“Why is opening a theater such a big deal?” Michael Halberstam, artistic director and cofounder of the Writers Theatre, asked a jovial crowd in the Litowitz Atrium at the ribbon cutting of the new Studio Gang–designed playhouse in the North Shore suburb of Glencoe, Illinois. For a mid-February day, the weather was cooperating with Halberstam’s impassioned speech about the role of the theater as both a building typology and a cultural pursuit. Dramatic clouds broke to let a clear winter sunlight cascade through the fritted glass as he continued: “A theater seduces you into empathic communication. When it’s at its best, audiences find themselves in a heart-guided meditation, which is at once both entertaining and provocative.”
The new 36,000-square-foot home for the Writers Theatre, a renowned group of actors and writers, was a long time coming for the group that started out in the back room of a bookstore a few blocks away. The Chicago–based firm’s design takes those humble beginnings and the theater’s aspirations as a cultural institute as its starting point. Located on the former spot of the Women’s Library Club of Glencoe, a building that had become the home of the growing theater as it expanded out of the book store, the theater is only steps away from the regional Metra train stop, connecting it directly to downtown Chicago.
The lobby and atrium are bright wood- and glass-filled spaces that function as public gathering areas outside of their roles as the entry for shows. Two large sets of riser seating that flank the space allow it to be used for informal performances. Those risers are primarily built out of wood that was harvested directly from the site, a theme that continues throughout the project. Off the lobby, the 2,275-square-foot Green Family Rehearsal Room sites at grade, even with a playground just outside of a large glass wall. This sets up a moment where the children outside and the actors inside can play side by side.
The building’s most distinctive feature, however, is the suspended Grand Gallery Walk. Surrounding the atrium at the second level, the outdoor walkway looks out over Glencoe, the lake, and the site’s landscaped oak savanna. A screen of long, three-inch-wide cedar battens not only gives the building its signature facade but also is the structural member from which the walkway is suspended. The engineering for this and the long-span glue laminated timber and steel box truss that makes up the atrium was realized with the help of engineer Peter Heppel and Chicago project engineers Halvorson and Partners. “The structure of the roof, the truss, and the walkway, is quite complicated because it all works together,” Heppel explained to AN at the opening. “We had to test the wood, because it is not in the standard Timber Institute’s manual. We broke a lot of pieces in the design process.”
There are two performance spaces. The Gillian Theatre, a 50 to 99 seat black box, allows for flexibility in performance and viewing. Its small size harkens back to the simple 50 seat shows the theater would hold in its original bookstore home. The 250-seat Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre features a thrust stage for intimate engagements. Working closely with New York–based Auerbach Pollock Friedlander theater consultants, Studio Gang integrated the exterior bricks from the Women’s Library Club into a woven brick acoustic wall screen system, which stands a foot in front of the space’s true concrete walls. “We wanted to use as much of the building that was here as we could. Reusing bricks is not that easy,” said firm founder and principal Jeanne Gang. “They need to be cleaned and sorted. It is not really for cost-saving measure. It’s more of a ‘trying to keep it out of the landfill’ measure.” The goal of the acoustic design was to mimic the sound qualities of the forest clearing, or a space without boundaries. The chipped and irregular nature of the recycled bricks was also an advantage in achieving the desired acoustic performance by breaking up the sound waves.
Though the North Shore is known for stunning old homes and quaint, brick-paved town centers, it is rarely a place to find contemporary architecture. As such, Writers Theatre challenges the style of its surrounding neighbors, while still engaging with its community. Together, they hope the project will act as an open invitation to the rest of Chicago to take the short train ride north.