Navy Pier provides the perfect setting for Barbara Gaines to serve up Shakespeare, Chicago-style

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With its gorgeous balcony overlooking tall ships, promenading visitors to Navy Pier and a shimmering Lake Michigan, the neatly arranged office of the artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is probably the nicest such digs of any theater in America. Especially on a sunny July day.

When the occupant of the office turned to face the view on a recent idyllic morning, she first moved her hand toward the window, then brought it back to her heart, where it fluttered.This is one of the ways Barbara Gaines likes to depict her gratitude and love for all the good things and good people that have happened to her and the tiny theater she founded in Chicago some 20 years ago.

Then she catches herself, seemingly worried that the opulence of her surroundings will get too much attention.

"Don't think. . . ," she says, the sentence suddenly coming to a halt. "Don't write that I have. . . ," she adds, and stops again.

Then, in another of her favorite gestures, she exhales a large breath and her tiny frame seems to crumple. Finally, she looks up and speaks.

"I just don't know how this ever happened to us," she says.

One can understand her mystification. The 55-year-old Gaines is sitting pretty atop the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, one of Chicago's great cultural success stories as it approaches its fourth season on Navy Pier. The theater has more than 23,000 subscribers and claims with justification to be the largest employer of actors in Chicago. Each year in its new home, it has renewed more than 85 percent of its previous subscription base, an impressive figure. Even in a rough economy, most of its mainstage performances sell out, and teachers from both city and suburbs routinely clamor to get their students in to see its matinees. With savvy planning, the theater even has figured out how to appeal to summer tourists, offering a seasonal diet of Shakespeare with reduced running times, teen-friendly parodies like "The Bomb-itty of Errors," and family-oriented musicals like "The Wizard of Oz."

When the construction of the $23.2 million theater was announced five years ago, many naysayers suggested that its mainly elderly audience would resist moving their subscriptions from the troupe's former home at the Ruth Page Theatre on North Dearborn Street to the tourist-driven, traffic-infested Navy Pier with its costly parking and carnival atmosphere. Clearly, that view did not prove to have much foundation. And even more remarkably, while cultural architecture is often the subject of controversy, the new theater on Navy Pier seems to have few, if any, detractors.

"I think it's the best space for doing Shakespeare that I have ever seen anywhere," says Sir Peter Hall, the creator of Britain's Royal Shakespeare

Company. "And I love the fact that it's there amidst the Ferris wheel and the hot dogs. I think Shakespeare would have wanted something even more down market than that."

We cannot know, of course, what Shakespeare would have wanted. But the more significant and largely unexamined matter is the nature and substance of Gaines' growing body of artistic work there amid the fast-food restaurants and the virtual-reality rides.

She's less of a mystery, for sure, than the playwright whose works she most admires, but she's still something of an enigma. She has arrived in this lofty place--one of the very best jobs in the American theater--without much formal training in direction and without any significant directing experience at any other theater or in any other city.

And this seemingly vulnerable woman, who does not hesitate to describe herself as "frail," made her way from doing Shakespeare on the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park to persuading the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the City of Chicago and other public bodies to contribute more than $18 million to help build one of the best venues for classical theater in the world. And now that all that is in place, she shows no sign of slowing down or stopping. Not only is Gaines directing "Love's Labor's Lost," which begins previews Friday and opens on Sept. 13, but she also talks openly and grandly about her plans for turning this theater into "an international magnet for the best artists in the world."

"In our profession you meet a lot of people who talk about doing things," says Michael Bogdanov, co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company in London. "That theater is testimony to someone who actually does things. For almost anyone else, building that kind of facility would take a lifetime of work."

Yet Gaines rejects any characterization of herself as a go-getter. "I have so much frailty," she says, "I am amazed the theater was built."

She was born Barbara Schwarz in 1946 to a family steeped in television. Gaines' late father, Mickey Schwarz, was a busy director of television commercials and her grandfather was an editor and producer. An industry kid, she liked to hang out at studios. "My dad taught me," Gaines says over lunch one day on Navy Pier, "that there was a creative solution to every problem."

