Arts & Culture

Black box theaters offer audiences a special experience

The official name of the space is the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater. It's the kind of space that's called, in theater circles, a black box.

People at the Manatee Performing Arts Center often warn me to avoid that term and to refer to it as a studio theater. They're afraid theater-goers in these parts might be reticent to see a show in something called a "black box." But I call it that anyway. It's nothing to shy away from.

In fact, to people who really care about the art form, black box theater is something special. It's not a low-class relative of proscenium theater. It's a different kind of space for a different kind of theatrical experience.

In fact, if serious theater-goers had to make a choice between intimate theater and theater that happens in cavernous halls, at lot of us would take the former.

"I think for both the actor and the audience, being that close makes the experience more intimate and more immersive," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director of the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

There may have been some wariness about black-box theater on the part of long-time patrons of the Manatee Players, the performing arts center's resident company. They were used to big musicals, which the company does very well. But now, halfway through the studio theater's second season, Kerby said, the audience is solid and growing.

"We have people who only go to shows in the studio theater," he said.

There's more to the appeal of black-box theaters than just their smallness. They're generally not as technically sophisticated as larger theater, and their size limits the extravagance of the sets. And those can be good things.

Limitations challenge actors, directors and designers, Kerby said, and often force them to be more creative.

And, with less reliance on technological elements, there's more

emphasis on the human elements of the art form.

The intimacy also offers challenges for the audience.

"You're part of the performance," said Jeffery Kin, the artistic director of the Players Theatre in Sarasota. "You have to be present, you have to be involved. You may have to imagine more. For some people, that can be uncomfortable."

Black-box theaters have been around for decades, especially in big cities where rents are high. They became much a staple of theater around the country in the '60s and '70s, when young playwrights and actors were turning to more experimental work that wasn't likely to fill a mainstream theater.

Community theaters won't often do a truly experimental piece, but black boxes offer a chance to offer audiences and artists opportunities they might not get elsewhere. Theaters can schedule quirky plays that appeal to specialized audiences.

"It feeds the souls of people we wouldn't otherwise be able to feed," Kin said. Community theaters also want to provide opportunities for their actors, and black boxes help them do that.

"It's getting harder and harder to schedule anything but musicals" in the large theater, Kerby said. "But there are a lot of actors who can't sing and dance."

For the Manatee Players, the growing acceptance of the offerings in the black box mean they can be a little more forceful with their selections, and present more challenging work. In the recently announced 2015-16 season, their studio theater will be offering some powerful dramas, including "The Miracle Worker" and "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Manatee Players will do one performance of each show as a benefit for a community organization that deals with an issue presented in the play: a group that works with blind people for "The Miracle Worker," for example.

The black box at the Manatee Performing Arts is currently offering "The Foursome," a comedy about four old friends reuniting for a golf game. The Players Theatre in Sarasota will stage "Circle Mirror Transformation" by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker starting Jan. 29.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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