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tessitura's innovator series

Creating a State of the Imagination Theater

Criss Henderson and Chris Plevin introduce us to The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, one of the most flexible theater venues in the world

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Read/View Time15 min

Chicago is home to one of the most flexible theater venues in the world: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater opened two theaters on Navy Pier in 1990: a 200-seat black box theater, and a 500-seat Elizabethan thrust stage. But over time, with the evolution of their programming as well as theater practice more broadly, they felt a need for not just more space — but a different kind of space.

In this Innovator Series talk, delivered live at the 2019 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference, Criss Henderson and Chris Plevin describe CST's journey to envisioning, building, and opening The Yard. 

The project followed some key mandates: radical artistic flexibility, paired with affordability and sustainability. 

“We embraced the idea that the facade of a cultural building does not have to be expensive and 'architecturally significant' to be vital,” said Criss. “In fact, its significance can come from the surprise of the experience found inside.”

Four interior photos of The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, each one showing a different configuration of stage and seating as well as different lighting.

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare in various configurations. Photos by James Steinkamp and Vito Palmisano. 

The dynamic design of the theater features nine mobile audience “towers,” which can be arranged in a wide variety of ways. Each tower is its own ecosystem: a fully equipped theatrical unit containing light and sound infrastructure, as well as heating, cooling, and fire protection. The Yard can hold anywhere from 150 to 850 audience members, and can be transformed into an endless list of theater geometries — thrust, proscenium, in-the-round, traverse, cabaret, and configurations that they haven't even imagined yet.

“That’s what we do in theater. We take dreams and turn them into reality.”
— Chris Plevin 

“Not only does the world onstage transform with every production,” says Criss, “but so does the one that we as an audience inhabit. Because we believe that every element of the theatrical experience can come alive as it is reimagined.”

Furthermore, he adds, “”the robust power of Tessitura makes the constant changing of the seating locations and capacity manageable.” 

The biggest thrill of the space, though, “”is that the innovation of the design and build process didn’t end on opening night.”

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare  

 This talk was recorded live at the 2019 Tessitura Learning & Community Conference. Scroll up and click the play button to watch the video.

Criss Henderson, seen from the shoulders up, wearing a jacket and tie and smiling slightly.

Criss Henderson

Executive Director

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Criss Henderson is the executive director of Chicago Shakespeare and has produced the Theater’s past twenty-nine seasons.

Under his leadership, CST has become one of the nation’s leading regional theaters and one of Chicago's most celebrated cultural organizations, honored with the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, as well as multiple Laurence Olivier and Joseph Jefferson Awards. He oversaw the Theater’s move to its home on Navy Pier in 1999 and led the recent development of The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. In 2016 he spearheaded the citywide, yearlong celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy, Shakespeare 400 Chicago.

Mr. Henderson has garnered multiple honors, including the 2013 Cultural Innovation Award from the Chicago Innovation Awards; Arts Administrator of the Year by Arts Management Magazine at the Kennedy Center; recognition in Crain’s Chicago Business “40 under 40”; and the Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture of France. Mr. Henderson has served on the boards of directors of the League of Chicago Theatres and Arts Alliance Illinois, and for many years as president of the Producers’ Association of Chicago-area Theaters.

Mr. Henderson is director of DePaul University’s MFA/Arts Leadership Program, a two-year graduate-level curriculum in arts management training created through a joint partnership between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and The Theatre School..

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A black and white photo of Chris Plevin, seen from the shoulders up, wearing a dark t-shirt.

Chris Plevin

Director of Production

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Chris Plevin has served as the Director of Production for Chicago Shakespeare Theater since 2003.

As head of the production department, he oversees all CST and international productions and directs the long-term planning of the scenery, lighting, costumes, wigs, sound, properties, and special effects departments. Previously, he spent three seasons as the Production Manager for another Chicago theater company, Uma Productions, and worked on the Stephen Sondheim musical Bounce at the Goodman Theatre.

Mr. Plevin has spent two seasons as the production manager of the National High School Institute at Northwestern University, where he was also an instructor and mentor in the stage management program. He has worked as a stage manager for Collaboraction and as a Project/Event Manager for both Fusion 5 Productions and Current Events International. He has been a speaker for various production and design process classes at Northwestern University and Columbia College. Mr. Plevin is a graduate of Northwestern University.

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