After stints in Manhattan and Long Island, the Schwarz family (Gaines was one of three children) settled in suburban Portchester, N.Y., when Barbara was 10 years old. She says her family was a close one--her 82-year-old mother, Rhoda Schwarz, follows her daughter's career closely from her home in Baltimore. But despite the easy potential entree into the film and television business, Gaines says she wasn't interested. "I found film so boring," she says of the production process. "It didn't move fast enough to keep me interested."

When she was a teenager, Gaines came to Northwestern University's long-established National High School Institute, known as the Cherub Program, a summer experience for young people interested in theater that has trained a lot of future professionals. "A shiver went down my spine as soon as I was on the stage," she says. "This felt like home to me."

She returned to Northwestern for college, and that's where her budding fascination with Shakespeare was nurtured by Wallace Bacon, the late founder of what is now NU's Department of Performance Studies and a noted interpreter of the Bard's works.

"To be honest, Dr. Bacon was the only teacher there who really believed in me," Gaines says. "My obsession with Shakespeare just grew and grew. Whenever I would go home from college, I'd lie on my parents' bed and go through every play until they fell asleep. I realized that nothing made me as happy as working with Shakespeare's texts." But making a living doing that required finding a way inside the Shakespeare establishment.

In 1969, the year she graduated from Northwestern, she got married and, in quick succession, divorced. She won't talk about her marriage except to emphasize (and re-emphasize) its lack of importance in the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless, she has kept her ex-husband's name. And she has not remarried, preferring to live alone in a Lincoln Park apartment with a golden retriever named Shakespeare's Fanny. She dates from time to time. But outside of her job, she says that animals are her biggest passion.

In the mid-1970s, Gaines went back to New York to try to make it as an actress. But although she says she found some financial success, she also says she was lonely and missed her friends in Chicago. "I felt that people who didn't really know anything about me were in a position to control my life," she says. "I felt a sort of impotence."

So, in 1980, she returned to Chicago and began plying her acting trade around what she saw as a kinder and more hospitable town. During the next several years, she acted in all kinds of productions. She played an attorney in James Sherman's "Mr. 80%" at the Victory Gardens Theatre Company under the direction of Dennis Zacek; she was a neighbor in "The Perfect Party" at the Northlight Theatre, then located in Evanston; and she donned an English accent to do "The Real Thing" under the direction of the late Michael Maggio. Even though several of those productions were very successful, Gaines says she was becoming bored.

So in 1983, she began conducting Shakespeare workshops--her fellow actors were asked to pay tuition--at the old Organic Theatre space on North Clark Street. The workshops caught on and resulted in a one-night public performance at the old Body Politic space on Lincoln Avenue. By 1985, the fledgling group was doing a selection of scenes at the Second City e.t.c. space titled "To Shakespeare With Love." The six-performance run was a sellout.

About this time, Gaines began telling a story about how she went up to director Peter Brook, one of the leading lights of classical theater internationally, at New York's Lincoln Center in 1983 and told him that while he did not know her now, he would someday be working with her company in Chicago. In the 1980s, that was an amusing anecdote about Gaines' chutzpah. In 2002, the story has come true. Brook knows who she is now, and has worked with her company.

"She's both remarkable and lovable," the director said recently from his office in Paris. "Heart, know-how, the ability to dream and the shrewd sense of an entrepreneur. That's Barbara."

But in 1986, the best venue Gaines could afford for the first major public performance of what was then dubbed the Chicago Shakespeare Workshop was the outdoor terrace of the Red Lion Pub, an English-themed hostelry at 2446 N. Lincoln Ave. The first show, "King Henry V," was an Actors' Equity Showcase production in which no one got paid. The total budget was about $3,000. The quixotic location and ragtag financials helped bring attention to the show, which was praised not so much for its subtle artistry as for its defiant energy.

"Overcoming the clank of 'L' trains, the thunder of overflying jets and even the occasional odors from a nearby back-yard fish fry, 17 performers enact 45 parts and serve up the heroic sweep of a major chapter in English history," wrote Sid Smith in the Chicago Tribune at the time. "Their tiny platform space plays home to battlefield carnage and coy royal courtship, to knavish fooleries and kingly crises, to senseless bloodshed and to a lusty victory, all in a production that's as economic as it is well-spoken and affecting."

