The New Theatre School At Depaul University

Stage view of the Theatre School at DePaul University

By Bernie Jablonski

More pics here.

Chicago, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Writing about the new $72 million, multi-level, 165,000-square-foot Theatre School at DePaul University puts me in the middle of a very happy confluence. As a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, I know a bit about the structure, form, and functions of buildings. As a theatre major (B.A. from St. Louis University, M.A. from Roosevelt University,  the latter housing a famous theatre and then some), I understand the importance of having the best space to rehearse for, prepare for, and watch theater. And as a Chicagoan, well, it just amazes me how much Lincoln Park has changed (and become DePaul-ified, to an extent) since the days when I used to help my mother at the drugstore at Seminary and Webster.

Designed by the firm of Pelli Clarke Pelli, the Theatre School complex bears the hallmarks of transparency and bold massing associated with acclaimed Agentine-American architect Cesar Pelli’s design work. Arguably best-known in America for the World Financial Center across the street from the fallen Twin Towers, Pelli also designed the fabulous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the first building(s) to knock the (ahem) Sears Tower off the tallest-in-the-world list (Not. Bitter. Keep up the good work, Mr. Pelli.) Those towers, of course, are also memorable for their appearance in the 1999 movie Entrapment, in which they were scaled by Sean Connery and (most memorably) Catherine Zeta-Jones.

As CAF docents, most of us are familiar with Mr. Pelli’s work. Before the Modern and Beyond walking tour of the Loop was revised, 181 W. Madison was a core (essential to the tour) building. This building is based to a large extent on Eliel Saarinen’s second-place entry in a contest to design “the world’s most beautiful office building” for the Tribune Company’s Chicago headquarters. (The winner was the backwards-looking yet still stunning Gothic Revival that houses the Tribune near Michigan and Wacker today. Remember? The street corner where humanity fought for its survival in Transformers III?) Saarinen’s design called for a glassy, tapering-as-it-rises tower that has been very influential on modernist architecture. I also give the Highlights by Bus Tour for CAF, and Pelli’s work is evident at the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center, a gymnasium complex that ties into the Gothic context of the university by having the building’s roof suspended from steel cables attached to 125-foot mast- a paean to flying buttresses of yore.

More pics here.

DePaul’s Theatre School is finally blessed to have its own, dedicated space, designed with plenty of input from the School’s faculty. The Theatre School of DePaul first saw light with the birth of the Goodman School of Drama in 1925, became part of DePaul University in 1978 and received its current name in 1982. Since 1986 the School had been housed in the old St. Vincent Elementary School and convent building on Kenmore Ave., it also acquired the Blackstone Theatre in 1988 to use as a performance space. That 1325-seat South Loop theatre, still in use today for DePaul’s children’s theatre and for other functions, was named after Merle Muscal Reskin, a former Broadway actress who along with her husband had made a sizable donation to DePaul’s theater program in 1992. With new theater spaces, days of waiting for classrooms to be free in the evening for rehearsal and the arduous task of moving desks around and back for classes the next day are presumably over.

Dean of the Theatre School John Culbert also retained the theatre-design firm of Schuler Shook for consulting and planning. “Schuler Shook was an integral part of the facility design process from beginning to end and they are responsible for the sophisticated and detailed match between the facility and the school. There are three critical aspects leading to the success of their work with the Theatre School. First, they invested in developing a detailed understanding of every aspect of the school from the day-to-day training in studios, labs, and classrooms to the production program of the school with over 30 productions each year, with varying level of production support. Secondly they share a vast wealth of detailed knowledge enabling the evaluation of multiple solutions for each issue in both large conceptual and the most detailed systems issues. Finally, they are superb collaborators throughout the process with all stakeholders from the faculty and staff of the school to the architectural team to the contractors.”

