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The Bard’s Best Friend

Naysayers said Chicago didn’t need Shakespeare. Barbara Gaines proved them wrong.  

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Barbara GainesImage: Abel Arciniega 

By Sean Hargadon
Winter 2023
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When Barbara Gaines thinks back to the very first Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry V, which premiered on the rooftop of a Lincoln Park pub, she mostly recalls actors with “really long swords running through the bar.”  

Gaines ’68 had a lot on the line. She had founded the small theater group, then known as Shakespeare Repertory Company, in August 1986, and with potential benefactors in the 50-seat audience for every show, she needed every performance to go off without a hitch.

“I was absolutely obsessed with the weather,” Gaines says, “and in August of 1986, it rained on the alley, it rained on the buildings next door, but it never rained on the roof of the Red Lion Pub.” After wrapping up that two-week outdoor run without once having to cancel due to weather, Gaines had a hunch the theater might succeed.  

In the three-and-a-half decades since its founding, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has become a Tony Award–winning theatrical powerhouse. 

Some in the theatrical community scoffed at the idea that Chicago even needed a Shakespeare theater in the first place. Gaines, who will step down as artistic director in spring 2023, proved the naysayers wrong.  

Today the Chicago Shakespeare Theater puts on as many as 20 productions — not all of them by the Bard — and 650 performances each year on its three stages. Headquartered in a seven-story, 800,000-square-foot facility on Navy Pier, the theater company has served more than 2 million students and teachers through its nationally recognized arts-in-education programs and has engaged with Chicagoans through free, public programs such as Shakespeare in the Parks.  

Barbara Gaines


Years ago, “we did something at Crane High School, and the principal said, ‘Well, the kids don’t even like music, so I don’t think you should come. They’ll never sit still for Shakespeare,’” Gaines recalls. “So, of course I brought 12 or 14 actors. And not only did the 500 students sit still for the show, but when it was over, they gave the actors a standing ovation and ran to the stage so everybody could sign their programs. It was a magical moment.” 

In the theater hall or in local schools, Gaines has always prioritized reaching the youngest theatergoers. In fact, one in four Chicago Shakespeare audience members is under the age of 18. “I love infecting children with the love of theater,” she says.  

Gaines caught the theater bug herself at Northwestern.  

The University “gave me the best liberal arts education I could have hope for,” says Gaines, who is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. “I use those history and political science and English classes all the time, all these decades later. But the best thing that happened was meeting Dr. Wallace Bacon, who taught Shakespeare in three quarters — comedies, histories and tragedies. We used to call his class, ‘Shake and Bake.’”  

When Chicago Shakespeare Theater opened its new facility in 1999, Gaines flew Bacon in from Taos, N.M., for opening night. “Nothing could have made me happier,” she says. “I will always be grateful to Northwestern and certainly for that class, because I’m not sure that Shakespeare would have found a home in Chicago were it not for Dr. Bacon and his teaching.” 

Since founding the theater, Gaines has directed nearly 60 productions, including 30 of Shakespeare’s plays. During her tenure, she collected a 2008 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater; the Honorary OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her contributions to strengthen British-American cultural relations; and seven Joseph Jefferson Awards for best production or best director.  

For her final production, in March 2023, Gaines will revisit her adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors — a play, she says, that felt right for this moment in time.  

“One of the great tonics for fear and sadness is humor, and one of the funniest plays I’ve directed — some 15 years ago — was The Comedy of Errors,” Gaines says. “With this show I want to lighten our heavy hearts with joy and laughter.” 

After the curtain closes, she plans to read a novel — “from beginning to end, with no interruptions. I know that seems like a small task, but it’s been pretty close to impossible for about 37 years,” says Gaines, who also plans to vacation in Greece. 

It will be a well-deserved break. Gaines admits that the last three years have been the hardest of her career and unimaginably challenging for arts institutions. “COVID has not stopped hitting the performing arts,” she says. “It is stressful. It is overwhelming. You worry about the health of your people. You worry about the people in the audience. The stress factor has not been reduced yet, at least not in my life,” she says.  

“But we can’t give in to these struggles. One of my favorite lines is from Troilus & Cressida: ‘Joy’s soul lies in the doing.’” 

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Reader Responses

  • My partner and I attended a performance of "King Lear" at the Ruth Page Center, Chicago Shakespeare Theater's second home. We'd found a company we wanted to subscribe to and still do these many years later.

    Helen Carlock ’59 Chicago, via Facebook

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