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Utilizing a Black Box Theater for High School Performing Arts

By Dr. Darrell G. Floyd on September 10, 2021 hst Print

There are several different kinds of theaters. They can be categorized into four basic forms: 1) arena stage theaters (also referred to as theater-in-the-round), 2) thrust stage (or open stage) theaters, 3) end stage theaters (of which proscenium theaters are a subset), and 4) flexible stage “Black Box Theaters.”

Black Box Theaters have their roots in the American avant-garde of the early 20th century. They became popular and increasingly widespread in the 1960s as rehearsal spaces. Almost any large room could be “transformed” into a black box theater with the aid of paint and curtains, making black box theaters an easily accessible option for artists and performers. The black box theater is also considered by many to be a place where more “pure” theater can be explored, with the most human and least technical elements in focus.

The concept of a building designed for flexible staging techniques can be attributed to Swiss designer Adolphe Appia, circa 1921. The invention of such a stage instigated a half century of innovations in the relationship between audience and performers. Antonin Artaud also had ideas of a similar stage of this kind. But the first “flexible” stage in America (supposedly) was located in the home living room of actor and manager Gilmor Brown of Pasadena, California. While the domestic décor meant that Brown’s stage was not a proper “black box,” the idea was still a revolutionary one. This venue, and two subsequent permutations, became known as the “Playbox Theater,” and functioned as an experimental space for Brown’s larger venue – the Pasadena Playhouse. After that, most older black box theaters were built with a low pipe grid overhead. But newer black box theaters feature catwalks and tension grids, which combine the flexibility of the pipe grid with the accessibility of a catwalk.

Fast forward now to the Enid (Oklahoma) Public Schools bond election of 2016 which included $4 million for the construction of a high school Black Box Theater as part of a larger $19 million stateof- the art Performing Arts Center (PAC) project. Included in the larger PAC project was new space for band, choir, orchestra, a dance studio, a music technology room, a video/sports broadcasting studio and also the unique Black Box Theatre.

So, what are some advantages of having a high school Black Box Theater?

  • It creates an intimate venue for smaller productions and performances.
  • It creates an opportunity for consistent use of the facility (without having to take up the entire auditorium space).
  • It creates flexible layout capabilities.
  • It creates opportunities for community members to be able to use a smaller school facility (and therefore conserve energy).
  • And it creates the possibility of easy scene flexibility.

But, more importantly, a high school Black Box Theater serves a greater purpose of connecting the audience to the student performers in a purposeful and uninterrupted way. In its most basic description, a Black Box Theater is a simple, open space consisting of four walls, a floor and a ceiling – all painted black. The name “black box” comes from the fact that the room is typically, but not always, painted black – which gives the appearance of being “anyplace, anywhere, anytime” and also allows for innovative lighting designs to shine through. The flexibility in the room comes from the performance equipment that is being used and the way it is arranged. The seating risers and stage are also portable and reconfigurable.

But aren’t there some disadvantages of a Black Box Theater? Yes.

  • It may be frustrating for some, if there are “too many” options.
  • It must be able to be lit from above.
  • Actors can, at times, feel intimidated (by being so close to the audience).
  • And the audience can see EVERYTHING – even during blackouts.

The Black Box Theatre was designed to be a malleable space to be molded, shifted and moved into different settings for multiple different venues and performances. Black Box Theatres are ultimately designed to accommodate smaller, more intimate performances, while larger auditoriums are used for larger performances and accommodating larger crowds.

Drama and Competitive Speech take center stage in the new Enid High School Black Box Theater. Just a few of the activities that take place there are: One Act Plays, intimate stagings, meta theatre experiences, state-of-the-art lighting and sound configurations for tech theatre instruction, showcases for competitive speech classes leading to regional and state competitions, alternate rehearsal space for larger auditorium productions, daily use of drama class students, improv and theatre games, and practice space for scenes, duets and competitive speech events.

Other effective uses of this space are for vocal and instrumental instruction and performances. Activities such as instrumental and vocal solo and ensemble concerts, mass rehearsals using adjustable risers, recording studio instruction, acoustic changing capabilities, dinner shows, jazz nights, solo and ensemble concerts and competitions, musical revues, and extra rehearsal space.

In addition to high school students enjoying, and benefitting from, the use of this new space every day, the community has gained from this construction project as well. Just a few of the unique community functions held in the new Enid High School Black Box Theatre have included the community outreach Candy Cane Cash event at Christmas time, virtual convocation filming (during COVID), studio space for the Television Broadcasting class, ACT Quiz Bowl, and even a community cooking show!

Oftentimes the performing arts take a back seat to athletics and other activities. But not in Enid, Oklahoma. Much time, effort, energy, planning (and eventually money) went into this grand project. And students, parents, teachers and community members will benefit from having this unique Black Box Theatre facility in Enid for decades to come.