Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Chicago, IL, USA
Nearly a decade in the making and one of Charcoalblue’s most significant projects in the United States, Steppenwolf's new urban campus opened on November 2, 2021. The Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center includes a radical 400-seat-in-the-round theatre and education, performance and hospitality spaces for the current and next generation of enthusiastic Chicagoans.
Image credits: James Steinkamp Photography
Before hitting the drawing board, Charcoalblue worked with Steppenwolf Theatre’s team to define what it means to be Chicago’s urban theatre company. Shelving more than one iteration of the new theatres along the way, Charcoalblue collaborated with architect Gordon Gill and a multidisciplinary team on programming, designing and building performances with nearly 1,000 seats and associated entertainment, education and back-of-house support spaces in three phases over ten years. The result is a uniquely accessible and diverse cultural nexus for the current and next generation of Chicagoans and theatre enthusiasts from around the globe.
Here's a look at the various phases, programs and spaces Charcoalblue worked on:
PHASE ONE: Opened in 2016, the first phase of reimagining Steppenwolf Theatre’s campus was a new 88-seat cabaret theatre, highly experimental studio space, the Front Bar, coffeehouse and bar at 1700 N. Halsted next to the original building. The 1700 Theater was a great kickoff to our collaboration and led to a place to highlight new and gestational work from artists across the spectrum.
PHASE TWO: Known for a naturalist brand of contemporary American theatre, Steppenwolf’s biggest enhancement is the new $54 million Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center built around a 400-seat in-the-round theatre: the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell. The 50,000 square foot building sets a new benchmark for creative expression and social exchange with unparalleled accessibility. Only six rows deep, never more than 20 feet from the stage and featuring a modular staging system to vary audience capacity and experience, Charcoalblue designed the incredibly intimate space from the inside out to integrate the theatre into the fabric of the contemporary building designed by Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The building’s program—from the two-story atrium lobby, full-service bar, education floor, costume shop and other production amenities—literally and metaphorically revolves around the Ensemble Theater, leaving no room for error. While the new Arts and Education Center front-of-house spaces open in November 2021, public performances in the new theatre officially start in spring 2022.
PHASE THREE: The forced dark period for performances caused by the global pandemic opened a window of opportunity for Steppenwolf to advance their plans for Phase Three: renovations to the existing 1991 building sandwiched in the middle. Charcoalblue worked alongside Steppenwolf and John Morris architects to execute a series of targeted improvements to the Downstairs Theater including new rigging systems, house lighting systems, and converting the Upstairs Theater and dressing rooms into the two rehearsal halls for the Downstairs Theater and Ensemble Theater while the front-of-house experience was being simultaneously transformed.
"Steppenwolf’s artistic and production teams were inspired to think in new ways about scenic and technical support in their new in-the-round theatre. With audience surrounding the acting space on all sides, we focused on the ability to move scenery and change settings vertically. The completed design includes a nearly double-height trappable space below the stage encompassing the first two rows of audience with flexible platforming that can be removed to allow for scenic automation and performer entrances from below. With a double layer of lighting catwalks below and walkable gridiron for scenic rigging above, the space will be is unique for in-the-round spaces in terms of overhead rigging."
Jerad Schomer, Stage Engineering
“Theatre in-the-round is the most intimate way of gathering theatre artists and audiences together in one space – making sure everyone is close enough to see the actors sweat. It also builds community – forcing audiences to engage not just with the performance, but also with their fellow citizens sitting around and across from them. It was for these reasons that Steppenwolf, Charcoalblue and the team chose this form for the next generation.”
Clemeth Abercrombie, Project Principal
“With an in-the-round format, the space leaves nowhere to hide – for the actors and the audience. Since the human voice is relatively directive, the acoustical design provides architectural surfaces in areas coincident with the strongest directivity of the voice to produce early-arriving sound reflections. This is beneficial when the actors are facing away from the audience.”
Eric Magloire, Acoustics
Theatre and Acoustics Consultancy
Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture
Image credit: James Steinkamp Photography