By Joshua Dachs
(originally written for, and publishing in, American Theatre Magazine)

The great minds of 20th-century theatre wanted to free our thinking about theatre spaces. How did we end up in a black box?

When most of us think of a theatre, we think of a space with permanent rows of seats facing a stage at one end. That’s certainly been true of most theatres built in the last 300 years. But since the early part of the 20th century, theatre artists have been interested in breaking out of the constraints of traditional theatre forms to explore new ways of working, and this has led to a variety of new approaches. Some of the earliest explorations were efforts of rediscovery. In the theatres they created in Minneapolis, Dallas and Washington, D.C., respectively, Tyrone Guthrie, Margo Jones and Zelda Fichandler sought to escape the two-dimensional confinement of the picture-frame stage and revive the three-dimensionality and focus on the actor that they associated with classical Greek theatre. The alternative forms they embraced—the thrust and in-the-round configurations—were soon absorbed into the mainstream, eventually taking their place alongside the still-dominant proscenium tradition as conventional models for the purpose-built theatres of today.

By the early 1960s, other themes had begun to shape theatremakers’ ideas about where theatre could and should be made. Two books were particularly influential: Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre and Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. Brook and Grotowski had reached similar conclusions about performance space but responded in different ways. They agreed that while a formal, purpose-made theatre building is unnecessary for performance, the act of theatre and space are inextricably linked. Grotowski proceeded with this understanding by choosing to build specific environments for the audience and the performers to occupy for each new production; in his 1962 Akropolis, the actors, representing concentration camp prisoners, built the structure of a crematorium around the audience while acting out stories from the Bible and Greek mythology in a building only 60 miles from Auschwitz. Brook, on the other hand, has spent the past 40 years working in spaces that are themselves densely layered with meaning or history: found spaces like rock quarries, tribal villages and a once abandoned and decaying theatre in Paris called the Bouffes du Nord that has been his company’s home since 1974. Here the scenic design is often as simple as a single Persian carpet.

Not all practitioners (and certainly not all alternative theatres) have turned out to have such clear artistic perspectives as those of Brook and Grotowski. More than a half-century has passed since some of the earliest attempts at alternative theatre space, and literally hundreds of “studio,” “laboratory” and “experimental” theatres have been created. As their labels suggest, many impulses and desires have shaped their development. By now the labels have lost their specificity and are used interchangeably, the fundamental artistic differences they may have once represented blurred or forgotten, and their spatial or architectural implications ignored. The most common label adopted for such spaces, particularly at the university level, is the “black box.” The proliferation of black box theatres—though it stems from the ideals of Brook and Grotowski—is, in fact, the result of the misinterpretation and misapplication of themes from their work.

flexibility is one of those fundamental themes—seemingly modern, practical and desirable. Who wouldn’t want their space to be flexible? But this came to mean different things to different people. Rather than dreaming up new “environments” for every production, as Grotowski had, many designers focused instead on how best to rearrange a given space into as wide a range of standard formats as possible, from, say, a “Guthrie” thrust for one production to a “Fichandler” arena or a traditional proscenium for another. These designs tended to be variations on a basic formula: a simple room, usually rectangular, some accommodation for lighting and simple rigging overhead, and a manually operated system of reconfigurable seating. Less attention was paid to ambiance and appearance than to the technology of reconfiguration. The seating might be a kit of parts—legs, platforms, railings, and chairs—assembled and dismantled by hand like Tinker Toys every time; banks of seats on wheeled casters; or a mechanized system like telescopic gymnasium bleachers. Theatrical books and magazines in the 1960s and ’70s were filled with a wondrous array of ingenious concepts.

Practitioners quickly realized that flexibility was a doubled-edged sword. Though the idea of transforming a space for every production was exciting in theory, the reality of actually having to do it was downright burdensome. In professional theatre settings, after the novelty wore off, many flexible theatres were left in a single configuration for a whole season or even for years at a time due to lack of resources, exhaustion, or the desire to spend more time performing and less time setting up.

