CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Shakespeare Theater has its roots in a 1986 production of "Henry V" performed on a pub's rooftop deck. On Tuesday, the company was named the recipient of the 2008 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater.
The announcement was made in New York along with nominations for next month's annual Tony Awards ceremony, honoring the best of the Broadway season.
"It was a shock," said artistic director Barbara Gaines, adding that she didn't know her company's work was "so appreciated."
In the recommendation from the American Theatre Critics Association that led to the award, the company was called an "artistic treasure."
"Chicago Shakespeare's text-based approach to Shakespeare, and its commitment to Chicago acting and design talent, reinvigorates both familiar works and problem plays with freshness and clarity in a unified, American ensemble style," it said.
Gaines, who became fascinated with Shakespeare as a teen, was a Chicago actress who had begun conducting Shakespeare workshops in the mid-1980s when she mounted that early rooftop production.
From 1987 to 1999, what was then called the Shakespeare Repertory Company operated out of an arts center in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. In 1999, it moved into a new, 75,000-square-foot building on Navy Pier overlooking Lake Michigan — and with the move, took on its current name.
Critics wondered whether the company could really make a go of it on Navy Pier, known for its Ferris wheel, fried food and shorts-clad tourists — not exactly an atmosphere conducive to drawing the typical theater crowd.
It succeeded, however, by focusing on a varied schedule that includes everything from the bard's classics to family-friendly fare to performances by visiting international troupes.
On tap for the 2008-09 season, for instance, is a hip-hop musical adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing," the drama "Amadeus," the family musical "Willy Wonka" and a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," featuring actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats from India and Sri Lanka. Gaines also will be tackling "Macbeth," for the first time in her career.
The theater now attracts 225,000 audience members annually during a 48-week season of more than 600 performances.
"I think we try to reach our scope to a very broad segment," Gaines said. "If you don't like Shakespeare, you're going to love our musicals. If you don't love our musicals, you're going to love our international work. If you have children, you're going to love the stuff we do for kids.
"We have this diversity of programming which I think is extraordinary for any theater," she said. "I don't know of any theater that does this much diverse work, quite frankly, while maintaining a really high standard for our Shakespeare and our other classic plays."
The company becomes the fourth in Chicago to receive the regional theater Tony. The city's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater are previous recipients.
Also Tuesday, Steppenwolf's production of "August: Osage County" — already the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama — was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best play.
"We're just thrilled that we can be sharing the night with Steppenwolf," Gaines said, referring to the June 15 Tony Awards ceremony. "It's really a thrill for Chicago. Chicago, in a way, is the winner."
The growth and success of Chicago Shakespeare is emblematic of the way many of the city's theater companies have been created and then supported by Chicago residents and officials, said Roche Schulfer, the founder and current chair of the League of Chicago Theatres.
Gaines, he said, created the company "out of thin air."
"She was an actor, not terribly experienced as a director or producer, but through the force of her will and her talent was able over the years to build one of the largest leading theaters in the country," said Schulfer.