Barbara Gaines, founder of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo by Bill Aresenault

Barbara Gaines with Greg Vinkler as King Lear

Photo by Lisa Ebright









Before sunup on an August morning two years ago, Barbara Gaines (S68) walked into the glittering new seventh-story headquarters of Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, which juts a half-mile out into Lake Michigan and affords eyepopping views of the city's spectacular skyline.

"We hadn't moved in yet," recalls Gaines, founder and artistic director of CST. "I went up to my fifth-floor office overlooking the lake and, even in the darkness, I saw the crane lift the Chicago Shakespeare marquee into place. The sun was just coming up, shining on all these brilliant letters. That was the first time Shakespeare's name overlooked Chicago. I was very moved by that."

The 60-foot marquee, with fiber optics that turn "Shakespeare" blue, yellow, red and green, can be spotted from cars speeding along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. It burns in front of a $23.2 million theater that is "beyond my wildest dreams," says Gaines. "I'm still walking around quite dizzy."

The woman who put Shakespeare's name in lights over Chicago may be excused for feeling lightheaded. In the mid-'80s, when she said she wanted to start a Shakespearean theater in Chicago, "I got nothing but guffaws in the street," recalls Gaines. "People said, 'Chicago doesn't care about Shakespeare. You won't have an audience.' I kept hearing that again and again. And if you tell me 'no' long enough, I'll do it anyway."

Now the doubters are eating their words. Under her direction CST was founded as Shakespeare Repertory Theater in 1986 with no home and a budget of $3,000. The company has since grown to become the third-largest nonprofit producing theater in Chicago, with a subscriber base of 22,000 (behind Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatres, with 27,000 and 23,000 subscribers, respectively). Chicago Shakespeare's budget for 2000-01: $8 million.

The new CST home on Navy Pier, located next to a giant Ferris wheel and a sleek sightseeing boat called the Odyssey, has an intimate courtyard theater with a stage extending Elizabethan-style into the audience (none of the 510 seats is farther than 30 feet from the actors). All productions on that stage sold out during the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons, including Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear, with Gaines directing, as well as A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Joe Dowling of the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theater, and The School for Scandal, restaged by Brian Bedford of Canada's Stratford Festival.

The first time Gaines directed a Shakespearean play in Chicago, the aroma of fried hamburgers and onions wafted over the audience. The play was Henry V, performed 15 years ago on the outdoor terrace of the Red Lion Pub on North Lincoln Avenue. "John Cordwell, the owner of the Red Lion Pub, who died last year, said to me, 'You're an idiot. You can't do the Battle of Agincourt on my rooftop deck,'" recalls Gaines. "But I said, 'Oh, yes, we can. Just give us a chance.' So after three meetings, he was calling me 'the reincarnation of Attila the Hun,' but he allowed it.

"During the two weeks of outdoor performances we corralled some of the most influential people in the city to come," she adds, "and this is when I knew it was going to work: It rained at the Biograph Theater across the street, it rained on the buildings next door, it rained in the alley behind the pub, but it never rained on the roof. I really believe it was Shakespeare holding a 40-by-60 umbrella over the place."

"It was bare-bones theater," says Dennis Zacek (GS65, 70), artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre. "She created magic in one of the most unexpected places—open to the sky."

Soon after Gaines established a board of directors, who raised almost $100,000. The next season she and her actors moved into the Ruth Page Theater on Chicago's Near North Side. They gradually built an audience and began to outgrow the space in the early '90s.

"God bless Jim Reilly (CEO of the Metropolitan and Pier Exposition Authority)," says Gaines. It was he who encouraged her theater's move to the newly redeveloped Navy Pier. She adds that "Mayor [Richard] Daley and [his wife] Maggie came to see us at the Ruth Page, adored Twelfth Night and wanted us to be at the pier."

Another ardent supporter of the move to Navy Pier was former Northwestern theater student Barbara Petersen (S68), who first met Gaines when the two moved into adjacent rooms as first-year students at Willard Hall. As a CST board member, Petersen participated in a corporate campaign that brought in $5 million for the new facility.

Gaines' relationship with Shakespeare started early. Growing up outside New York City and working for her father, a film director, during summer breaks, she fell in love with Shakespeare's sonnets as a youngster. "I remember seeing Katharine Hepburn as Rosalind [in As You Like It] at the Stratford, Conn., Shakespeare Festival when I was a teen-ager and thinking she was great."

But the deepest roots of her lasting love affair with the Bard can be traced "directly to Northwestern," she says. "The greatest course I ever took in my life, anywhere, was Dr. Wallace Bacon's Interpretation of Shakespeare, also known as 'Shake and Bake.' He took Shakespeare away from the formal, boring, 'you-gotta-learn-this stuff that's so far from your life.'

"Dr. Bacon could make it accessible to your mailman, to your plumber, to your grandmother who doesn't speak English. He made you see that all people are alike inside, and that it wasn't Shakespeare's words that were so much his genius but the human behavior underneath those words.

"The summer of '68 when I left school, I wrote Dr. Bacon a letter, thanking him for the most amazing experience up to that point in my life. I couldn't believe it, but this man I idolized wrote me back. And that began a relationship that lasted all these years. He was here for the opening of the new theater at Navy Pier. He was a great support and critic."

