they will support the arts as adults. When you factor in the highly successful summer programs, CST’s outreach is a model for arts educational programming. Every student I spoke with understood the play, appreciated that they could attend and were looking forward to telling others about what they saw and how it influenced them. It was a first for every one I spoke to.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is aligning schools with programs for 2019. If you are interested, there is more information on the website. Additional performances of Midsummer have been held in schools who did not have the ability or resources to attend the performances in The Yard. And the popular Shakespeare in the Park series is gearing up for another amazing season. 

Model of stage for CST's MACBETH in The Yard. More in the CST's    Behind the Scenes Gallery

Model of stage for CST's MACBETH in The Yard. More in the CST's Behind the Scenes Gallery

All of this would not be possible without an extraordinary commitment to education by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the vision of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines and Executive Director Criss Henderson that has created the award-winning new facility. The Midsummer thrust stage is the fourth configuration since the facility opened last fall with the largest proscenium at 850-seats for "The Toad Knew," a 350-seat proscenium for Teatro Linda de Sombra's "Amarillo," and the 400-seat cabaret for "Q Brothers Christmas Carol."

The next show to be bubbling up: the highly anticipated production of that “Scottish" play directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (Penn & Teller) which opens April 25th. 

Looking forward to coming around the corner for this one.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
800 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
April 25 through June 24th

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher


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