But in educational settings, flexible spaces had an important pedagogical advantage: a single space could be built to expose students to a variety of performance con- figurations. Given its ostensible birth as an alternative to traditional theatres, in practice the black box has become a low-cost surrogate for them. Its seating systems encourage miniature versions of standard forms like thrust, arena and proscenium rather than invention of new or unexpected arrangements. Best of all, at universities the labor is usually free—the students themselves, getting hands-on experience. As a result, black box spaces have become most closely associated with academia.

There have been experiments with more sophisticated technologies. The most notable of these is the Modular Theater at the California Institute of the Arts, about 30 miles north of Los Angeles in Valencia. The Mod, built in 1972 and designed by my colleague Jules Fisher with engineer Olaf Soot and architects Ladd and Kelsey, was at once both extremely simple and astonishingly variable. Fisher and CalArts provost Herbert Blau set out to make the ultimate experimental playground for young theatre artists. They set aside a footprint almost twice as large as most flexible spaces of the time, about 75-by-100 feet, and except for a small perimeter, gridded the entire room into 348 four-by-four-foot squares. Each square is a mechanical lift, operated by compressed air and supported by a single piston. The entire topography of the room can be reconfigured by a small crew in less than a day. Custom-designed accessories—seats, railings, aisle lights—can be fastened to special slots and sockets in the module tops, allowing any square to be used for stage or seating. The theatre can be entered on all four sides on two levels, and removable panels allow doorways or windows to be placed at almost any height. Remarkably, 40 years later, the original equipment is still functioning exactly as intended. Unlike so many other utopian designs for flexibility, the room is still reconfigured for each and every production, rarely in a “standard” format. But the Mod demonstrates that even the most sophisticated technology imposes its own limitations. There are no curved rows in the Mod, ever; the grid that frees you is also tyrannical.

The Mod was created for a unique institution with a visionary director and a generous patron (the Disney family). Due mostly to the large space and special equipment required, it has not been widely copied. Instead, a huge number of small labor-intensive theatres have been created in colleges and universities; I’ve designed many of them myself. In spite of their drawbacks, they have become indispensable for even the smallest theatre department.

As a result, several generations of actors, directors and playwrights have had their earliest training and their formative theatre experiences in these spaces. Unlike in the Mod, seating capacities in black boxes need to be kept very small, generally between 50 and 200 seats. The work done in them is necessarily small in scale and exceptionally intimate in nature. Plays are chosen—or written—that will work best in these conditions. Student actors can behave like film actors in close- up. While the faculty may direct shows in the school’s main proscenium theatre, the students generally have the run of the black box, doing their own writing and directing projects. We all want to relive those heady, passionate undergraduate days when we fell in love with the theatre, and it is clear that these small academic spaces have shaped the professional theatre, too, influencing the kind of plays that are written and produced today, the spaces that companies choose to build for themselves and develop new work in, and the technical skills today’s actors have (or haven’t) developed.

Grotowski and Brook unwittingly provided two other concepts that helped to shape, or at least justify, the emergence of the black box paradigm: poverty and emptiness. The title of Grotowski’s 1968 Towards a Poor Theatre was not intended as literally as it has been interpreted. Grotowski was talking about a means of storytelling rooted in simple human interaction, in contrast to the “rich theatre” of complex illusions and grand effects. He was not advocating poverty as a prerequisite for creativity or hardship as a necessary working condition. But in universities and theatre companies where will and desire almost always outstrip financial resources, performance spaces are built or improvised with the most limited of means.

In The Empty Space. Brook wrote: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” If, as Brook proposed, any space could be a theatre, well then, any space could be a theatre. Thousands of low-ceilinged, poorly proportioned rooms slathered in black paint were pressed into service; ad-hoc adaptations of classrooms, storefronts, offices, church basements, storage rooms and lofts.

