Mara Blumenfeld pulls onto Michigan Avenue, her car stuffed with fabric. Banners hang along Chicago's Magnificent Mile, and when the resident costume designer looks at them on moving day, they all say LOOKINGGLASS THEATRE. “We were working so hard to make this happen,” she says of the theatre's new home in the Chicago Water Tower Water Works, a neo-Gothic limestone structure that resembles a medieval castle. “It didn't seem real. Then I looked up, and there they were.”
Spectators are overwhelmed, too. You don't fall into a rabbit hole or enter via a mirror, but you do pass operating water pumps before you walk into an opening in a glazed terra cotta wall and through the tunnel Pepper Construction mined in a 350' chimney. A 6' × 18' photo of the actors swimming in the Northwestern University pool, some in evening clothes, hangs over the lobby bar, setting a tone both irreverent and elemental.
Founded in 1988 by Northwestern students, the inventive Lookingglass didn't need to move into the Water Works to make a splash. But while working in some 25 venues, the theatre retained something rare among regionals — a committed company. And this family of actors and designers needed a home.
That home had to be a flexible machine for theatre since Lookingglass suits the space to the show and has been known to perform in the air, in water, and in several rooms simultaneously. This summer, David Schwimmer inaugurated the space as a four-sided arena for Studs Terkel's Race, and Mary Zimmerman used an L-shape for the current production, The Secret In The Wings. The space, with a removable perimeter balcony and movable risers, seats 210-250.
Any change in seating configuration requires approval by the city. Architects created six arrangements, with and without the balcony, including thrust, corner stage, and alley staging. But resident set designer Dan Ostling says, “What we want to do doesn't always fit into a template.” Fire laws mandate visible exit signs. “The first time we went to a blackout, our hearts dropped,” says Ostling; using lower lumens to project less light from the signs helps.
The performance space stands in the pumping station's old boiler house. “That old machine aesthetic affected our theatre machine,” says Melissa Neel of Morris Architects. “It's a big erector set. We had to provide an armature that can withstand flying people and props, let them climb all over the place, and hang lighting from every point. The stage covers the whole floor so it can be anywhere,” she says. The space has a trappable stage, crossover, and perimeter catwalks.
In a tight ten-month schedule, Neel had to figure out how to fit three floors into a two-story building. “The green room and the control rooms are on the same level as the catwalks,” she says. A tight budget complicated matters. “There was no money for platforms or scissor lifts,” she adds. People will have to reconfigure the space, but they did buy chain hoists to move large sets into place.
The stage is set for this theatre to “metamorphosize.” Todd Hensley of Shuler & Shook, theatrical consultants who also worked on the Seattle Opera renovation (see page 26), says they planned all rigging and support steel so they can add motorized rigging, specifically ded-haul winches, in the future. A new grid and catwalks were also added. Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers reinforced that roof with new trusses to accommodate additional loads. Budget limits also meant losing some wall panels that would have helped scatter sound throughout the room and enhance the quality of natural sound, but again the room is prepared for upgrades.
Planning acoustics near pipes, ten feet in diameter, that pump 250 gallons of water daily, wasn't easy. “It is one of the more acoustically challenged sites I could possible imagine,” says Gregory A. Miller of The Talaske Group. “We jumped through many hoops to get air from the machine room to be quiet.” Doors that block sound, a specialized ceiling, and careful ductwork make it possible to hear the actors, not the water that pumps right next to the theatre.
The sound solution began with a box within a box. A partially floating floor sits on the original floor. Suspended walls and an isolated ceiling helped isolate vibration as well as noise. Steel posts, cushioned by neoprene rubber pads, touch the original construction.
The demands of the company were as extreme as the demands of the space. “They wanted to be able to do anything, anywhere,” says Aaron Downey of Talaske. Just as seating and staging are adaptable, “the main, surround, subwoofer, and effects loudspeakers, the video camera and projection devices, microphones, and the control position can be easily configured to correspond to each show's requirements,” Downey says.
Even the lobby can serve as a performance space, with a system that includes microphone inputs, powered loudspeakers, plasma video monitors, audio and video playback devices, an audio mixer and video switcher, and the infrastructure to add more.
The main stage plug boxes are located throughout the catwalks and floor “to distribute dedicated clean technical power receptacles and tie, speaker, video, intercom, and microphone lines. A Peavey Xframe88 controls the backstage program/paging system and the default system processing. Channels one and two of the console snake can be patched to the Xframe to generate a Left/Right audio signal optimally equalized for the eight main speakers. The optimized Left/Right output and a mono sum output (for the subwoofers) show up at the patch bay. These outputs each feed a 1×4 distribution amp,” says Downey. The outputs of the distribution amps can then be patched to any of the plug boxes around the mainstage, backstage, lobby, or a small studio space. Eight channels of audio processing are also available through Ashly Protea devices. The main theatre speakers consist of a mix of Renkus Heinz PN121/9 powered speakers with Meyer UPM1P powered speakers and M1D subwoofers as well as EAW UB12se's with NL4s. The mixing board is a Crest X8 32-channel console.
The backstage program/paging system, a mix of Clear-Com MS-440 main station and RM440 remote rack station, as well as a WBS-670 wireless system, allows actors to receive pages and show program from either theatre, or both theatres at once. Dressing rooms, corridors, stairwells and the green room each sport a program/page control panel.
Schuler and Shook designed the lighting systems, opting for a dimming system by Electronic Theatre Controls that included Sensor SR48 dimmer racks, Expression control consoles, ETC NEt2 access points, ETC Source 4 ellipsoidal spotlights, and Altman Fresnels and Sky Cycs. Rigging equipment from JR Clancy supplemented what the Lookingglass already owned.
Some support spaces fit within the boiler house building envelope. Blumenfeld's wardrobe room is tiny, but it's the first time she's had one. “I always had to schlep irons and steamers and supplies that we stored in the office to each theatre,” says the designer, recalling that her wardrobe supervisor had to drive to a laundromat constantly when they did Metamorphoses at the Ivan-hoe. The company gave up some support space to maximize performance space; shops, administrative offices, rehearsal spaces, and storage remain off-site.
Ostling says the new space also means a new approach to budgeting. Facilities are a new line item, and the theatre must pay to reinvent the space for each performance. “The good thing is it's still a small space. We don't have to fill 800 seats,” Ostling says, adding that the Lookingglass is used to working on a shoestring. “We always did a lot with not a lot.”