Last weekend, several of my TimeLine colleagues and I had the opportunity to attend a special celebration of the building that TimeLine calls home — Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ turns 100 this year! It was a wonderful evening of songs and storytelling, recounting a century of good works in the community.
To help commemorate the occasion, I thought now was a good time to share the story of the history of Baird Hall — the official name of the theatre space where TimeLine has produced since 1999. Labeled on original church blueprints as the “Assembly and Sunday School Room,” it was renamed on November 20, 1932, in memory of Wyllys W. Baird, who had been Sunday School Superintendent for the New England Congregational Church’s Mission Sunday School in the Lakeview neighborhood (including at Wellington) for more than 40 years. Over the past century Baird Hall has been home to countless events, personal stories and theatrical productions, and we are grateful to dramaturg Jennifer Shook for sharing this informal (although we know, far from complete) history that she researched and wrote several months ago. Her research has been supplemented by information from Wellington Church’s own archives. Enjoy!
Perhaps the most telling feature of the history of Baird Hall is that every person who has information about the place relates to it with a personal story — and they get that look that takes over a face whose mind yields to memory. So it would be dishonest of me to write up this treatise without confessing my own history in Baird. I dramaturged several productions there with TimeLine Theatre Company. It’s where I went on the night of September 11, 2001, for a rehearsal of The Crucible. They’d called around to take the temperature and see if people wanted to stay home, but the vote was, no, we signed up to be in this place with these people making theatre — and oh look, that’s what Arthur Miller was talking about back when he wrote this thing.
Miller says that an audience becomes a community by sharing the experience of watching a story together in the dark. The same goes for making the stories, too. The walls of Baird have seen their share of both kinds of communities forming.
The Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ building dates to 1910. During construction of the sanctuary, services were held on the second floor in Baird Hall, and many church events and activities, including hosting meetings of the Civilian Defense Corps during World War II, have occurred there over the years. The congregation envisioned Baird Hall as a venue for cultural events for the Lakeview community and there have been theatrical performances in the space since 1910.
Baird came to city-wide prominence as a theatre space in the 1960s, when Wellington Avenue Church received a grant from the Community Arts Foundation to create a dialogue between the arts, the church and the community. The project was “dedicated to exploring the possibility of the word of the church and the sense perception of the arts meeting to present the word of liberation to a new society.” Chicago City Players was brought to Baird Hall to produce existential avant garde theater and Wellington’s minister, Rev. James Kidd, often led post-show discussions on the existential issues raised by the plays. John Calloway was one of the more well-known members of Wellington Church who was a part of Chicago City Players.
Among the plays staged by the Chicago City Players was Jean-Claude van Itallie’s legendary America Hurrah!, directed by June Pyskacek in ‘67. As Gary Houston puts it, “At that point in time, and because of that show, Baird was actually viewed as the hot center of off-Loop experimental theater.” Houston also recalls being in the audience for the New Chicago City Players productions of Joseph Heller’s We Bombed in New Haven and Jules Feiffer’s The White House Murder Case in the early ‘70s. (This was the era of Lincoln Avenue in the Chicago theatre annals, thanks to Body Politic and Kingston Mines. But Wellington also had the Ivanhoe, just west at Clark, where now stands Binny’s Liquors.)
This story is also the story of a little digging into the Chicago theatre past. It turns out there has been a bit of an empty spot in the general knowledge of Baird between the 1960s and the 1990s, when it became the home of European Repertory Company. Lara Goetsch of TimeLine tipped me the word “Magic,” which was enough to find Magic Circle in the Chicago Public Library archives. Magic Circle, founded by Goodman School of Drama  alum Guy Giarrizzo, came to Chicago from Seattle and won a Chicago Drama Critic’s MacArthur Award for Outstanding Ensemble Work in their first year: 1973 (then at the Body Politic). That fall, they moved into Baird Hall, where they hosted the San Quentin Drama Workshop (a name you may have heard if you’re a Beckett fan — San Quentin prison impressed Sam so much with their Waiting for Godot that he mentored and directed them, and former inmate Rick Cluchey garnered a name as one of the foremost Beckett interpreters). Sounds like Magic Circle continued the kind of innovative (read: trippy cool) new work and adaptations that Chicago City Players began. Their list included a “Ward-Six-like” Three Sisters and a science fiction musical called Plumed Serpent: The Fourth Voyage of Kristopher Kolumbus. Could someone please re-stage that?
After Magic Circle decamped in ’77, several theatres produced sporadically in the space (at least, as best as we can tell with help from CPL Special Collections librarian Sarah Zimmerman and the Historic Chicago Tribune database). These included Phoenix Productions, Classic Theatre Company, Lionheart Gay Theatre, Prologue Theater Productions and Foxworx Theatre Company. Kristina Schramm, now Artistic Director of Lincoln Square Theatre, recalls designing for Shepherd Players in the ‘80s: “We did Animal Farm and Coming Out among other shows. I know Baird Hall wasn’t in its current condition when we were there. I do remember the ancient bathrooms and being pushed off the corner by he/she hookers on my way home from rehearsals.” The only company that appears to have had a regular home there was Halcyon Repertory Company (not to be confused with the currently producing Halcyon). Houston directed The Foursome for Halcyon Rep (and had directed And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers for the Magic Circle in 1974). Halcyon was run by artistic director Darryl Boehmer and managing director Dan LaMorte, who went on to found Center Theatre on Devon.
