PART OF CHICAGO THEATRE WEEK 2018
“I thought the show was at 2!” Gwen said defensively, walking away from the box office counter. “Most matinees are at 2 or 2:30. Who starts a show at 3?”
“Well, what would we have done if it was at 2:30?” Eleanor asked.
“Wait around, I suppose,” Gwen strained. “What we’ll be doing now.”
Dania groaned, and fell into one of the cushioned benches in the lobby. “I have, like things I need to do today.”
“You’ll have time to do things later,” Gwen said, sitting beside Dania. “Besides, it’s good to take a break. Walk around, get some air.”
“Though, we might spend more time waiting than we spend watching the performance, at this rate,” Eleanor commented.
Gwen’s lips tightened, staring at Eleanor with a look of what do you want me to do about it. Although she was certainly right: the performance they were attending, Writers Theatre’s The MLK Project: The Fight For Civil Rights, was only 45 minutes long.
“Why’s it so short?”
“It’s supposed to tour to schools, not perform here,” Gwen said. “I believe this is one of the only performances they’ve done of it at this space. It’s an educational piece.”
“Cool,” Eleanor said. Gwen hadn’t mentioned any of this to them before – just that the play was short, and she had comps. Anything else Eleanor knew was whatever subtext about content could be gleaned from the title alone.
A moment passed, and Eleanor sighed. “Well, I guess I’m gonna wander,” she said as she walked up the stairs.
“Walk out on the balcony,” Gwen said. “The weather’s nice today.”
Eleanor continued up the stairs. Dania, for her part, relaxed further into the shallow couches, which were inset into the staircase that led to the second floor of the building. The lobby itself was fairly open, comprised of two large bleacher-like blocks of stairs, which drew attention towards the open area at the center of the lobby, where a trio of older women were sitting and talking with each other. Dania could see the trees outside the theatre through the large glass walls that surrounded the lobby, which could open out onto the grassy lawn just adjacent to the building. A man walked by, with his dog, as she watched.
“I do like this building a lot,” Gwen said. She glanced at Dania. “Have you been here before? Since they rebuilt it?”
“I don’t think so,” Dania said. “I’d probably remember it if I did.”
“It’s cool,” Gwen said. “Very open, very sparse. Good natural lighting this time of day.”
The two glanced around – the whole lobby was designed in light colors, white-painted wood with the natural tan of the lumber ceiling. As Gwen mentioned, no lights were on in the lobby, but the sun poured through the windows on the second floor, filling the Linowitz Atrium with warmth.
“See those lights along the top?” Gwen pointed out the dark LED fixtures that lined the walls atop black beams. “When it’s a night show, they shine up into the ceiling and the light diffuses and keeps the whole place lit.”
“Cool,” Dania said. From her seat, she could see subtle cracks in the beams that surrounded the lobby. “So it’s all, like, real wood and stuff.”
“That’s the intention,” Gwen answered. “You can see the trees out there, I believe the idea was to build something that felt like it suited the surrounding area. Look at the uneven lattice work on the outside ––”
Gwen indicated the strips of wood that stretched across the outside balcony, which resembled distant tree branches – or perhaps a set of book spines sitting along a raised shelf.
“Yeah, those are pretty dope,” Dania said. “It’s sorta like the whole second floor is floating above this empty glass lobby. Like, you look from the outside and you can’t see any of the support beams holding up the roof.”
“True,” Gwen said, with a knowing smile, which Dania noticed.
“Wait…are they holding up the roof?”
“No,” Gwen grinned. “They’re holding up the balcony.”
Dania sat up, focusing her attention on the distant balcony.
“Yes. I saw a video about it when the building opened and Writers was proud of it,” Gwen said. “The woman who designed the whole thing, Jeanne Gang, developed this idea where the support beams could be attached to the ceiling, and then grip the edges of the balcony – here, I’ll show you.”
Gwen pulled Dania up from the couch and the two ran up the stairs to the balcony.
Meanwhile, Eleanor had found her way onto the far edge of the balcony, overlooking the rooftop gardens that decorated the building. From her perch in one of the black woven chairs that peppered the balcony, she could see the rich brown wood of the Gillian Black Box theatre, Writers smaller venue, where The MLK Project would be performing. To her left was the imposing limestone slab of the Nichols, the 250-seat thrust space where Writers booked their larger productions – although, with the seats arrayed in the strange asymmetrical sun-like shape they were, even the largest musicals gained an intimacy in that space.
