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National Theatre of Scotland's

Black Watch

October 10

October 21, 2012

at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway.

A World's Stage Production
from Scotland
by Gregory Burke
directed by John Tiffany

About the Broadway Armory

by Chris Jones
March 24, 2011

If you have ever driven down Broadway, or stared westward from the Red Line train in the vicinity of Thorndale Avenue, or (like me) paused at the door of the genial St. Andrew's Inn after enjoying a couple of its uncommonly fine selection of beers, you've surely noticed the historic Broadway Armory at 5917 N. Broadway. But I know someone who lives pretty much across the street and had no idea what was there.

Built in 1916 as the Winter Garden Ice Skating Rink, the building become an armory by the end of World War I and was, for years thereafter, used by the Illinois National Guard for drills and training. Some of the older folks in the Edgewater neighborhood, I've been told, remember seeing tanks rolling regularly down Elmdale Avenue. The armory had huge doors and the military vehicles would just pull right in.

Since the Chicago Park District took over the space and, in 1985, turned the armory into an indoor recreation and community center, plenty of citizens have played a variety of sports inside (look hard and you can still see little patches of oil, relics of the armory days, on the wooden floor). But if you've never had that pleasure, you won't be prepared for the size of its colossal interior.

As I stood in the center of its main room early on Tuesday morning, mouth gaping, Nick Bojko, the genial fellow who supervises the Broadway Armory Park for the Park District, helpfully recited some dimensions: 52,800 square feet.

Room enough for a show.

And, beginning Tuesday, a show is indeed coming to the Armory: "Black Watch," a touring production from the National Theatre of Scotland that looks at the wartime experiences of one of Scotland's most illustrious military regiments. The widely acclaimed show, based on the experiences of real Scottish soldiers, was first staged in a drill hall in Edinburgh, Scotland.

But on its current North American tour, "Black Watch" has been adapted to fit inside traditional theaters.

Not in Chicago.

"This is the only venue," said Chris Plevin, the production manager at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the man supervising the first major off-pier move for the theater company, "where the show does not have to be shoehorned into some theater."

No kidding. Actually, "Black Watch" (written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany), is only using a portion of the available space. A 672-seat theater will be built inside, with the audience sitting on both sides and the action taking place down the middle. Plevin said that care has been taken to ensure that the building isn't turned into a giant black-box theater (otherwise, why bother?), but will be allowed to become part of the show.

Bojko said this will be the first large-scale theatrical production in the long history of the armory (although he did recall flamenco dancing, ballroom dancing, gymnastics competitions and one time when Sacred Heart Schools laid down oriental rugs and created a temporary tiki bar). But the Broadway Armory has never seen anything quite like "Black Watch," which should be a shot in the arm for the bars and restaurants along Broadway, including my beloved St. Andrew's.

The presentation (and the costs of building the theater) represents something of a risk for Chicago Shakespeare, which must persuade its audience to follow it to Edgewater. Still, the street parking is both plentiful and a lot cheaper than on Navy Pier. (Chicago Shakespeare is also setting up valet parking for around $12.) And the Edgewater neighborhood is hardly a stranger to theater—companies like Steep Theatre, City Lit Theatre, Raven Theatre and Red Twist Theatre are nearby, to name just a few.

But for Chicago Shakespeare, this is clearly also a chance to reach out in a community and attract an audience that does not want to go to Navy Pier for iambic pentameters.

“"It is exciting that a major theater company would want to come into our facility," said Jacqui Ulrich, the Park District's director of cultural enrichment.

Plevin said he had a company do stress tests on the ceiling to make sure that it could support a modern technical rigging. There was no problem. The Broadway Armory has tough DNA.

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