When rehearsing at TimeLine several years ago, you didn’t have a chance to forget about the larger performance community, because you could hear the feet of Goat Island Performance Group just above your head on the church’s third floor. Goat Island also had their time in Baird in the early ‘90s. If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ll have to see them on film. They called their recent tour the “last piece.” Influenced by Pina Bausch, Goat Island developed a reputation for long development processes and collaborative development of pieces often called dance theatre or performance art. Sara Jane Bailes wrote that they created “a distinct movement vocabulary — an assemblage of what sometimes look like backwards gestures threaded forwards through time, displacing gravity. … An engagement with impossibility marks this physical vocabulary, and with tasks that are difficult and awkward to perform. … these aesthetic strategies make up a minutely organized schematic for un-telling stories. Things unravel and drift apart, only to fall squarely, evenly into place with mathematical precision.”  Or, in Matthew Goulish’s words: “Maybe when we began our little performance company, we thought a perfect performance could dismantle a bomb.” (Help me, dear readers — he’s invoking the idea that the perfect poem is like a bomb, which I want to say is from Ted Hughes?)
The idealism of political engagement continued with the six-year residency of European Repertory Company. To quote Lucia Mauro, “ERC’s creation grew out of burning artistic and political convictions. [Dale] Goulding — a native of the working-class town of Leicester, England — met Bulgarian actor [now Steppenwolf Ensemble member Yasen] Peyankov while touring Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1990, with the Grotowski Theatre Laboratorium (rooted in Grotowski’s “poor theatre” tradition). Peyankov, a dissident opposed to Bulgaria’s Communist Party, staged Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Hercules and the Stables of King Augeus to voice his belief that the country ‘was comfortable living in manure.’ The government quickly closed his show, and it became dangerous to stay in his homeland. … Goulding and Peyankov shared a theatrical vision, the ‘Theatre of Essence,’ which explores what is human and innate in all cultures.” 
ERC’s hits included the 1995 Agamemnon (by Stephen Berkoff), which ran for more than two years before Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution, the story of Artemisa Gentileschi, a controversial and ahead-of-her-time Renaissance painter. Mauro describes ERC as often “revelatory” in their “capacity for provoking change.” After their Ivanov kept extending, ERC moved on in search of larger spaces in 1999, leaving behind Peyankov’s dictum: “What we do is not a job. Theatre is a state of being.”
Meanwhile the Journeymen’s Angels in America, directed by David Cromer, picked up a piles of Jeff Awards and raves in 1998. And in 1999, TimeLine Theatre Company (then made up mostly of friends from The Theatre School at DePaul University) took up the flag. In TimeLine’s early years, a few other companies (like TriArts and Eclipse) came in to the space between their programming, but quickly TimeLine’s needs for Baird Hall became full time as their productions ran longer and increased in number. 
TimeLine nearly left for a new home at the Three Arts Club a few years ago, and some questioned whether Baird Hall would go dormant after all these years. Plus Baird fell victim to the 2003 PPA sweep that closed six Off-Loop theatres in one night, when the city suddenly decided to enforce Public Place of Amusement license requirements (I was there that night too — moderating a postshow discussion for The Lion in Winter and wondering why there were uniformed officers in the lobby). Yet TimeLine’s tenacious rise has continued, with notable productions including the world premiere of Kate Fodor’s Hannah and Martin (the very heady love affair of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger), the underdog Tennessee Williams play Not About Nightingales, and another undone-play-by-famous-playwright — Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed. (If you look at the cast and design team list for Breed, and then trace those names in the years since, you’ll see how often they reunite — and that’s only a small clue to the remarkable bonding around that production.)
TimeLine’s 2009 production of The History Boys showcased their designers’ remarkable ability to reconfigure an unconventional space, with its alcoves and corners (and now found and finished wooden floors and new seats). But that show’s success again showcased one of the drawbacks of Baird also experienced by ERC — if you sell out, then what? Extend? Then remount? TimeLine has played the remount game more than once, most recently with the musical Fiorello!. For now they continue to call Baird Hall — what Hedy Weiss called that “oddly magical” space — home. 
Do you have a personal story related to Baird Hall’s history to share? Please let us know in the comments!
For more information about Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, please visit their website.
Jennifer Shook is a director, dramaturg and founding artistic director of Caffeine Theatre in Chicago. She has served as dramaturg on several productions at TimeLine Theatre, including The Crucible, Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom and Halcyon Days.