Gaines has remained loyal to many of the actors--such as Bernie Landis, Ernest Perry Jr. and Robert Scogin--who were in the pub that day. They, in turn, look back at the Red Lion through the haze of nostalgia. "I get chills whenever I think of that show," says Landis, his eyes misting. "We were like an extended family back then."

By 1987, Gaines had moved her family to the Ruth Page Theatre and renamed her troupe the Chicago Shakespeare Repertory Company ("Chicago" in the name was deemed unwieldy and soon dropped). Its debut production of "Troilus and Cressida" was greeted with great enthusiasm by the Tribune's Richard Christiansen, an early booster of Gaines and her theater.

"What happened Wednesday night on stage in the Ruth Page Theatre was something of a miracle," Christiansen wrote in his lead paragraph, "a mature, confident, full-blown production . . . performed with a passion, wit and sting, that, in honoring its author, crowned itself."

For the next decade, Gaines' Shakespeare Repertory followed its mission of doing local Chicago productions of classical theater. Budgets quickly grew--Gaines' "Troilus and Cressida" cost $92,000 in 1987, thanks to funding from the Chase Manhattan Corp. In general, her productions became known for their romantic sweep. From "Much Ado About Nothing" to "Cymbeline," Gaines usually accompanied her shows with theatrical--often dazzling--lighting, loud sound effects, original music and sumptuous costumes. As a rule, the tragedies and histories got better reviews than the comedy.

But Chicago Shakespeare, and Gaines herself, attracted relatively little national attention. The actors and designers were almost all local--the theater was never much interested in stars, unlike many of its peers across the country.

"Barbara has made a commitment to the scene in Chicago and I think that's an admirable thing," says Libby Appel, who runs the Oregon Shakespeare Festival--arguably the leading classical theater in the United States--but says she does not know Gaines' work all that well.

Although a few out-of-towners were invited to direct, Gaines did most of the shows herself. Even as out-of-town critics discovered Chicago theater figures such as directors Robert Falls, Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman, Gaines and her work were largely ignored.

But it soon became impossible for anyone to ignore her theater.

In November 1997, Gaines stood next to Mayor Richard M. Daley as he announced that Shakespeare Rep would take up residence in a $23.2 million theater, custom-designed by VOA Associates with a 550-seat mainstage, to be christened the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

The new theater was a result of many things: the savvy hustling of Criss Henderson, the theater's highly regarded executive director; the bounty of a buoyant economy; the connectedness of the theater's board; the desire of Navy Pier and Daley to counteract the perception that the pier was all hamburgers and hoopla. The Goodman Theatre had already looked at the pier and decided it didn't want to be there. But Gaines saw an opportunity--and she grabbed it with both hands, declaring with some hubris at the 1997 press conference that "Shakespeare loves his new home."

By 1999, the theater was up and running. The inaugural production, "Antony and Cleopatra," was, of course, directed by Gaines, and it was no surprise that it starred Chicago actors Lisa Dodson and Kevin Gudahl, two of Gaines' most loyal performers and two of her longtime favorites. It was a grand, weighty and portentous affair, directed with a sense of the sweep of history and the passion of forbidden love. The design came replete with burnished gold, a reflecting pool, trap doors, and a grand stairway. Alaric Jans composed a lush original score. Although some critics felt the show was miscast, one could understand every word the actors were saying.

It was a classic Gaines production.

The show sold out all 74 of its performances. And by January 2000, Gaines' production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" had garnered the largest advance in her theater's 14-year history.

Assessing Gaines' international reputation today is far from easy. Many leaders of the American classical theater still have seen little or none of her work, since Chicago Shakespeare has always been about doing Shakespeare in Chicago. Moreover, critical comments are often colored by an artist's desire to work at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the future, or not to speak ill of a colleague, or, conversely, to make their own institution or directing look good.

But when many directors and administrators on both sides of the Atlantic are asked about Gaines and her work, common themes emerge. Many of the leaders of England's Shakespeare establishment, whom Gaines often refers to as "my boys," don't easily separate her directing work from her theater and her city--both of which they greatly admire.

"She looked at theaters all over the world and pretty much ironed out all the design flaws," says director Edward Hall, the son of Sir Peter Hall. "The result has been an extraordinarily malleable space."

