By Erin Kelsey
In the theater business, sometimes all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best. Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers’ Theatre, recalls a recent production in which their set was completed on time only because the weather happened to be cooperative during tech week. While unavoidable, these certainly aren’t ideal conditions for any theater to operate under, let alone one producing shows of the scale and quality of Writers’. To prevent similar problems in the future—and allow them to grow in a way currently not permitted by their spaces—the company is embarking upon a project to construct a new building to be the home of Writers’ Theatre.
In part, it’s a simple matter of economics, says Halberstam. To continue operating at their level, a 108-seat house isn’t large enough. “The theater company has reached the apex or is quickly reaching the apex of what it can accomplish in its current environment,” he says. A new building will not only provide them with a larger space for performances, but also a more comfortable environment for company member and audience alike. “One of the things that’s exciting about Writers’ is we pull off epic-scale production in a very intimate environment. Hopefully it looks effortless, but it’s in fact not effortless,” he says.
Halberstam also sees an inconsistency between the shows they present and the space they have available to them. As an example, he mentions their 2010 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a “very edgy” look at a piece of classic theater, in which the edginess was unmatched in their performance space. “You don’t necessarily feel cutting edge when you walk into Tudor Court,” he laughs. A new building designed by Studio Gang Architects—an internationally acclaimed Chicago firm known for innovative designs—will certainly provide a setting better suited to the work of Writers’.
The great strength of their current spaces is the level of intimacy they afford to the audience, an intimacy Writers’ is very interested in maintaining. In an early design meeting, Jeanne Gang, the founder of Studio Gang, promised not just an intimate space, but the most intimate theater in the world. “We felt that if anybody could live up to that promise, it was her,” Halberstam says. “Jeanne talked about materiality and environment as being a primary source of inspiration for her when she’s designing, for the leap of imagination between the moment of discussion and creation,” he says. He sees a strong correlation between the architectural material and environment and the theatrical word and artist, and that similarity helped convince Writers’ that Jeanne was the right architect for the job. One look at Studio Gang’s previous projects, and it’s easy to believe she’ll be able to work wonders for Writers’.
Most of Chicago’s theater scene is concentrated in the Loop and on the North Side, but Writers’ has chosen to remain in Glencoe for the construction of the new building. There was some discussion of moving but, ultimately, with an audience that is eighty-percent North Shore residents, it was natural to stay. Expanding their audience base particularly within the city is, of course, a goal, and something they will continue to focus on. But instead of changing locations and risking the loss of some of the audience that has helped keep them operating in the black for many seasons, further engagement of their Chicago audience will be a challenge for their marketing department. It’s an easy trip to make from downtown, and Halberstam sees their location as something that positively sets them apart from much of Chicago theater. “There is something a little pastoral and removed in being in Glencoe instead of Belmont Avenue,” he says, and the setting allows for a different sort of theatrical experience. An audience member doesn’t have to carry the hustle and bustle of the city into the theater with them, and Halberstam thinks the more natural surroundings can offer a better opportunity to reflect upon the shows after they are over.