The Black Box Theater Is the New Thing

The concept of alternative “black box” performance spaces is catching on in Cincinnati, not only at the Contemporary Arts Center, but also at the Aronoff and Music Hall.

click to enlarge Work is underway on Music Hall’s new Wilks Studio. - Photo: Courtesy of 3CDC
Photo: Courtesy of 3CDC
Work is underway on Music Hall’s new Wilks Studio.

As the Contemporary Arts Center is getting ready to start the 2017-18 season of its Black Box performance series, the concept of alternative “black box” performance spaces — with programming to match — is catching on here, not only at the CAC but also at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and Music Hall. 

At the CAC, the term is potent enough that it’s even used to identify performances that occur outside the museum’s lower-level Black Box theater, which can hold 150 to 200-plus people and has a high ceiling and removable seating. 

The first performance of the new season, a dance/movement production called Corbeaux (“crows” or “ravens”) by Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen and her troupe of women, occurs Sept. 16-17 with three separate shows in other spaces. The first two take place on Sept. 16 at 3 p.m. in the CAC lobby and 7 p.m. at Findlay Market, with a third performance at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Yeatman’s Cove beneath the Purple People Bridge. Admission is free. 

The series then starts its actual programming in the Black Box theater space Sept. 28-29, when the Portuguese playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues presents By Heart, an immersive program in which he teaches 10 volunteers to recite a poem from memory — interspersing that process with anecdotes and observations. (Tickets are $12 for CAC members; $18 others at

Another CAC Black Box performance — a presentation of Kate McIntosh’s In Many Hands — takes place April 12-14, 2018 at the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. Although the Aronoff does not officially refer to it as a “black box,” and it is not specifically dedicated to alternative programs, it can seat up to 150 or be configured for smaller events. And it can be very, very dark.

Aronoff’s Weston Art Gallery also will use the Fifth Third Bank Theater for two programs in a new performance series. The first, on Jan. 14, 2018, has two parts: a public reading by Kathy Y. Wilson, in connection with her upcoming Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum show at the Weston; and a lecture by Dr. David Pilgrim of the Jim Crow Museum at Michigan’s Ferris State University. The museum is a 12,000-piece collection of racist artifacts used in the teaching of tolerance. The second Weston-sponsored performance program is a May 19, 2018 screening, with live accompaniment, of the 1926 silent film A Page of Madness, part of C. Jacqueline Wood’s multi-channel video installation What Makes a Life.

“I don’t know the origins of that term ‘black box’ — it’s really stripped-down raw space,” says Dennis Harrington, the Weston’s director, of the theater. “Maybe that phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ can be applied here. It permits something a bit looser, maybe, although for us it is a practical consideration.”

Perhaps the most interesting evidence of the growing desire for black box venues is the new Wilks Studio at Music Hall. Under construction as part of an overall renovation of the three-building complex, it is being formed by installing a second floor into a space in the North Wing. It will have windows looking onto 14th Street and a glass partition separating its performance space from its entry foyer. Although its first priority is to be a rehearsal hall for Music Hall’s resident companies, they are also being encouraged to use it for events. It might be able to hold as many as 250 people. (It also will be available for rentals.)

Cincinnati Opera already has scheduled the debut performance in its new Next: Diverse Voices initiative — a partnership with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Equality Ohio — for the space July 25-30, 2018. It’s a chamber opera called As One, in which a mezzo-soprano and a baritone both depict the experiences of its transgender protagonist, Hannah. The work is from composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, and will be directed by Robin Guarino.

“I love hearing that our resident companies refer to it as a black box that’s for experiments and creative new concepts,” says Scott Santangelo, director of operations for Music Hall. “We’re happy to support that and whatever goes along with it.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected] 

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