Like poor stepchildren with hand-me- down technology and pennies for production budgets, these spaces made make-do the order of the day. In some ways this is useful in a university theatre department, forcing stu- dents to work closely together, solve problems, improvise solutions. The “adversity builds character” argument is a good one, actually, but when shows succeed in these settings, it’s usually in spite of the space.

More troubling still is that, misapplying the title of Brook’s book, some took emptiness itself as a goal—not just the physical emptiness needed to achieve flexibility, or liberation from codified theatrical trappings, but more particularly emptiness of character, of spirit. Whereas Brook is clearly fascinated with the particular properties of spaces, many directors began to talk about the ideal of a “neutral space” (they still do) that would not interfere in any way with an audience’s experience of a production—a space devoid of any discern- able quality of its own, which of course is a patent impossibility. Theatre designers and particularly architects (who are always drawn toward conceptual abstraction) embraced the idea of neutrality and, in an effort to create it, painted everything black: walls, platforms, seats, floor and ceiling. The term “black box” was born, and a sea of inky blackness eventually overflowed small flexible spaces and poured into larger fixed-form theatres of all types as the quest for neutrality took hold. We soon had entirely black proscenium theatres, thrust theatres and arenas (the Mod, for the record, while dark gray today, was originally painted a warm brown).

Scenic designers began to use black masking curtains as code for “pretend this isn’t here.” Black, in effect, became the gilded proscenium arch of 20th-century drama, no less a framing element than the one around the Mona Lisa, intended to differentiate between the real world and an imaginary one set jewel-like and apart within the void. Just as the ubiquitous white-washed art gallery described so beautifully by Brian O’Doherty in his 1976 essay “Inside the White Cube” confers the status of “serious art” on anything placed within its walls, an all-black theatre is now meant to signal a place for “serious drama”: small-scaled, focused on the actor,

using minimal resources, struggling against adversity and (in theory if not in practice) nontraditional or avant-garde.

This attempt at neutrality Is contradictory. It’s hard to imagine anything less neutral than a completely black room. At best you may find it mysterious, elegant and dark. At worst it may feel uncomfortable, enervating, lifeless and depressing. The black mood of a black space establishes a strong first impression, not a neutral one, and sets a specific emotional starting point for a show.

Furthermore, the idea that a neutral space is necessary for drama defies thousands of years of history. Theatres have never been neutral spaces. For millennia people have chosen specific kinds of places to perform in, because they know the spirit of a place can lend a special power and energy to an event, and even add layers of context and meaning to a performance; think of the Greeks, per- forming under the heavens in sight of their sacrificial altars, or the Elizabethan stage set in a teeming, raucous courtyard where interaction with the day-lit crowd was a key part of the event. While any place can be a theatre, each place carries its very own set of associations. Place, in the fullest, richest, most particular sense of the word, carries a heavier emotional and cognitive load than the neutral, abstracted space of the black box. It’s an important distinction for performance.

There is no such thing as an ideal theatre venue—or rather, there are as many ideal theatres as there are stories to be told. But far too many contemporary theatres have been designed to be either architecturally autistic (neutral, bland, generic) or self-aggrandizingly extroverted (donor-enticing “signature” buildings that glorify the sculptural proclivities of a particular architect). Both extremes can be numbingly sterile for drama.

Whether found or purpose-built, the best theatre venues inspire a palpable sense of anticipation and delight, along with a tangible, legible sense of where the art and the artist stand with respect to their city, society, culture, history and tradition; they offer an environment replete with complex associations to play with or against. A good theatre is the connective tissue between the work it contains and the world in all its messy complexity. That’s not something you’re likely to find in a can of black paint.



Video Thumbnail - Revolution or Evolution featuring Joshua Dachs

Revolution or Evolution | Theater Design

Theater Consultant Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates traces the historical development of theatre and asks the question, are these developments revolutionary or evolutionary.