After leaving Northwestern Gaines worked successfully as an actress in New York City but was drawn back to Chicago by "friendships and by the theater business, which is so healthy here. You can experiment and fall on your face and pick yourself up and do it again." She organized classes in Shakespeare for fellow actors, who later appeared in her rooftop pub production.

Why has Gaines been so astonishingly successful producing Shakespeare? Ask her, and she credits the author. "Every play he wrote can be a hit. He wrote brilliant stories," she says.

She is drawn as much to the plays that are rarely staged as she is to The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Troilus and Cressida haunts me," she says. "It's about war and lechery, about how barbaric we are to each other. It is simply one of the greatest adventure stories ever written.

"It's very popular with students," says Gaines. (She adds that 60,000 junior high and high school students saw CST productions this year through the company's Team Shakespeare arts-in-education program.)

Other folks believe it is clearly the woman behind the playwright that has made CST such a powerful presence in Chicago. "She is single-minded and relentlessly energetic, with the tenacity of a pit bull—and I mean this all in a complimentary way," says Zacek. In Gaines' new and extremely intimate playing area, he adds, "she is working to make Shakespeare accessible, to make it an unpretentious experience and not something just for the connoisseur."

The Wall Street Journal's Joel Henning agrees. In his review of the new theater's inaugural production, Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote that Gaines "has the knack of making Shakespeare vivid and accessible, even when she tackles his more esoteric works."

Antoni Cimolino, producing director of the Stratford Festival of Canada, favorably compares her Antony and Cleopatra to a production he had seen by England's Royal Shakespeare Company: "Barb's was infinitely superior. It was just much clearer." He adds that "there's not a company in New York that is close to being able to perform Shakespeare in a way Chicago Shakespeare could."

Though CST productions are lavishly and imaginatively staged, Gaines does put the text first, says Cimolino. She prefers the First Folio technique, going back to the original text.

"That is the text put together, shortly after Shakespeare's death, by two actors from his company who knew who said what, when and how it was supposed to be said," explains Roger Mueller (S72), who appeared as Albany in King Lear this winter. "They were after not only the accuracy of the words, but they also used punctuation as clues to how things should be said, so it's almost like a code—like a treasure hunt—built into the text."

Nancy Voigts (WCAS83), a successful musical theater performer in Chicago, had never appeared in a Shakespearean play before being cast as Bianca in a 1993 production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Gaines. "She hires a lot of musical theater actors because they have the right energy for Shakespeare," says Voigts. "They're a little larger than life.

"For that production, Barbara cast all these amazingly funny people and gave them license to run with the text," she says. "I was the prissy little sister of Kate, the shrew, and to set this up, Barbara had me enter in my beautiful little gown and sit in a swing, being very vain and sweet. Then she had Kate come in behind me with a bucket of water and douse me. The audience had a great time.

"Another thing that makes Barbara unique as a director," says Voigts, "is that she was an actor first, so she is very empathetic." Adds Mueller, "She always has something to say that builds you up or spurs you on to try something new."

Directing is hard enough, but it's just one facet of Gaines' position as CST artistic director. "I juggle many dozens of plates in the air at one time," says the artistic director, named Chicagoan of the Year in 1999 by both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine.

"I think my chief asset, besides directing plays, is knowing what I'm not good at, and that includes finances," she says. "But I was also very smart. Eleven years ago I hired Criss Henderson as executive director."

It is Gaines, however, who hires all of the plays' designers, including some of the most talented people in the country. For Lear alone, she had a stellar team that included set designer Scott Bradley, a Drama Desk Award winner; Tony Award-winning lighting designer Donald Holder (The Lion King); and Michael Krass, whose costumes have appeared in many shows on and off Broadway.

But the part of her job Gaines enjoys most, besides directing, is meeting the "incredible people" on trips she takes to see productions that might become part of CST's World's Stage program.

Attempting to snag a production by renowned director Peter Brook, she sent him plans of the new theater. He responded with an invitation to see one of his productions. "So I went to Paris and there I was, sitting next to the Michael Jordan of theater," Gaines recalls. "He said, 'I want to bring my next production of Hamlet to Chicago,' and I said, 'Done.'" (Brook's Hamlet played to critical acclaim at CST in May 2000.)

Her ambition is laudatory but also necessary in today's competitive environment. These days theatergoers in Chicago can choose from a myriad of venues. Among many options, they have the Court Theatre on the University of Chicago campus, the new $46 million Goodman in the Loop, Steppenwolf and scores of impressive smaller theaters on the North Side.

"The theater scene in Chicago is blooming, and Chicago Shakespeare has been a huge part of that," says Rick Boynton (S84), who worked as Gaines' casting director and associate artistic director before becoming artistic director of the hugely successful Marriott's Lincolnshire Theater in north suburban Chicago. "To have this world-class Shakespeare theater as a cultural anchor on Navy Pier, added to the whole thriving downtown theater scene, has to make everybody step back and say, Chicago is a great and culturally diverse place to live."

"Shakespeare now has the best real estate in the city for generations to come," says Gaines, referring to CST's prime, bustling lakefront location amid restaurants, rides, souvenir shops and fast-food stands. "He would have loved it. He liked real life, didn't he?"

Anne Taubeneck, a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill., writes frequently about the Chicago theater scene for the Chicago Tribune.