As Shane Kelly, head of the Theatre School’s theatre technology program told Haley BeMiller in September 16’s DePaulia, “What is really exciting about the new Theatre School building is that it is made for us and the way we work, instead of our former facilities that we modified from their previous use to serve our needs. And while that sort of problem solving and creation is exciting, having a place that is already set up for what we want to do so we can get right down to business is exciting and hopefully allows everyone to focus on our training and our productions.”

Schuler Shook has an impressive pedigree in Chicago: they did consultation work on Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, the Ravinia Festival, The Old Town School of Folk Music, the Lookingglass Theatre, the Black Ensemble Theatre, and Court Theatre. Insight into planning for the new facility was shared with a large variety of School faculty members. According to project leader Robert Shook, “The success of the building is due to the diligence of the faculty and staff throughout the planning process.

More pics here.

Naturally, sitting prettily in this confluence of so m any chapters of my life, I’m allowed to reflect back on my days as a theater major, right? (Hey buddy, don’t claim you’ve ever spent a summer in St. Louis if it wasn’t painting offices and dorm rooms with oil-based paint in mid-August humidity. In a valley. In St. Louis. Both ways.) The Theatre Arts Department was housed in the old St. Francis Xavier High School building (renamed Xavier Hall, and as a theater major I would now be part of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts). We occupied all the old facilities, including the old Main Stage, which probably had a seating capacity of 1000-1200. The lighting board for the main stage consisted of about three dozen Bride of Frankenstein-sized handles, which all hooked into an imperious master switch; when a character turned the lights out in a room on the set, you could hear the lights go off with a BOOM as the master switch was pulled down fast enough to make all the other switches fall in place. The last show I worked at SLU, The Glass Menagerie, I worked lights with two other seniors. If you know the show, you know that Act II for the lighting crew is one long snooze on that show, and it ain’t for the lack of interesting playwrighting.

The department itself was inside an old factory building on Laclede St., which allegedly was the shoe factory where Tennessee Williams himself worked, but not so sure. OK, I know, I know. Well, as either James Bond or Remmington Steele once said, “No more foreplay…”

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As the building at the southwest corner of Fullerton and Racine hove into view for the first time, the whole idea of transparency became exactly that. “Transparency” is a term used in architecture pretty much the same way it’s used in politics- everything is exposed, nothing is hidden, one can see the inner workings. The first floor of the structure is almost entirely glassed in, which leaves the sleek, white lobby/box office/lounge area (the School’s ‘living room,” according to the press materials) on Fullerton, but also allows to neighborhood  to view some of the true inner workings of any theatrical endeavor- the scene and paint shops inside. In what seems like an event that has been long-coming in the annals of Theater History, all the shops of the School, including costume, are lit by natural light.

As the windows climb up the second through fourth levels, they remain vertical in emphasis, but they break the modernist mold by being of varying widths, adding a liveliness to the façade as well as to the fenestration of the interior rooms. Limestone is the wall cladding here, reminding us that this is the neighborhood of the magnificent 1897 St. Vincent DePaul Church. The fifth level, containing the administrative offices, is pulled back from the street facades, but obscuring them and surmounting the Fullerton/Racine corner of the building is a translucent box- whose contents would be revealed to me later.

On entering the School, I was greeted by Anna Ables, the Theatre School’s Head of Marketing and Public Relations, and joined a press tour of the building. Among those offering background, information and well-deserved pride were Lorna Luebbers, Marketing Director of Schuler Shook Theater Planners, and Jay Kelly, Vice-President, Arts & Culture, of the public relations firm L. C. Williams and Associates. Especially beaming and effusive was Dean of the Theatre School at DePaul University John Culbert. Dean since 2001, Cuthbert still does scenic and lighting design for Court Theater on the campus of the University of Chicago, so his hand is very actively in the midst of “the business-“ the pride is sincere and heart-felt, and one can only guess at the expert testimony drawn from experience he gave to help mold the shape of the complex’s design.

More pics here.

