Teamwork brings ambitious productions to Black Box Theater

Enter, Stage Left

by Erich Barganier ’10

The house lights flashed red and a terrified scream rattled through the air. Two actors stood in front of the audience, a sheepish man with a worried expression in a three-piece beige suit and an usher ambivalently smiling into the crowd.

Thus began Griselda Gambaro’s “The Walls,” the latest performance presented in New College’s Black Box Theater. The play confronts the psychological despair induced by Argentina’s “Dirty War” during the 1960s.

Cayli Caruso, the fourth-year student and director, needed a movable set that slowly constricts the performance space to create an increasing sense of claustrophobia. She knew the BBT could accommodate it.

“[It was] a huge undertaking to create this,” Caruso said. “After spending so much time in a place, [the Black Box Theater] becomes a home in a way. I’ve definitely come to know every nook and cranny of the space.”

In its sixth year on campus, the BBT as it’s called, is tackling increasingly challenging productions, thanks to hiring of New College alumna Monica Cross ’06 as technical director and her work with ambitious student performance groups and the rest of the community.

Cross developed the set design for “The Walls,” one of several efforts she has shepherded to the opening curtain since being hired in 2014. The 2010 graduate of New College was working as a playhouse manager for the American Shakespeare center when this job opened up, making her a natural choice for the position. As the first College staff member directly responsible for the Black Box Theater, her duties required her to maintain the building and oversee the scheduling of performances and Black Box teaching assistants and groups that use the Theater.

“I bring in a very detailed rehearsal style,” Cross said, and the complex productions that have come to the stage bear witness to her approach. Last year, Nova Myhill, professor of English, directed Carol Churchill’s play “Soft Cops,” which addresses societal policing and how to criminalize and institutionalize.

“Soft Cops” was one of the largest productions performed by New College students, as the cast included 16 actors and required an extensive crew for the elaborate production.

“We set up a drape on the back that we projected images on, we had supertitles, three projectors running and at the time,” Cross said. “It was the biggest thing we have ever done. And here we are, a year later, building a show with walls that move.”

Since the Black Box Theater’s creation in 2010, seasons were undetermined. Since Cross was appointed as technical director, a fixed schedule has gradually shifted into place. “Each season is fleshed out by thesis performances, nonthesis-related, student-directed shows and faculty-directed shows,” Cross said. “We plan a semester in advance. What we do is constantly changing and evolving.”

This structure has been working so far. “I think that it is the best timeline for the students at the moment. That sort of living with all of the details clearly laid out and none of the details set in stone is sort of particularly how New College theater works at the moment,” Cross explained. “That’s what the Black Box is particularly suited for.”

Cross works closely with the student-run Windmill Theatre Company and supports the group by teaching essential skills, such as lighting design and costume making. While Cross provides the infrastructure to make multiple performances possible, the majority of responsibility falls on the students, who in turn are developing their skills in an art form they love.

Brianna Brand ’14, a third-year student, was attracted to the Black Box Theater through her passion for performing and stage managing in high school. “I definitely was an actor in high school. I would act in extra parts and help with stage managing,” Brand said. She was introduced to the Black Box Theater by MyhilI, who has produced multiple plays for the Theater.

Brand worked closely with Connor Cross ’15, a second-year student, on many productions and began pursuing theater in college.

“I started as a writer on ‘The Shadow,’ and once the writing and editing was done, I got turned into a stage manager. Something that made me come back was that it improved me. I used to be very unorganized, and as a stage manager, you have to be organized,” Brand said.

Over the past few years, the Black Box has become more and more ingrained into the community. “If the Black Box were to disappear, a big part of this community would die,” Brand said. “It takes a lot of people to build these sets, to hang these lights and to pick out these props. Recently, mostly by Monica, we have been making the Theater more open and people could walk in, bringing in more of the New College community.”

As they continue to define the space, new opportunities loom on the horizon. “One of the things I would love to see more of is poetry,” Cross said. “I love the idea of poetry as performance, so I would love to see more. Now that there is a strong theatrical presence, moving into nondramatic performance is something I’m very interested in.

That’s what the Black Box is particularly suited for. Transforming an event from something that could be anywhere to creating an atmosphere for that individual event.”

They also are considering collaborating with an outside theater company. Cross cited one group, the Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure, which takes audience members through a series of site-specific performance pieces. The group will be doing a workshop with New College students.

While the Black Box Theater has evolved since its inception in 2010, what is unchanged is its place as a creative heart on campus. Connor Cross sums it up: “This theater creates a wonderful community and everyone gets very close and learns a lot about each other while working some very late nights on some very amazing productions.”