The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on the Navy Pier. © James Steinkamp Photography (left) & Vito Palmisano (right).

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater



Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) has made its home at Chicago’s Navy Pier since 1999, operating a traditional Globe-like theater and a small contemporary black box space. CST knew that their next theater needed to combine the flexibility of a black box with the size and stature of a fixed amphitheater. The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is the first of its kind – a permanent venue, seating up to 850 patrons, but completely transformable into radically different configurations between shows. It accommodates theater-in-the-round, proscenium stage productions, an innovative linear stage, and even a cocktail party.

The audience-artist relationship drives the configuration to best serve each production. This goal drove the structural engineering of the theater from day one. Thornton Tomasetti teamed with theater designer Charcoalblue and architect Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Three major structural components make this theater special.

The adaptive reuse of the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier was important to achieving the theater’s performance goals within budget. The new structure is artfully tucked beneath the existing Skyline Stage tent structure and above an existing parking garage. It partially shares existing caisson foundations with the parking garage. Eighteen 120-feet-deep micropiles supplement the existing foundations.

The tent shields the theater from thermal gain, provides additional acoustic damping (deadening loud air horns from ships docking on the pier), and offers the opportunity to backlight or project onto an iconic canvas. The tent also provided shelter throughout construction, so there were no lost construction days due to weather, even as critical exposed sequences occurred through the winter months. Reuse and renovation of the existing stage house expanded theatrical options to include a classic proscenium without the cost to build new.

The nine three-story, movable seating towers facilitate magical transformations. These 27,000-pound structures are moved on air-casters, like hover-boards, by as few as three people. The greatest structural challenge was to fit the towers below the existing tent structure while providing a flat floor throughout. The top of the theater box and pre-function enclosure slopes to fit snugly below the existing tent poles, and the mechanical systems occupy every remaining void. Thornton Tomasetti used our own equipment to perform a 3D laser scan and converted the scan into a digital model to verify the volume available for new construction.

The new lobby serves an essential role in connecting The Yard to the existing Shakespeare Theater box office and theaters. It also provides the means for patrons to access upper levels in the seating towers. This steel-framed structure is supported on the existing precast double-tee forming the roof of the Navy Pier garage. A system of below-slab beams and pads distribute the weight and accommodate expansion joints in the existing structure. The double-height front façade utilizes electrochromatic glass to control shading.

The end result is a clear demonstration of working creatively within severe constraints of space, time, budget and constructability to deliver an innovative, flexible theater that allows the Client maximum freedom of expression in their award-winning productions.

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