Cuthbert pointed out Viam Sapientiae Monstrabo Tibi, “I will show you the way of wisdom,” DePaul’s motto, inscribed on the lobby’s main wall, in both Latin and English. Filling many of the letters of the words there were the names of all the plays performed by Goodman/Theatre School Students since 1925. Not far from this mural is the entrance to the Fullerton Stage, the School’s 250-seat thrust stage. (A thrust stage is a stage where the audience surrounds it on three sides, relying on the shallowness of any scenery to ensure that the audience can see the actors and the action.) This type of stage, then, is ideal for the Theatre School’s initial offering, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, (running October 4th through the 13th), which, outside of two ladders, some tables and chairs, uses no scenery in conveying its message of universality.

The Fullerton is also equipped with “a complete rigging and automation system featuring movable spot hoists, motorized linesets, and current scenic technologies and automation controls.” (Translation: Remember very old cartoons where characters engage in backstage chases and ultimately get hit in the head by a sandbag, a counterweight on a pulley opposite a backdrop or piece of scenery falling from above? Nothing like that here.) The paint and scene shops are expanisve (7500 square feet), double the amount of space as at the old Kenmore address. As the dean and company representatives told us, the School is (quite possibly) “the only theater in the world with a drawbridge-“ a hydraulic structure that allows large sets to be moved from the scene and paint shops onto the Fullerton Stage without any disassembly involved.  

The salt mines of theater education, where “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” of creation occurs are located on the third floor, which houses the acting laboratories and movement and voice studios. The ten acting labs (back at SLU we called them “other people’s classrooms”) have wooden floors, light-regulating windows and are soundproofed. The irregular width and spacing of windows on the exterior gives each studio its own energy, according to the Dean. “As actors we respond to different spaces. (Each studio is a ) one-off, special space.” The fenestration (arrangement of windows) on the exterior also helps answer the question: ”How do we express our creativity on the exterior structure?” In a true sign that the School building is a custom job, and not an older building seeing some sort of adaptive reuse, three of the third-floor rehearsal spaces mirror the dimensions of the stages in each of the University’s spaces: The Merle Reskin Theatre, The Fullerton Stage, and the Healy Theatre.

The leap from the makeup facilities that we enjoyed at SLU (plenty of costume storage; the thing I remember most about the costume construction room was the costume designer, Roberta. Such a thing I had for that girl) to what can be found here is immense. In addition to a seat in front of a good piece of mirror with room above for storage and the placement of photos of faces to use for modeling or inspiration, the makeup lab also has… a barber’s chair. A student may sit here, and under the same mixture of warm and cool lighting colors that will be used for a particular show, the mirrors in the lab can be used to show what the makeup will look like at the appropriate distance from the audience.  In the same way that sunlight can flow into the makeup lab, an airy, leafy exterior presents itself to the well-equipped and spacious costume lab, which has its own separate dyeing room. And wig room.

Scene work for acting and directing classes requires scripts, and at SLU we had a closet with a bookcase filled with a fair number of worn-out books. My favorite memory of our script library was the dog-eared copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, with an imperious yellow stamp on it disclaiming that “THE CATHOLIC CHURCH STRICTLY PROHIBITS PRODUCTION OF THIS PLAY” on it. Imagine my delight and gratitude, then, upon seeing the fourth-floor script library complete with new wooden bookcases, furniture in which to lounge, students at a check-out desk, more than adequate lighting (much of it natural, unlike my poor closet)  and a photocopier. Imagine my dumbstruck awe, too, on observing one of the outdoor terraces lining part of the perimeter of the building.

Though corridors wide enough to accommodate the transportation of scenery as well as accompany good-sized groups of audience and students, I was led to the gem of the building, (on the outside as well as in), the 100-seat “black box” Healy Theatre, named after longtime contributors Sondra and Denis Healy of the Turtle Wax, Inc. empire. On the exterior it reads as a white cube with the Fullerton side enclosed in translucent glass wall.  The black box behind that wall is certainly not the small, repurposed room that you would expect those words to connote, however. The space, surrounded on three sides by scaffolding and surmounted by a full lighting grid, uses industrial buildings across Fullerton as a backdrop, unless, of course they are obscured from view by a shimmering metallic drape as elegant as any prom dress. When opened during rehearsal, as Cuthbert said, they exemplify the aesthetic engine behind the entire building, which strives to “share the process, not just the product.”

