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A black box theater (or experimental theater) consists of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor. It is a relatively recent innovation in theatre.
Black box theatres became popular and widespread particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, during which low-cost experimental theater was being actively practised as never before. Since almost any warehouse or open space in any building can be transformed into a black box, including abandoned cafés and stores, the appeal for nonprofit and low-income artists is high. The black box is also considered by many to be a place where more "pure" theatre can be explored, with the most human and least technical elements being in focus.
The concept of a building designed for flexible staging techniques can be attributed to Swiss designer Adolphe Appia, circa 1921, and instigated a half century of innovations in the relationship between audience and performers. Antonin Artaud also had ideas of a stage of this kind. The first flexible stage in America (not a proper Black Box due to the domestic decor) was located in the home living room of actor/manager Gilmor Brown in Pasadena, CA. This venue, and two subsequent permutations, were known as the Playbox Theatre, and functioned as an experimental space for Brown's larger venue, the Pasadena Playhouse.
Such spaces are easily built and maintained, and are usually home to plays or other performances with very basic technical arrangements, such as limited sets, simple lighting effects, and an intimate focus on the story, writing, and performances rather than technical elements. The seating is typically composed of loose chairs on platforms, which can be easily moved or removed to allow the entire space to be adapted to the artistic elements of a production. Common floor plans include thrust stage, modified thrust stage, and arena.
Colleges and other theater training programs employ the black box theater because the space is versatile and easy to change. Many theater training programs will have both a large proscenium theater, as well as a black box theater. Not only does this allow two productions to be mounted simultaneously, but they can also have a large extravagant production in the main stage while having a small experimental show in the black box.
Black Box spaces are also popular at Fringe theater festivals; due to their simple design and equipment they can be used for many performances each day. This simplicity also means that a Black box theater can be adapted from other spaces, such as hotel conference rooms. This is prevalent at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where the larger venues will hire entire buildings and divide each room to be rented out to several theater companies.
Most older black boxes were built more like television studios, with a low pipe grid overhead. Newer black boxes typically feature catwalks or tension grids, the latter combining the flexibility of the pipe grid with the accessibility of a catwalk.
The interiors of most black box theatres are, true to their name, painted black. The absence of colour not only gives the audience a sense of "anyplace" (and thus allows flexibility from play to play or from scene to scene), it also allows individual lighting cues to be much stronger.