Advice/examples sought for well-designed black box style theatre

Stuart R

Hello all,

I'm the arts director for a private school in Miami. After 50 years performing in a cafetorium, we've been invited to contribute ideas for a new flexible theatre space in a new building. We'll still be able to use the cafetorium for standard proscenium-style shows, so we want something that will allow for a lot of flexibility in layout, which is why I'm thinking of some kind of black box. We will engage a theatre design firm as soon as we settle on an overall architect, but in the meantime we have been asked to come up with some basic thoughts on the kind of facility we want (supported with photos) that we can use to get the rest of the stakeholders excited about the idea (so they don't try to nix it and add another STEM space instead).

So, without actually designing the thing, I am seeking ideas, in broad strokes, for what to include, what to avoid, as well as some referrals to existing spaces that work well (for reference and inspiration).

Here are some of the considerations that are on my personal list, though I'm sure these will change as I learn more and get more feedback.
  • 200-250 seats
  • A tall space to allow for sets with second stories.
  • Entire room set up with catwalks (and/or a tension grid?) for lighting from anywhere (we have many kids interested in learning about theatre tech, so it needs to be safe for them)
  • A surrounding balcony (how many sides?) for potential seating, lighting positions, staging areas, and to hang curtains beneath to create offstage areas
  • Flexible seating: In contrast with our other performance space, I'd like to be able to do all the many kinds of stage/audience configurations that are the hallmark of a black box theatre without fixed seating. I'm envisioning much of the acting happening at floor level, with the audience sitting in raked seating sections (maybe 30-40 per section? see example below) that not only can roll to new locations, but also stack into themselves for more compact storage.
  • Control room area - built in with a window overlooking the space, or something that can relocate around the room or balcony as needed?
  • Cnsideration for projection
I'd also like there to be adjacent shop space and storage, dressing rooms, and costume/lighting/props storage.

I'm not sure if this will all fit - they're talking about 6000 sf for everything.

Finally, I don't know if it's possible for a black box theatre to be a little less plain/utilitarian than they often end up being. I recognize that a 100% black space presents a blank canvas for creativity. I also recognize that the more "presentable" the space is, the more others will want to use it, so keeping it dark/industrial and maybe even a bit shabby in the light can be a means for self-preservation. Anyone ever seen a space that is functionally a black box but is a little bit, er, nicer?

So - any feedback on my ideas? Any "Make sure to" or "Make sure you don't" comments?
Recommendations of existing facilities to look at?

Thanks -
Stuart R

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ask for the stars, settle for the moon! What's the budget for the room, or the entire building? What's the enrollment headcount for the school? These may help us help you calibrate ... a 5000 student HS is a different animal from a 350 student one.
@gafftaper built a rather nice black box on a college campus about fifteen years ago. Perhaps he can direct you to some threads on the topic.
Check out the black box at the State University of NY College at Purchase. I think it’s 70x80x35 high, has 2 balcony levels, plus catwalks. I always wondered if it’s “too big” for a black box. The BB theater where I worked (Brooklyn College) was somewhat smaller and only 15-18 ft high, pipe grid which allowed great flexibility for lighting and audio. Our space got rebuilt in 2021 or so, we put in a lot of dedicated Thru-power plus 4 Ethernet systems, so it was very flexible. I was happy and proud of the redesign we came up with. One advantage to a smaller BB is it becomes the space where undergrad events get produced, with lower budget and tech. requirements. The “bigger“ and higher budgeted events into the proscenium space.
ask for the stars, settle for the moon! What's the budget for the room, or the entire building? What's the enrollment headcount for the school? These may help us help you calibrate ... a 5000 student HS is a different animal from a 350 student one.
Hi Ben. I'm afraid I'm not privy to budget numbers at this stage. The total enrollment of the middle & high school (which will use this space) is about 600 students. They have for sure allocated no more than 6000 sf for the whole shebang (but 3 stories tall) - including the performance space, dressing rooms, and specialized storage, but this number does not need to cover a lobby, restrooms, circulation (halls) outside, or a shop (which is part of the high school STEM budget as a "wet maker space" for some reason, though we'd mostly be the ones using it).

They've also been pretty clear about needing it to fit at least 225-250 for seated events.
A few things to consider based on my experience working in various flexible spaces over the years:
  • 6000 sq ft is about a 75' square, You can fit ~200 people into a 60' x 30' seating area, so you'll have some flexibility in the room size/shape.
  • When building the space, make sure to take into account the things that will be difficult to change later. This means rigging points and ratings, access doors and ramps, electrical services, cable paths, storage space, etc. Don't worry too much about equipment - that'll change over the life of the room. You will be happier if you have a clear path to transport big items into/out of the space easily, especially along the path to the shop.
  • Having a proper, well documented, installed cable plant for audio, lighting, and network will make life easier. But make sure the system diagrams are posted in the booth. And you can't have too many audio or Ethernet tie lines in the space, or DMX or power drops.
  • Tension grids are nice, but require maintenance. Catwalks are often not where you want them. And pipe grids need rolling scaffold or driveable MEWPs to be efficient - you will want a flat floor under pipe grid to simplify access. So pick your headaches.
  • Don't underestimate how much room seating platforms and chairs take up when stored. Ditto large soft goods.
  • If there is a dust collection system or shop compressed air in the building, consider having lines for them available in the space. Pneumatic tools are wonderful for set construction.
And finally, make sure your design consultant understands the specific needs of your space - I've seen far too many spaces that were clearly designed by someone who had never worked in one, and that incorporated the latest fad technology and missed out on fundamentals. And I've also had the pleasure to work in some historic halls that have been updated based on the needs of their events, and so had appropriate infrastructure in place.
New facility opened in lower Manhatten, NYC, the Perlman complex, has 3 theaters, small, medium and large. Here’s a pic from one of them, no idea which.


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