One of the visiting journalists remarked that the walls of the corridors of the building are of unfinished concrete, and Mr. Culbert quoted architect Pelli: “What finishes it are the people.”

Placement of the set and the seating of each production is up to the director of the piece being performed, so seating arrangements can be proscenium (audience on one side; what we usually expect to find when most of us go to the theater), thrust (audience on three sides, like the Fullerton Stage), arena (audience on four sides, which you’ve probably run into if you’ve ever attended dinner theater), or the relatively rare stadium staging, with the audience flanking the stage on two sides.

I must admit, I don’t remember us having a black box at SLU, but we did have our own converted storefront theater, the Laclede, until it was torn down (some would say mistakenly) to make way for a new bus barn. The “Little Theater” then moved into the decommissioned (desanitized?) chapel of the old high school building that had become the University Theatre Building. The first show I saw there, Lovers and Other Strangers, had foul language and all this talk about sex and it just somewhat…freaked me out.

The administrative area, tucked away behind that cube, marks the fifth floor. Probably the thing that struck my attention the most about this floor was a conference room, bright and spacious, with a curtained, projection-screen shaped opening in one wall, which might be used for future puppet shows. (Dean Culbert said that he was joking, but admitted that one never knows, does one?) Particularly striking was the wide, horizontal view of the City through the room’s window, and after visiting two other new academic buildings with spectacular views of Chicago, the Wabash Building of Roosevelt University and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts of the University of Chicago, I seriously wondered how anyone could get anything done, with so much opulence spread out in front of them. Administrative offices and lounges are also found on this floor. This palette of services and functions is balanced by things I have yet to see: a CAD (computer-aided design) lab, design studio, lighting lab, sound lab, and full drafting lab.

More pics here.

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As I walked back to the Red Line station at Sheffield I made a long detour and explored the campus of DePaul at Lincoln Park which had changed considerably since the days when my sister and I had spent much of our childhood here. A good chunk of Seminary was gone, replaced with an honest-to-God campus replete with library, quadrangle, student center and dormitories in the red brick and limestone trim that echoed the historic character of the old neighborhood. The fortress-like academic center of the 1960 is now mostly obscured, and the long-gone modernist Chicago Public Library at Fullerton and Sheffield now occupies the first story of a warehouse building kitty-corner from the Theatre School.

When I returned to SLU a few years ago for a reunion, I saw sweeping change down there, too. The Edwardian Era-seminary in which I had spent my first two years was gone, and the street that had been in front of it, the actual paved street, had been replaced by parkland. There was a gate at what used to be the intersection of West Pine and Sarah, where the old house where my $85-a-month apartment had been was still there. The house had been restored, but the address numbers, “4112,” were in the same dingy whitewash that they had always been.

A happy past for me, and a bright future for them, huh? Happy confluences, indeed.

The Theatre School at DePaul University offers four-year BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) programs in Theatre Arts, Acting, Theatre Management, Costume Design, Costume Technology, Stage Management, Dramaturgy/Criticism, Playwriting, Theatre Technology, Lighting Design, Scenic Design, and Sound Design. MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degrees are awarded in the fields of Acting, Directing, and Arts Leadership.

The Fullerton Stage kicks off its season with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, running October 4-13, 2013 with previews on October 2 and 3. The Healy Theatre begins its season with Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of Arabian Nights, running November 1-10. Tickets are $15 reserved admission, $10 preview admission, and $5 for students. For more information on the full season, dates, times, and ticket pricing, call the Box Office at 312.922.1999 or visit their website at www.theatre.depaul.edu. The Theatre School at DePaul University building is located at 2350 N. Racine Ave., Chicago IL 60614.

Bernie Jablonski taught Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School for many, many years.