Looking around, Eleanor noticed the same trees that Dania had seen below. From this height, the slanted lattices along the balcony seemed to mirror the angles of the tree trunks, giving her the sense of being wrapped in a forest. The building had always reminded her of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – an imperfect comparison, but perhaps an aesthetic similarity. Something about the blocky design, the sense that the four pieces of the building – the two theatres, the angular lobby, and the latticed “lantern” on the second floor – could be taken apart and reconstructed any way she desired.
Rising, she walked back indoors to find Gwen and Dania. From her perch over the interior glass railing, she had a fine view of the two bleachers, which were quickly filling with audience members awaiting the opening of the house. She recollected that Writers had advertised this open lobby as their secret “third stage,” a micro-theatron were talkbacks, lectures, and concerts could be given. But here, where the only performers on view were the three women from before, Eleanor couldn’t see her friends among the audience. She glanced around once more, another opportunity to take in the pine framework that the building was.
“It’s a long way from something like the Oriental Theatre,” Eleanor mused, referencing the longstanding Broadway In Chicago venue, built in the 1920s and renowned for its gaudy chinois interior. Not that it was unsightly – far from it, few theatres remained with that level of interior detailing and ornamentation, with most recent companies opting for the boxy geometry on display at groups like the Goodman, Court, or Theatre Wit. The exception, she recalled, was the Neo-Futurists space on Ashland – the Neo-Futurarium – whose explosive décor reflected the wild anarchy of the company.
Again, Eleanor glanced around the lobby, walking along the balcony to get a better view at the concessions stand that stuck out from the back of the bleacher seating. Along the wall, the names of the plays in Writers Theatre’s season were listed, marquee-like, each letter a block that had been carefully organized, like the assemblage of a printing press.
Perhaps Writers’ mission to focus on the text of their plays – “the fundamental source of inspiration,” a line from their mission statement that had stuck with Eleanor when Gwen mentioned it to her – had some reflection in the plate-glass see-through design of their building. As opposed to the Oriental’s gold leaf, which remained whether the musical playing on the stage was The King And I, Fun Home, or Spongebob Squarepants, Writers Theatre’s sanded down and smooth interior allowed any play to make sense in the space. It was hollow, sure, but hollow in the sense that it could be filled, by conversation or ideas or whatever performance they wanted to plug into the Third Stage between the bleachers.
As Eleanor continued to walk around the edge of the inner balcony, she finally found Gwen and Dania: on the outer Terrace on the second floor, staring down at the wooden lattices. Eleanor pushed through the glass door to the outer air just as Gwen caught sight of her.
“There you are,” Gwen said. “We were wondering where you’d gone to.”
“Just wandering on the outer balcony,” Eleanor said. “Waxing philosophical in my mind about the architecture, and such.”
“Did you know that the lattices are actually holding up the balcony?” Dania said, excitedly.
“What, these wooden beams?” Eleanor said. She placed a hand onto the diagonal beam, before instinctively removing it, for fear that Dania was right, and any pressure applied might cause the balcony to tip.
“Yeah, they hang from the top, look.” Dania pointed where Gwen had done so before, at the bolts that linked the beams to the roof. “So it’s attached there, and then…”
Eleanor followed Dania’s finger down the length of the beam to the base, where the wood fanned out into a wedge and puzzle-pieced into the divot in the balcony’s edge.
“…and then the wood gets caught there, and it holds up the balcony!” Dania concluded.
“There’s probably some other internal support for it, too,” Gwen admitted. “It’s not free-hanging from the roof. But they are functional supports, at least partially.”
“That’s dope,” Eleanor said. She walked out onto the terrace, overlooking the front door to the theatre.
“That’s what I said!” Dania shouted, following Eleanor to the edge. From their vantage point, they could see the entryway, where a basin of tiered slate rocks decorated the theatre facade. To the right of this ‘rain garden,’ the silvery letters “WT,” the Writers Theatre logo, were freestanding, a herald of the building’s artistic inhabitants.
“What a weird building,” Dania said. “And I mean that in a good way.”
“I’m certain they’d appreciate it,” Gwen said, with a smile to Eleanor, which she returned.
Image Credit: Studio Gang