What Is a Black Box Theater?
A black box theater is a flexible performance space with a simple, unadorned design. These theaters became popular in the 1960s, inspired by the practice spaces used by major theater companies and university drama programs.
Today, black box theaters can be found all over the world, putting on a range of performances from highly experimental theater to Shakespeare classics. This type of theater lends itself particularly well to productions with limited sets and technical requirements, which emphasize a more intimate, acting-focused experience.
Black Box Theater Design
As the name suggests, a black box theater is designed to resemble a box. The room is typically square or rectangular and painted black, because black is a neutral color that won't clash with costumes, sets, or lighting. The floor is flat and open, allowing any possible seating configuration.
The design of a black box theater focuses heavily on practical considerations that will allow the space to be used as desired. For example, there is an emphasis on acoustics, so that the stage can be successfully set up anywhere in the theater.
Many black box theaters are designed to accommodate risers and platforms for creating a raised stage, when required. Rigging is set up using overhead girders that can hold set pieces, lighting, curtains, and more. Typically, the placement of the rigging grid, catwalk, and girders is flexible, to meet the varied needs of the theater's users.
Often, a large area is attached for storing seating, set pieces, costumes, and props, since the theater layout doesn't leave much room for extra items.
Advantages of Black Box Theaters
- The biggest advantage of a black box theater is that it can be transformed into anything that the director imagines. A black box theater is capable of endless new and creative configurations.
- Black box theaters are especially well suited for experimental performances, where unusual seating and staging arrangements may be needed. A black box theater can accommodate a thrust stage, a modified thrust stage, or theater in the round.
- Black box theaters are fairly inexpensive to construct. Many theater companies and schools have a black box theater in addition to a larger theater, allowing them to hold two productions at once. Likewise, black box theaters can also be used for rehearsals, freeing up larger stages for other uses.
- The classic black box theater has a very intimate feel, which is ideal for actors doing monologues and solo shows, as it allows them to better connect with the audience.
Other Types of Theaters and Stages
Proscenium: Theaters with proscenium stages have an architectural element framing the stage, creating the vertical plane that serves as the "fourth wall" between the stage and the audience.
Thrust stage: In contrast to the proscenium, some theaters have a thrust stage, in which the stage projects into the auditorium, with the audience surrounding it on three sides.
Amphitheater: In modern usage, an amphitheater is an open-air venue with tiered seating, either fully surrounding the stage or in a semi-circular configuration.
Theater in the round: Also known as an arena theater or central staging, a theater in the round is a theater in which the stage is surrounded on all sides by the audience.
Site-specific theater: This term refers to a non-traditional theater venue, such as a hotel, pub, warehouse, or forest. Site-specific theater is typically interactive, and is known as "promenade theater" when the audience stands or moves around during the performance.
I did one show in a black box theater, and I loved every minute of it. We did four one-act play "in the round", which meant we performed on a small stage in the middle of the room with an audience seated on all four sides. When we did our scenes, we had to make sure we didn't spend too much time facing one section of the audience. The director told us to walk over to a different side of the room or turn our heads in a new direction.
One thing I liked about being in a black box theater audience was the fact that there was nothing else to distract me from the action. Every wall was black and unlit, so the actors really popped out at me.
I helped construct our college's black box theater about twenty years ago. It took a long time to convince the school administrators to let us paint all of the walls and ceiling jet black. Then we had to buy lighting rigs we could hang over the central performance space. There were a lot of technical challenges we had to overcome before we could even think about doing live performances in that room.
Many schools also choose to use black boxes not only because they are cheaper but because the theater seating plans are much more flexible, and also because the acting space allows for more experimental and educational work.
The increase of black box theatres also came from the philosophy that one can build a theatre out of anything. Many of the original black box theatres were in places such as abandoned warehouses or city parks, or other unexpected theatre spaces. While many black box theatres look like black boxes, the real definition can be any theatre space that can be altered and moved around.
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