An installation from the exhibit, including a photo of one of the bentwood chairs used at Second City since 1959 Credit: Design Museum of Chicago

A new exhibit at the Design Museum of Chicago pushes visitors through the theater’s proverbial fourth wall and onto the scaffolded backstages of some of the cities most storied theaters.

“Setting the Stage: Objects of Chicago Theatre,” which opened to the public on June 29 in collaboration with the city-sanctioned Year of Chicago Theatre initiative, is an exploration of Chicago theater culture and history via objects contributed from more than 40 of Chicago’s theaters. Just days before the exhibit opened to the public, Lauren Boegen, the museum’s executive director of operations and collections, was still driving around the city collecting artifacts ranging from the O in the Nederlander Theatre’s former Oriental Theatre marquee to a life-size Frankenstein costume from Lifeline Theatre. And the exhibit is still growing: a prop plane with an 11-foot wingspan on loan from Lookingglass Theatre Company will be installed mid-July.

“The show is about design—it’s at a design museum,” says Tanner Woodford, the museum’s founder and executive director. “Everything in theater is designed—from the moment you walk up to the theater, you have the lights flickering, and it pulls you into that experience, to the fashion, objects, props, absolutely every single element. We’re trying to put together a very cross-disciplinary design show.”

A puppet from Lifeline Theatre production of <i>Frankenstein</i>, designed by Cynthia Von Orthal
A puppet from Lifeline Theatre production of Frankenstein, designed by Cynthia Von OrthalCredit: Design Museum of Chicago

The exhibit is a set within a set. Hunter-green vinyl lettering notes each object’s theater of origin and provides some context about the contributions. The objects themselves are mounted and displayed in distinct, animated ways from floor to ceiling across a minimalist, functional, wooden grid of scaffolding.

“The idea when you walk into the space is that it feels like you’re walking backstage,” says Woodford. “We’ve left exposed studwork, really built out the grid in a way that you can add things to it very quickly, and then as objects from theaters come in we’re displaying them on that grid.”

The visual objective is to inject some of the item’s personality and significance into its display, and in the process, create a more optically alluring exhibit as well.

Take the Second City’s contribution, for example. One of the comedy theater’s iconic black wooden chairs is hung midway up the exhibit’s scaffolding, tipped forward as though an invisible laughing occupant might fall onto the floor at any second.

“We didn’t want to just put it on the ground,” says Woodford. “We wanted to elevate it. We thought it was important to tilt it so you could see some of the glow-in-the-dark stickers that are on it, just to give it that magic that comes with Second City.”

There are approximately 250 theaters in Chicago, and the curatorial staff at the Design Museum—with the help of their partners at the League of Chicago Theatres and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which pledged $1 million to the Year of Chicago Theatre’s programming—reached out to every single one of them for contributions to “Setting the Stage.”

“Visually, we’re trying to express drama,” says Woodford. “Curatorially and conceptually, we’re trying to be inclusive. We’re taking all of these theaters that are different sizes and we’re putting them on the same level. We’re not doing a big section for big theaters and a small section for small theaters.”

Pieces from such legendary institutions as Second City are integrated with contributions from lesser-known theaters such as Erasing the Distance, a north-side documentary theater that explores issues of mental health through its productions based on stories from real life.

In April, Erasing the Distance produced That Night, a critique of the criminal justice system based on the true story of Dana Holland, a man who spent more than ten years in jail for a crime he did not commit and for which he was wrongfully convicted. “Setting the Stage” features some of the original context panels from the lobby display during That Night‘s run back in April.

In keeping with the exhibit’s interactive emphasis, the Design Museum’s team further enhanced this contribution by using blue tape to mark a box on the museum’s floor—a box that is the exact size and shape of the jail cell Holland shared with another person for ten years. Visitors to the exhibit are welcome to step inside it and contemplate the production’s larger significance.

The exhibit’s interactive elements are what the curators hope will keep its content fresh over its six-month duration—a period that’s double the length of the museum’s typical exhibits. Each month, a different Chicago theater will produce a small pop-up presentation in the exhibit’s center “stage.”

Joshua Allard’s costume designs for <i>Best for Winter</i> at Idle Muse Theatre Company
Joshua Allard’s costume designs for Best for Winter at Idle Muse Theatre CompanyCredit: Design Museum of Chicago

For the rest of July, designer Joshua Allard will be exhibiting the entirety of his 175-piece costume collection created in just three weeks for Idle Muse Theatre Company’s recent production of Best for Winter. Allard’s sketches are hung from strings among the garments themselves, exactly the way the designer presents them when pitching concepts for any production. Allard will periodically be visiting the Design Museum’s stage to teach visitors how to weave, a skill he picked up when creating the costumes for Best for Winter.

Other monthly theater partners will include Goodman Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, ETA Creative Arts, Joffrey Ballet, and Chicago Children’s Theatre, which will cap off the series of pop-ups in December with the set from X-Marks the Spot, an extrasensory theater production that caters to children who have low vision or are blind.

“After we’ll have been through six months of programming, after we’ve seen everything around the gallery, it’s a way of reframing what theater can do,” Woodford said. “It can provide opportunities for people who need them while lifting them up.”   v