"There is a condition of intimacy at that theater in Chicago," says Brook, "that you could never get in a traditional proscenium space."

As Hall and Brook well know, it was Gaines who argued vociferously for an intimate mainstage modeled after the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, even though others involved with the company were arguing for a bigger seating capacity, which would have helped the theater's finances. But it's hard to see how this theater could have been any better from an artistic perspective. With its deep thrust stage and three-sided auditorium, it has proven to be ideal for classical theater, not least because it's easy for monologues to be delivered very close to a large percentage of the audience.

But although Gaines deserves a great deal of the credit for this building, she also has had the good fortune to work in a city with a large community of capable performers.

"There are so many quality actors in Chicago, especially actors of a certain age," says Bogdanov, who directed "Timon of Athens" at Chicago Shakespeare in 1997. "[Gaines has] a company around her that appreciates her talent. That can be a cozy and incestuous thing, but in this case it's still robust and virile."

Since most British directors of Shakespeare despise what they see as the classic American attempt to don faux-English accents, ape the Stratford style and locate themselves somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, they admire Gaines for what they think of as a straightforward, upbeat, middle-of-the-road approach to the classics. They seem to think of this approach as a kind of Chicago-style Shakespeare, and the Brits like that idea--at least for a theater in Chicago. For one thing, it plays into their preconceived notions of American aesthetics. And it's no threat to their own power structure.

"At least in the European sense of the word, she's not a radical," says Bogdanov. "But on the other hand, she's not traditional in the ways some English directors are traditional."

In America, the response is a little different. Many directors say that Chicago Shakespeare has yet to make the transition from a local troupe to a nationally known company and that Gaines has yet to make a similar transition. They point out that the top-tier American classical actors have yet to work at the theater--by contrast, say, with the better-known New York Shakespeare Festival or the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C., both of which regularly cast major movie stars. And they note that only recently has Gaines been hiring world-class guest directors--and that, even now, those directors tend to be dominated by Englishmen.

"I couldn't describe her aesthetic, but I think of Barbara Gaines as a solid director," says Kent Thompson, who runs the highly regarded Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which increasingly shuns British actors and directors to cultivate an avowedly American focus. "Barbara is known as a storyteller. She's not trying to redefine theater for a modern audience. The theater has not yet built a national focus . . . but then that takes a bit of time."

"I find her very enigmatic, quite challenging and just a little exhausting," says Fred C. Adams, the outspoken patriarch of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which won a Tony Award in 2000. "She's a feminist who thinks the future of the theater is entirely female, and I'm just enough of a chauvinist to think that might not be the case."

The world of classical theater, of course, has always been dominated by men. Asked about Adams' remarks, Gaines says, "People sometimes think I am going to be this big old battle-ax, but I run from people like that. I'd rather call myself a humanist than a feminist. I've never been treated badly or denied any kind of access. So I really don't have any kind of ax to grind."

Gaines' colleagues at the other large theaters in Chicago seem to greatly admire the populist activity on Navy Pier and speak of Gaines with great affection and personal admiration. There's widespread appreciation for her insistence on strong text work--and her use of the First Folio in the rehearsal process. But they don't necessarily see Chicago Shakespeare as a font of innovation.

"Accessibility is a touchstone of their work," says Charles Newell, artistic director of the Court Theatre, which also frequently produces Shakespeare. "They have really shown people that these texts can be understood. But that's a bit different from what drives us at Court. We speak a lot about being provocative and irreverent. I don't think we compete with each other--in many ways, we occupy different niches. And that's a good thing."

Newell makes the point that theaters cannot be all things to all people, and that it may be unfair to suggest that Gaines should be building a young classical theater and reaching mainstream audiences while pushing the artistic envelope. And if one suggests that she should be using top-notch international artists, then she'd be open to the inevitable criticism that she had neglected the very actors who helped build her theater.

Indeed, Gaines says quite openly that clarity is her main priority. "It's very difficult to do Shakespeare well," she says. "I am demanding about the way the language is spoken. I often don't understand a lot of other people's productions because they aren't clear and the language does not work with the physical gestures."

