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"Machines for the Production of Plays"

With his new Beverly Arts Center, architect John Morris continues his legacy of spare, efficient, and elegant theaters.

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From the rear of the stage in the theater at the new Beverly Arts Center, it looks like someone got the proportions wrong. The stage is too big. It stretches out toward the audience like an ocean, overwhelming the mere dozen rows of seats that sit facing it like so many chairs on a distant strip of beach. "It's deeper than the Steppenwolf stage," says architect John Morris. "By six feet. We can put an 80-piece orchestra and 100 voices here. Hubbard Street [Dance Chicago] can come in and find everything they need."

Steppenwolf, which Morris also designed, was a loose model for this American playhouse, which has a proscenium stage (actually about the same size as the seating area) and balcony. When Steppenwolf did their first show in the new space, Morris says, Albert Finney walked onstage, looked at the full fly and all the bells and whistles, and said, "You're mad! You're insane! It's a Broadway stage house, with 500 seats! You won't make enough money!" A Broadway house has 1,200 seats, Morris explains. "This only works in not-for-profit."

The BAC theater has 420 seats, upholstered in high-grade remnants of deep red, gold, purple, and blue, randomly mixed and brilliant in a room that otherwise resembles a concrete canyon. Gray, shot-blasted concrete block was used for walls throughout the 40,000-square-foot, $10 million building (at Western and 111th), which also contains art, music, and dance studios, classrooms, a cafe, a gallery, and a black-box theater. The concrete block was specified by Morris's partner on the job, Wheeler Kearns Architects, who designed everything but the theater spaces. But Morris didn't object. He has designed nearly all of the small to midsize new local theaters--including the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, Raven, Noble Fool, the Old Town School of Folk Music's recital hall, Northlight, and the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre--and when he has his way they look more like operating rooms, with all the apparatus exposed, than like the plush palaces of old. When the new Steppenwolf, Morris's favorite project, opened in 1991, Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp pronounced it a sophisticated "machine for the production of plays." In its purest form, the Morris theater has no more than 650 seats and is a high-tech, alternate-reality capsule designed to make sure that wonderful things can happen onstage and nothing will come between them and the audience.

Morris was hatched by the community he serves. As a law-school-bound college student at Michigan's Oakland University, he fell into a stage carpentry work-study job with a professional theater on campus and liked it so much he stayed on full-time for two years after graduation. He was a carpenter at the Goodman Theatre for a season, technical director at David Mamet's Saint Nicholas Theater Company for a year, and for two years ran a CETA-funded scene shop for the city and designed sets before signing on for a master's in architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thinking he'd "get the hell out of theater" and into a job with regular hours. With a recommendation from Bernie Sahlins, he was hired fresh out of architecture school in 1983 by sole practitioner George Veronda, who'd just received national recognition for a house he designed for his partner, the late artist Roger Brown. Two months later Veronda was diagnosed with fatal lung cancer, and Morris, who hadn't yet practiced long enough to be licensed, was left with the office. He teamed up with Bill James and Len Kutyla, and they landed the Steppenwolf job after being called in to see if the theater could expand its space, which happened to be Saint Nicholas's former digs.

The firm of James, Morris & Kutyla worked on Steppenwolf's new home from 1986 to 1991, during which other theater assignments, like Live Bait and Organic, began to roll in. "It snowballed into a not-very-lucrative practice," Morris recalls. "We never made as much as our employees." When a dip in the economy came along in '91, he decided to split. For the next couple of years, teaming with two other architects, he chased a trio of high-profile projects: the Goodman, the Chicago Music and Dance Theatre, and Centre East. "We marketed a lot but didn't get any of those," he says, and by November of '93 he was a one-man shop doing "whatever came through the door." In the spring of '94, things started to pick up. Now Morris Architects/Planners has six employees in Chicago and a one-person New York office. Their work in progress includes new quarters for Lookingglass Theatre (where Morris is a board member) in the Water Tower pumping station; a Michael Cullen theater going up across from the Old Town School on Lincoln; the Noble Horse, at 1410 N. Orleans; a street-level entry with an elevator for the Athenaeum; and community theaters in Antioch and Hammond.

It's always easier if you're building from scratch, Morris says, but more often than not he isn't. The warren of passageways and stairs leading into the main stage of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts at Green and Chicago was dictated by the existing space, spread over three buildings at different elevations. ("Think of it as a contraction-expansion experience," he says, "like the entry to the Guggenheim.") At Noble Fool, he had to shoehorn three performance spaces into 8,000 square feet and deal with the School of the Art Institute's 120-decibel cinema above it. And any time you've got a multiuse theater, there's compromise, he says. He worried about the recital hall in the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he was sure the murals they insisted on keeping would be a distraction. Then he went to an Eliades Ochoa concert there and found the audience totally enthralled and dancing: "I wanted to tug on their sleeves and say, 'Do you like this? We did this.'"

But for the most part his attitude toward theater is as unsentimental as the spaces he designs. He says chances are only 50-50 that any given play will be more interesting to the audience than their surroundings, and claims the irony of his career is that he got into set building "for the money." After he'd been at it for a decade, he says, he was the only one who'd never done it for free. "I was never a theater buff. For me, it was the carpentry [that mattered], the visual side of the theater. Putting up a set, painting it a certain way, using techniques to adjust color on a scrim, mixing light sources. The times I remember best were when we sat down in the middle of the house right before the first dress rehearsal, after we'd fixed everything from the tech, and went ah, there, it's done, and it really is fucking cool." It was complete without the actors? "Yeah," Morris says. "They'd ruin it, in a way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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