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Writers Theatre morphs from ‘back of a bookstore’ to starchitect’s showcase

Home ownership has long been a crucial component of the American dream, and that dream is not limited to individual owners or families. Theater companies crave a permanent home, too – a place that not only will enhance their identity as an unmoving destination, but mark them as an enduring institution with a strong base of support.

Over the past several decades, such Chicago companies as Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Lookingglass, Chicago Shakespeare, Victory Gardens, Court and the Black Ensemble all have secured homes of their own — some built from the ground up, others forged out of existing structures.

Now, Writers Theatre, which has called the leafy, upscale North Shore town of Glencoe its home since its co-founding in 1992 by reigning artistic director Michael Halberstam and Marilyn Campbell, is about to open the doors of its first permanent home. And the $34 million project, designed by Chicago starchitect Jeanne Gang (whose Chicago projects include the Aqua Tower and the transformation of Northerly Island), is as eloquent and dramatically beautiful as the 100 productions the company has staged in far more modest surroundings for nearly a quarter of a century.

Gang, selected after a “rigorous search that involved soliciting proposals from two dozen architectural firms,” not only brought her deep Chicago connection to the table, but she had just been selected a MacArthur “genius” Fellow (this was in 2011), and her marquee status added more than a little frisson to the fundraising process. That process may well have set records, with affluent local donors delivering $22 million between 2009, when the theater’s board first approved a capital campaign, to the moment the campaign was announced to the public in November of the same year. (Many of these donors were rewarded with naming rights.) By May 2015, as construction was well underway, more than $29 million had been raised.

Jeanne Gang, founder and design principal, Studio Gang Architects and Michael Halberstam, artistic director, Writers Theatre. (Photo: Abby McKenna)

Jeanne Gang, founder and design principal of Studio Gang Architects, and Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers Theatre. (Photo: Abby McKenna)

The new complex contains a 250-seat thrust-style main stage (whose walls are from artfully repurposed brick), a black-box theater that can shift from 50 to 99 seats, a large rehearsal room, ideally equipped dressing rooms, and a grandly transparent, light-filled, atrium-style lobby with banks of bleacher seating (some cushioned) that can serve as a venue for chamber music, lectures, readings, student performances or casual lounging, with a handsome bar and many live electrical outlets at the ready. (Offices are now housed in an existing three-story building directly across the street that was purchased for $950,000, and enabled the theater to remain at a height in scale with its surrounding neighborhood.)

It is, to be sure, a far cry from where it all began — the hallowed, crazily intimate 50-seat “back room of Books on Vernon” space just a few blocks away, that until now has continued to thrive. And while the new home stands exactly on the site of the Woman’s Library Club at 325 Tudor Court (just off of Green Bay Road) that has served as Writers’ main stage since it was retrofitted as a 108-seat thrust-style theater in 2003, it could not be more different.

From the outset, according to both Halberstam and his invaluable executive director, Kate Lipuma, the plans for this permanent home addressed very specific goals.

The Alexandra C. & John D. Nichols Theatre - the main stage in the new Writers Theatre complex in Glenco. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrick Blessing Photography)

The Alexandra C. & John D. Nichols Theatre – the main stage in the new Writers Theatre complex in Glencoe. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrick Blessing Photography)

First, create a building that would preserve the crucial sense of intimacy of the two spaces in which Writers has forged its identity over the years, and one that also would celebrate the superb work of the Equity actors who have worked on these stages from the start (despite, at the bookstore, having to share a single bathroom with the audience, and using a small curtained area behind the children’s book section as a dressing room). Such bookstore shows as “Crime and Punishment” and “Dance of Death” thrived on that tiny space, while the plays of Tom Stoppard, and musicals, and an unforgettable “Streetcar Named Desire” that practically put the audience in bed with Stanley and Stella, never lost the feeling of intimacy at the Library.

At the same time, find a way to make a vividly contemporary architectural statement (complete with the highest ecological efficiency and technological requirements), while respecting the traditional Victorian, Gothic, Tudor, Colonial Revival and 20th century modern architecture of the homes and other buildings in Glencoe.

The atrium style lobby of the new Writers Theatre in Glencoe. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photography)

The atrium style lobby of the new Writers Theatre in Glencoe. (Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photography)

The defining feature of Gang’s largely glass-enclosed building is its intriguingly cross-hatched wood curtain wall — as lean and poetic as the sculpture of Martin Puryear (who, incidentally, has a show at the Art Institute at the moment). The wooden joints of this wall, dubbed “catspaws,” are at once decorative and structural elements.

As Halberstam noted: “The catspaws are a very indirect echo of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the half-timber Tudor style, although our conversations embraced everything from ancient Greek theaters to the thrust stage of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.”

Since its founding, Writers Theatre sought to be a place “where the written word and the nurturing of artists were the foundation of all productions.” And increasingly Glencoe wanted to nurture cultural activities in the village.

Halberstam, who first arrived there after spending two years as a member of the Stratford Festival’s Young Company in Ontario, Canada, sensed the potential of the place, but could never have dreamed it would take off as it did.

“But one of the things I observed while in Stratford was the way the festival became an intrinsic motor for the small town that surrounded it,” said Halberstam. “Both entities seemed to feed on each other, creating a cultural identity for the city. And that is exactly the kind of theatrical ecosystem I believe this new building will help nurture in Glencoe.”

Theaters debut with Stoppard, Second City, Sondheim

Now for the most important element in this whole project: the productions that will inaugurate the theater’s two spaces and remind audiences (including its 7,500 subscribers) of just why Writers Theatre has enjoyed such success. These productions will feature many veteran artists, as well as a slew of new faces.

On the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols mainstage will be “Arcadia” (March 16-April 24), Tom Stoppard’s brainy, romantic look at the inhabitants of a 19th century English country estate — a tale that jumps across two centuries and makes a most poignant case for women in science. It will be directed by the theater’s founder and artistic director, Michael Halberstam.

Next up will be the inaugural production in the Gillian Theatre, the building’s black box. It will be a first-time collaboration between Writers and the Second City, and its irreverent title — “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody” — says just about all you need to know. Running April 27-July 10, it is the work of Tim Sniffen (with Tim Ryder), and will be directed by Halberstam and Stuart Carden.

Finally, there will be a musical. By Stephen Sondheim, of course. “Company” (June 15-July 24), directed by William Brown, with musical direction by Tom Vendafreddo, will be the second show on the Nichols main stage.

For tickets, phone (847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.