Roll back the calendar to the early years of the 20th century. Chicago movie fans were flocking to the Biograph Theatre, which incidentally holds a place in the city's seamier history as the spot where gangster John Dillinger was killed in 1934. Designed in 1914 by Samuel N. Crowen, the structure included a lobby no wider than a storefront and a classic movie house marquee.

Today, the landmark theatre on Lincoln Avenue has been renovated (for $11.5 million), with its handsome, red-pressed brick and white-glazed terracotta façade restored to its 1930s look. The venue now serves as the 299-seat Victory Gardens Theatre at The Biograph, with artistic director Dennis Zacek and managing director Marcelle McVay at the helm.

The company moved to this space from a 195-seat storefront theatre a few blocks away, now used as a second stage. “The biggest challenge, in my opinion, was to make sure that the new theatre did not feel radically larger and less intimate, even though they added 100 seats,” says Robert Shook, ASTC, a partner in the Chicago office of theatre consultants Schuler Shook. Over the years, Shook and partner Todd Hensley, ASTC, designed the lighting for numerous productions at Victory Gardens. In fact, Shook did the lighting for Denmark, a play by Charles Smith that opened the new space in September 2006, and Hensley served as resident LD for several years. “It was a labor of love to work on the renovation of this theatre,” Hensley says.

“They didn't want an overpowering auditorium but had a group of resident playwrights that needed larger stages,” notes Shook. Production manager Jon Heuring agrees: “The goal was to keep the same intimacy in the new room. Our playwrights were limited in what they could do in the old space. The new modified thrust stage helps achieve a nice audience/actor relationship and the theatre is a warm, intimate space.”

In the renovated lobby, terracotta carpet echoes the hues of the façade, with a concierge-style box office behind a curved wooden desk, which serves as a source of information and for purchasing tickets. Architectural accents in the lobby include green-marble countertops, a warm yellow wall, and a wall of new “old” brick. “Chicago is a great source of vintage, recycled brick,” Shook points out.

The interior of the auditorium is also warm, with terracotta fabric on seats with wood trim from Series Seating and wood millwork that carries through from the lobby. The distance from seat back to seat back is 38“, with a side-aisle configuration that leaves plenty of room for ADA-accessible seating and a steep rake so that the risers can reach over the lobby. The front row of seats sits 26" below stage level.

The stage, provided by Staging Concepts, is divided into 4'×8' platforms that can also serve as traps. The overall stage measures 32' wide × 30' deep, with 16' of wing space on each side (compared to a stage of 25'×25' with no wings in the old theatre). There is also a rehearsal room the same size as the stage. “This is big by Chicago's Off-Loop standards,” Shook adds. “Yet they decided not to lift the roof for a full fly tower and instead have hoisting space for small scenic pieces.” The sidewalls and ceiling are the same as in the old Biograph, as the new theatre has virtually the same footprint. One large control room is located in the center of the back wall, above the last row of seats.

Two catwalks — one at front of house and one over the stage (just upstage of the proscenium) — provide walking access for technicians to reach the lighting positions and other gear hung there. There is also a series of fixed pipes over the stage, with plans to add motors in the future. “For new plays, there can be a lot of changes to the lighting as you go along,” Heuring says. “Easy access to the lighting positions is important.” There is also easy access to side slots that house lighting ladders.

The lighting system includes three ETC Sensor+ dimmer racks with 288 2.4kW dimmers, with control via an ETC Emphasis 2D/1000 console with Express 250 faceplate. The control system includes an ETC wireless remote focus unit and an Ethernet network with two-port touring nodes, remote video node, and a console node. The theatre is also equipped with an ETC Unison-based cue-lighting system and a custom Unison architectural lighting control system. The heart of the fixture inventory comprises 90 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and 30 Source Four PARs, with 22 Altman Fresnels, six L&E MR16 three-circuit mini-strips, and eight 500W four-cell Altman cyc lights. The lighting package was purchased through Designlab Chicago.


Rigging pipes are dead-hung on new steel beams that were threaded though the old roof trusses, with some hemp rigging from the steel for scenic pieces. “They have the capability to add a counterweight motorized system in the future; the support system is there,” says Hensley. With pipes placed 10“ apart over the entire stage, the rigging is more flexible than a pipe grid. “The pipes can slide out of the way, upstage or downstage, to hang things above them, like a chandelier or a sign or a scenic piece,” says Heuring. Grand Stage Company in Chicago provided the rigging and soft goods.

To add flexibility to the space, the theatre consultants added penetrations as cable pass-throughs. “They are like planned holes in the wall filled with fire-stop pillows, which look like pieces of a life jacket,” says Hensley. “This doesn't change the rating of the wall, so you can still run a cable through it to back stage, the loading dock, or to the catwalk system.”

Sound reinforcement is generally used in the space only for musicals such as The Snow Queen, which was performed during the winter holidays, or for special effects. “This goes hand-in-hand with the sense of intimacy, and we didn't want to have amplified voices. We do very well with just the spoken voice and are very happy with the acoustics,” says Heuring. The audio and projection gear was specified by Cline & Associates, a Chicago-based company, with Eric Seifert sub-contracted to handle the acoustics. “Fabrics and other treatments help create an acoustically warm space in a 100-year-old brick building,” adds Heuring.

The sound gear includes a generous wireless microphone package donated by Shure, which is located just north of Chicago. The remaining sound equipment, supplied by Chicago's Plus One Audio + Video, ranges from a Yamaha M7CL32 CH digital mixing console to loudspeakers by EAW, Electro-Voice, and Atlas, amplifiers by Electro-Voice and Crown, and a Tascam RW2000 cassette deck. An assisted-listening system is by Sennheiser, with the communications system by Clear-Com. Projection playback is via a Sony PLX-41 LCD projector.

“The neighborhood is glad to see that the theatre has been renovated,” says Shook. “They had watched The Biograph decline into very bad condition.” Now audiences can flock to the theatre once again and experience the new plays that Victory Gardens champions. An example of this is the final play of the 2006-2007 season, I Sailed With Magellan, which closed on July 15. “A very good show, and they used every element available to them,” says Hensley.

The set for I Sailed With Magellan was meant to mimic Lake Michigan. “We created a rock detail around the edge of the trap for the big scene at the lake,” says Heuring. “We knew that a big pool under the stage was not going to happen in terms of cost and weight, as there were other effects in the show. We couldn't shoot the entire budget on a pool.”

Instead, the 4.5'-deep pit in the stage was used to mimic swimming and floating. “We added some water from below for effect,” Heuring continues. “And we used a rig that makes it look like an actor is floating on his back and put different types of padding on the bottom of the pit so it looks like the actors are bobbing up and down. It was not our intention to fool anyone that there was water in there. The play is a memory piece, and what you remember from a day at the lake is the guy splashing water at you or spitting water at you. It turned out great.”

Next season promises more innovative productions with four world premieres — The Defiant Muse by Nicholas A. Patricca, A Big Blue Nail by Carlyle Brown, Four Places by Joel Drake Johnson, and Relatively Close by James Sherman, plus the Chicago premiere of A Park In Our House by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, as well as Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen.