In reviewing DePaul’s new home for The Theatre School, Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, praised the building’s style and substance:
“As a conservatory that prepares students for careers in the theater, the $73 million building houses a 250-seat thrust-stage theater, a 120-seat black box theater and an abundance of training rooms where aspiring theater types [learn] how to act, dance, sew costumes, compose soundscapes, design lighting and build sets.
“But it would be wrong to say that the building merely shelters these activities. Its principal strength is that it showcases them, transforming the design into a kind of performance art, one notably free of such theater-design cliches as blazing marquees or the masks of tragedy and comedy. It is, by and large, a compelling performance, orchestrated by the building's chief architect, Cesar Pelli, [who] has turned what might have been a massive, city-deadening box into a boldly sculpted landmark."
John Culbert, professor and dean of The Theatre School, explores the building’s form-follows-function concept and intention.
The building design is specific to what we do, and when a facility is designed for a very specific purpose, it ends up being beautiful. Think of a barn or a factory: They’re often graceful because there’s a reason behind every structural gesture.
When we interviewed architects, we made a point of the fact that for us, a theatre school, the process is as important as the product. Of course we do shows, and we’re very proud of them. But that isn’t how we spend most of our time. The processes behind each show — those are fascinating, too. So, how could we share these processes with the world? Many choices in the building reflect that goal.
For example, we have a theatre on the fourth floor. It would be traditional, in a performing arts center, to put all of the theatres on the first floor so the public has easy access. But we want our audience to realize they are part of a school: What’s different about that experience? As they go through the building to get to the theatre, they see students rehearsing and practicing scenes, making sets or costumes, doing their homework or sleeping in the lobby. The messiness of creation is there for everyone to see! And really the audience is important in all our processes: The students can’t learn what they have to learn without an audience.
Another example: Usually, a theatre’s scene shop is in the back, never to be seen by the public. Ours is on the first floor, front-and-center, behind a giant wall of windows. People walk by and peer in: “What are those crazy people doing in there?” And that’s the whole point. The rest of the windows in the building are arranged asymmetrically, like rhythmic notes of music — again, it’s all about the creativity of our community.
The secret to our architects’ distinctive approach is that they started from the perspective not of architecture but of people and community. They asked about how we wanted to interact with each other and with the outside world: Did we want specific groups of people separated, some over here and some over there? Or did we want to mix people together? That was music to our ears!
As a result of their insights, we have a building of five floors in which no two floors are the same. Even rooms with similar purposes differ. For example, we have 10 acting labs — our workhorse classrooms — and no two are the same. They might be the same size, but they have different shapes, proportions, and even bumps in the wall, because part of what we do — as actors, designers and directors — is respond to space.
Last but not least, the building increases the productive use of our most valuable resource — time. Because it’s designed to support what we do, we never have to waste time repurposing a space; as a result, the actual time and energy spent on teaching and learning has increased dramatically. Also, our hands-on learning opportunities have increased. Say, a set design class is learning about arranging furniture on the stage to support a scene. In our old building, that was an abstract exercise done on paper; now, we can drag a couch or a table to the real stage and move it around, trying it one way and then another. With each student, we can get further down the road than ever before, and that’s exciting for everybody.
The building is inspiring, really — it inspires the students, the faculty, the staff, everybody. When each of us walks into this building, we think, “I'd better do my best work!” We’ve been using the building in our recruitment materials for two years now, and our applications have gone up considerably, more than 30 percent. When potential students and their families visit, it’s a WOW experience. People from the theatre professions are also impressed.
So, the word is out, and everyone knows: DePaul is serious about theatre.