History of Black Box Theater

By Margot Callahan
A Black Box Theater company displaying its name on a theater wall in New York City.

A black box theater is a theatrical space with a very simple, unadorned design that makes it flexible for rehearsals and productions. These theaters began to proliferate in the 1960s, as part of a groundswell of interest in experimental theater in Europe and the US. Today, black box spaces are common and used for everything from experimental theater to kid’s plays to the kind of classical repertoire you would normally find in a typical proscenium-style theater.

Origins

Early 20th century theatre and design innovators Antonin Artaud, Harley Granville Barker and Swiss designer Adolphe Appia were among the first to promote the idea of a stripped back “black box” for staging theater. Disrupting audience expectations was one of the goals, re-calibrating the economics of productions another. The concept gained traction in the sixties with growing interest in experimental theater ideas sparked by the influential Polish Jerzy Grotowski and English director Peter Brook, who wrote about the black box in his book “The Empty Space.”

What Makes a Black Box

As per the name, black boxes are often painted black and are square or rectangular in shape, with the idea that it's the most neutral setting in which to give productions a wide array of design and staging choices. Seating is not fixed, so the audience can be seated in the round or any other configuration the director desires. Ironically, a “white box” can also be a black box – Peter Brook’s seminal production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1970 used the concept of the black box, but with walls and floor painted white.

Famous Black Box Theatres

There are a number of well-known black box theatres in the United States, including the Soho Rep in New York and Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre in Chicago. Steppenwolf’s 80-seat Merle Reskin Garage Theatre is dedicated to new plays, new artists, and new audiences, including two festivals each year, First Look and Garage Rep.

Enduring Popularity

It’s telling that black box theater spaces are also prominent at colleges and universities; one important example is the Walt Disney Modular Theater at the California Institute of the Arts. The black box option has become essential in the modern theater culture and audiences have learned to be comfortable with its stripped-back aesthetic. Black box theatres no longer necessarily connote the “avant garde.” Rather it has become a natural alternative to older proscenium-oriented theater spaces, especially when it comes to fringe or new plays, or new interpretations of old classics.

About the Author

Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.