Play inaugurates Black Box theater

April 18, 2012

Prof. Justin West adjusts a projector.Nora Lynch and Karen Reidl rehearse.

A black box is by definition a simple, unadorned container. In theater, a black box is a simple, unadorned performance space, one easily transformed and often used for experimental productions.

HCC's Black Box is just such a place. It's a small room in the Media Arts Center with black walls, ceiling and floors. There is no stage. There is no curtain. It has only one door leading in and out and might easily be confused with an empty storage closet.

"It's a completely blank set," says HCC theater director Tim Cochran. "You have to create everything out of nothing."

"Theater is basically the art of solving problems," he adds. "This space has many problems and the fun is finding creative ways to solve those problems."

The Black Box will make its debut May 3 with the opening of the HCC production of Eurydice, a joint project between the HCC Theater and Electronic Media programs. In fact, the Black Box space at HCC was created specifically for this type of collaboration.

"It was designed to allow electronic media and theater to work together," said Justin West, professor of Electronic Media and a co-director with Cochran.
Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl, is a reinvention of the Eurydice and Orpheus myths. What's special about the HCC production, however, is that the set will be entirely electronic.

In addition to the usual theater lighting, the Black Box incorporates five channels of audio, including a subwoofer, for a complete surround sound experience. It has four video projectors and one overhead camera. Audiences will see actors in the foreground performing in front of an intricately choreographed montage of videos on four screens that will include live video, processed video, stop-action animation, and conventional 2-D animation coupled with a soundtrack of found sounds, sound effects, and actors' voices, pre-recorded and reprocessed.

"The idea is the media and the live action work together to create the play, rather than the media being the set that supports the live action," says West.
The set is based on the idea of Plato's Cave, where the characters cast shadows whose actions do not always mirror their own. "The video is sometimes commenting on what the actors are doing, sometimes mimicking," says West.

Incorporating video does present some unique challenges for actors, though, who have to time their movements precisely, not only to each other, but also to what is projected on the screens. "The media is like a whole other cast member," says West.

The video and sound equipment was installed just days ago, along with the computers and software required to coordinate the sound and video clips, which are still works in progress. The cast has been rehearsing since February, essentially, without a set.

As a result, the actors' assumptions about the play may be tested after the electronic media is introduced. "Basically you get technology that has to be modified or actors that have to be modified and the battle is often tedious," says Cochran. "I think I‘m going to find myself having to modify the actors a lot more than I have in the past."

Since the Media Arts Center opened two years ago, the Black Box has remained dormant as a performance space, functioning instead as a location for video and photo shoots or a cinema for film screenings. The new equipment will allow the Black Box to live up to its full potential. Ideally, the space will also be used for coursework.

"Really, it's a classroom," says West. "You can think of it as a physics lab or a science lab that is set up for students to experiment. This kind of equipment is just not usually available to the average student. We're a community college with MIT level technology."

Because the Black Box is so small, it can only hold 30 seats. There will not be much space separating audience from the actors. "It's going to be very intimate," says Cochran.

To get a bigger draw, the play will be performed on six nights over two weeks, May 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12. All performances begin at 8 p.m. and tickets must be purchased in advance by calling (413) 552-2525.

Photos: (Left) Justin West adjusts one of the video projectors in HCC's Black Box performance space. (Right) Actors Nora Lynch (as Eurydice) and Karen Reidl (as Big Stone) rehearse for Eurydice.


Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Ave. Holyoke, MA 01040