Chicago Shakes

Chicago Shakes Infinite variety is the diet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, winner of the 2008 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
CST executive director Criss Henderson and artistic director Barbara Gaines.
CST executive director Criss Henderson and artistic director Barbara Gaines. Photo by Steve Leonard

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The morning of the May 13 announcement that Chicago Shakespeare Theater had won the Tony Award for Regional Theatre, the troupers at the classics-based resident theatre poured something bubbly for a toast.

"We had a little toast, minus the champagne this morning," the fizzing artistic director Barbara Gaines told Playbill.com. "We had a little Perrier toast this morning with the actors who were here for a student matinee of The Comedy of Errors, so it was great fun."

Aw, no booze for actors? Gaines laughed, indicating that there was no need for spirits — from actors to administrators, the CST company was already high on the Tony news.

The Tony Award for Regional Theatre increases exposure of the 22-year-old company, which, in the 2008-09 season, begins its ninth season in its two-venue Navy Pier complex, on the lip of Lake Michigan. The honor is welcome, and the TV mention on the June 15 Tony broadcast is important, but truth to tell, CST already has an international reputation. Its production of Pacific Overtures, directed by associate artistic director Gary Griffin, won three Olivier Awards when it was presented in London. CST produced Edward Hall's acclaimed Rose Rage, a conflation of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, in Chicago and then brought it to New York City, where Hall was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for direction.

What makes CST unique? Gaines is quick to respond: "Our diversity of programming." In Shakespeare's words, that's "infinite variety."

When it began in 1986, CST was a different animal, with the specific focus of Shakespeare. Now, Gaines said, "Our mission is much bigger than that. Our mission is a classical theatre with the soul of Shakespeare."

That means that CST might produce two or three Shakespeare plays per year (Gaines will direct Macbeth in the coming season); plus present international plays (a visit by Michael Pennington's solo show, Sweet William, in February 2009); plus produce contemporary classics such as Amadeus (in September); plus stage works for kids, families and students; plus invite writers who might interpret a classic title (David Ives translated and created a new version of Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, for example, in 2005-06).

CST's Courtyard Theatre
photo by James Steinkamp Photography

CST's World's Stage Series — which lures international artists to Illinois — is a major part of the mission for this once-single-minded company. And it has paid off by bringing in new audiences. Gaines said, "When we had Declan Donnellan's [Russian-language] Twelfth Night from Russia, we had the [local] Russian community swarming to the theatre; we had the French community when we had the Comédie-Français here. Soon, it will be from all over the world that many companies come and bless our stage."

In the coming season, along with Sweet William, the CST World's Stage Series will host the lauded South Asian-infused production of the Royal Shakespeare Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Indian and Sri Lankan artists, directed by Tim Supple.

"You learn so much watching another person's culture," Gaines said.

You want numbers? Gaines has them. "Fifty-thousand kids will see Shakespeare here this year, and every year," she said. "This coming year we'll have our one-millionth high school student here. We serve over 300,000 people for our Shakespeare plays, plus our other classical plays. Those are the numbers that I care about."

The more you talk to Gaines, the harder it is to pigeonhole Chicago Shakespeare — or her.

For instance, CST wouldn't produce a world-premiere play by contemporary playwrights like John Patrick Shanley or Tracy Letts.

"Sure we will," Gaines corrected. "Listen, you have to understand one thing about me: I don't believe in rules, I hate rules. So if Tracy Letts wants to do a new play, and he wants to do it here, he'll do it here. If George Stiles, a great composer in England, wants to do The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical here — I'm just making this up — we'll do it here."

She would prefer that a world premiere be "linked to some classic — to be inspired by a classic," she said. "But, you know, Shakespeare covers everything in the human soul, so we can really get away with almost anything."

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Chicago Shakespeare Theater is under the leadership of Gaines and executive director Criss Henderson.

For more information visit www.chicagoshakes.com.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Photo by James Steinkamp