In the world of the theater, good things come not only in small packages but also in the small spaces known as black boxes. Simple in design and purpose, a black box offers a theatrical experience that focuses less on spectacle and more on an unfiltered, up-close and personal interaction with art.

 
“The pro to working in a black-box theater is that the emphasis is more on the emotional content than it is on big technical productions,” says Keith Garsson, the new producing director at Theatre at Arts Garage in Delray Beach. “Black-box shows tend to focus on small casts, shorter plays, where the idea is to explore one idea and really hit the audience in the gut with it.”

Gone are the heavy velvet curtains, ornate stage sets and big cushy seats that many associate with a night at the theater. Black boxes, also known as studio theaters, invite audiences to draw near for an intimate staging of works driven more by character and content than by spectacle. With fewer actors populating the stage and less need for technical pyrotechnics, both production costs and ticket prices can be kept in check. That allows theater companies the breathing room needed to take a chance on new works, new playwrights and new ideas – all while welcoming new audiences.

Palm Beach County is currently home to 12 black-box theaters. Arts Garage and Palm Beach Dramaworks are in the process of increasing that number.

 
Two of the four shows featured in Theatre at Arts Garage’s 2015-2016 season will be performed in a new black-box theater made possible by the venue’s recent expansion. When he christens the space in January, Garsson plans to challenge audiences with the subject matter and performers with the intimate attention. “The actors really have to focus on the internals of the character and what’s going on emotionally,” he says. “Because it’s a black box, if you don’t pull that off, the flaws are more obvious.”

PBD plans to use the black box now under construction at its West Palm Beach location as a playground for developing new plays. The Perlberg Studio Theatre, a 35-seat black-box space scheduled to open in 2016, will provide a home for The Dramaworkshop, a program launched in 2014 to nurture playwrights and help them cultivate their work. Plans call for staged readings, workshops and, eventually, developmental productions.

“As a regional theater, [we] have a responsibility to develop new works,” says PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes. “If you’re able to narrow it down to a studio theater setting, you can focus more on the words and the story. That’s a benefit when developing new work.”

Typically an undecorated and small performance space, the black-box theater is an alternative to the classic proscenium stage. Developed in the 1960s, its popularity has grown, in no small part, to its simple setup. Though it is often square with black walls and floors – hence the name – it can also be round and white. There’s really no rigid rule as to its physical attributes. The key is the space’s stripped-down nature, which allows artists to focus on the performance, the content of the piece and creating a connection with audience members.

Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach and Sol Theatre in Boca Raton use black boxes as their primary outlet, but also as a resource for students to learn about the process of producing a work.

Other area theaters have a black box in addition to their main stage. The Lake Worth Playhouse, for example, offers a Black Box Series at the 70-seat Stonzek Theatre, an intimate setting that provides the audience with a personal and visceral theater-going experience. The focus of the series is on the story, the writing and the acting; technical arrangements are very basic.

While Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University stage full-scale productions in their auditoriums and concert halls, both also have studio theaters that are used for thought-provoking plays and one-acts that students produce from concept to curtain.

The growing profile of black-box theaters in the county reflects a distinct trend in contemporary theater. “It is my hope, while doing more cutting-edge work upstairs in the studio, to attract a younger audience coming in to see edgy, creative and exciting new works, at a very affordable ticket price,” says Hayes. “There’s more fun in it because there’s always a mindset that when you’re in the black box, there are no rules.”

Christina Wood contributed to this story.

Out of the Box Entertainment

Old School Square presents main stage productions at the Crest Theatre. It has an alternative space as well but it’s not your traditional black box – it’s an historic gymnasium.

As part of an ongoing evolution of its offerings, the center is taking advantage of the distinctive atmosphere in its Vintage Gym (c. 1925) to introduce an intriguing new entertainment concept – JAMnasium – that premiered on Thursday, November 12.

Inspired by the speakeasies of another time and place, JAMnasium will offer an underground-style club experience with dimly lit tables and bar service. Pop-culture music videos will be projected on the walls. Entertainment will range from vaudeville to salsa and from ’80s tribute bands, electroinfused instrumentalists and a capella acts to impressionists, stand-up comedy and poetry jams.

Old School Square Vintage Gym - a&c Fall 2015