As one might expect, many actors who work often at the theater say Gaines is uniquely attuned to their needs. "Her strong suit is vision," says Tim Gregory, a regular on the pier along with such other local actors as Greg Vinkler and Scott Parkinson. "She can mine the humanity in every play. She's not highly conceptual, but she's also not locked in. I feel comfortable working with her."

Others take a different view--noting that for all her apparent softness, Gaines isn't shy about overruling her artistic collaborators when she needs to make the point that she is in charge. And many don't think they do their most innovative work under her direction. "I don't think anyone expects to break a lot of new ground here," says another actor who works regularly at the theater.

Warm and personable, Gaines has engendered a remarkably loyal staff. Henderson, her longtime partner at Chicago Shakespeare, has turned down a lot of chances to move on. Although some people in the theater community consider him the one mainly responsible for the financial and popular success of the theater complex (which he books very shrewdly with outside fare), he begs to differ. He considers Gaines' emotional link to her audiences as without peer, and scorns the notion that she's a middlebrow populist who'd play only in the Midwest. "Barbara has not been given her due as an artist by the press in the same way the actors on our stage have been given their due," he says one day, eyes flashing.

n the first day of rehearsals for "Love's Labor's Lost," Gaines is seated at one end of a long table in a rehearsal room addressing her company. Although there's some nervous laughter, the mood is informal and relaxed. Most of the actors have worked at this theater before, and many of them have shared the stage on previous occasions. One gets the sense that everyone knows what to expect from this process.

In her opening remarks to the cast, Gaines speaks of the work not in political or aesthetic terms, but in terms of personal feelings. She speaks about her own "journey with the play," tells her cast that she "disagrees with most of the scholars about this play," and describes how she read the work and then "fell in love."

Such personalization--and the frequent use of such words as "passion" and "heart"--is a vital part of Gaines' approach as a director. As her remarks meander on, you begin to appreciate her skill at getting her mainly young actors to see that they were "born to speak this language" and capable of understanding the play's shifts and turns. In turn, she will rely on them to make the play alive for the loyal and large audience on the pier. And it's clear from the start that the aim here is not politicization or aesthetic experimentation so much as mass identification.

That's her niche. And, in this particular time and place, it works.

"The miracle of this play for me is that it reminds us that life can change at any moment," she says, sighing heavily. "We should cherish the time we spend together. Things can change very quickly."

By the end of this first chat, some of the more hesitant expressions in the room have softened. "This play has been criticized for a lack of plot," Gaines says, laughing, "but then most of our lives have a lack of plot."

So what of the future? Gaines, clearly, has little interest in what British directors like Bogdanov think of as "political engagement." She's unlikely ever to flit around the world directing, sparring with critics, and self-promoting. It's hard to imagine her ever wanting to do anything like Joshua Sobol's recent post-modern revival of "The Merchant of Venice" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, which changed the sex of two of the leading characters. And it's hard to imagine her regular audience wanting her to.

She just wants to direct Shakespeare with clarity and lucidity and attention to the text rather than relying on radical concepts. And she likes to take care of her audience --and her community of theater people--in Chicago. "I don't want my politics to be on the stage," she says.

All in all, Gaines considers her main strength to be relating Shakespeare to human lives of both sexes, both as they were lived and as they are now lived. "I don't think Shakespeare ever set out to teach us anything," she says one day. "He was just a craftsman. He just wanted to tell a great story."

"She has softened me," Henderson says. "And I really believe that those personal terms are where her genius lies."

Back in her office, Gaines is asked about her lack of outside directing. She replies that if she were to work elsewhere, she'd probably want to do it with her favorite actors and designers along for the ride. Most directors in the theater gain international reputations for themselves and their institutions by working in different cities; both the Goodman Theatre and Robert Falls' stock rose after Falls directed on Broadway. But one could also argue that the Royal Shakespeare Company cemented its reputation in America by touring as an institution--which did not do director Brook any harm, either.

If Gaines ever casts her eyes beyond Chicago, she'll likely be pursuing the latter method. But because of the large casts, major classical tours are very expensive and hard to arrange. Anyway, it's not a top priority for her. "That will happen when it's supposed to happen," she says.

Her eyes cheat out toward that gorgeous view of Lake Michigan and people at play.

"You know," she says, "the dream has always been to do it here."

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