The Mysterious Black Box

Simone Hoagland, Reporter

Whether it was just that giant dark room you had your speech class in, or an everyday location for the ultimate theater nerds of Burroughs, the Black Box Theater has played some sort of role in the lives of almost every student at Burroughs and has been a prominent addition to the school.

Burroughs first debuted the Black Box along with the rest of the renovated Haaerter Hall in August 2014. Until then, “all classes, performances, and rehearsals all happened on the old stage,” Theater Department chair John Pierson said; an additional space for classes and smaller shows was sorely needed. 

Famed actor Jon Hamm (‘89) stepped in to donate the funds for the Black Box and named it in honor of Wayne Salomon, Pierson’s predecessor as department chair in Salomon’s honor.  “I would argue that it’s one of the better, if not the best, Black Box in the city,” Pierson assessed. 

When comparing Black Box performances to Haertter Hall performances, Pierson said, “It’s apples and oranges. From a production point of view, a bigger space demands a certain sort of scenic look. However, a smaller space means that people are going to be looking at it much more closely. They’re really different.” In a Black Box play, there is the energy of having an actor right in front of you. Pierson added, “You’re less of a viewer and more of a participant.” While a Haertter Hall production can seat 750 people, a Black Box production will have no more than 100.

Determining whether a play should be in the Black Box or in Haertter Hall can simply come down to cast size. Since Burroughs has an educational theater program (as opposed to a professional one), the directors want as many people to be able to see the plays as possible. Generally, a bigger cast will attract a bigger audience, so casts demanding more actors will be held in larger spaces.

When asked whether he preferred doing Black Box plays or Haertter plays, Pierson responded enthusiastically, “What I’m thrilled about is that we get to do both. I’m glad I’m not restricted to either.” The skill sets for each theater are much different:  acting in the Black Box is like acting on camera, he explained, while in Haertter Hall, everything is required to be big.

The two performing spaces also demand different techniques for light and sound:  “[Tech] requires more attention to detail in the Black Box,” Burroughs technical director Joe Novak said. “It requires a more immersive approach because of the closeness of the audience.” 

Sometimes Black Box productions are more labor intensive due to the flexibility of the space. Because people will sit from different angles, the production team has to consider how lights will look from each and every seat. “Too many options makes it harder sometimes,” Novak added. In general, Black Box tech requires less people to run the show, but the same amount to set it up as a Haertter production. The challenge in Haertter Hall, he continued, is that you are stuck with a picture frame concept, and you have to work with what you’re given.

The experiences of the Black Box and Haertter Hall are different, but the Burroughs theater department considers themselves lucky to have both. As Pierson says, “It’s always better to have an option. And variety.”