New black-box theater at Northampton High School a product of community

Last modified: Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NORTHAMPTON - To 16-year-old Ezekiel Baskin, the small theater tucked away on the first floor of Northampton High School always felt more like a classroom than a performance space.

But over the spring and summer, the room has been reborn as a professional-looking "black box" theater, complete with lights, a new floor and rows of maroon seats salvaged from the former Pleasant Street Theater.

"When I walked in for the first time this summer and everything was painted black, it just made such a difference," said Baskin, a junior who will be stage managing theater productions planned for this year.

"Before, it was just a classroom," he added. "But this has taken it up a notch. It feels so much more real."

Black box theaters, which became popular in the 1960s and '70s, are small, spartan performance spaces that offer close contact with the audience. They are most often used for experimental works or those that have simple technical requirements.

Stephen Eldredge, who directs the high school's theater program, has been trying to create that kind of intimate performance space at NHS since he was hired in 2005. A black box theater would allow the department to mount more small-scale productions, including plays that aren't a good fit for the high school's Fayette Congdon Auditorium, he said.

"The main auditorium is very demanding," Eldredge noted. "This will give students more opportunities. It will mean everyone has a chance to be involved in a show."

Since he started teaching at NHS, Eldredge has overseen numerous improvements to the former aerobics studio on the first floor, including the addition of a theater curtain and risers for seats. But in January, he had to put additional improvements aside while he underwent treatment for skin cancer.

A group of students and parents stepped up to finish what Eldredge had started. Their goal was to have the black box theater finished before the opening of school this fall.

Over the past six months, the Black Box Theater Committee has raised $10,000 for renovations, according to parent Sandy Lathrop, a Florence resident who founded the group along with her husband, Bruce.

The funds have been used to transform the little theater from a "beige box," in Eldredge's words, to a true black box space, with room for 70 audience members. Students, parents and school custodians have spent hours painting the ceiling and installing the new floor, lights and seats.

The rescue of those seats from the Pleasant Street Theater happened just in time, Lathrop said. At the suggestion of students and parents, committee members contacted Joseph Blumenthal of Downtown Sounds, who owns the building where the offbeat cinema operated for more than 30 years before it closed in July.

After Blumenthal agreed to donate 75 seats to the high school, the committee managed to "get them out of there the day before they were going to demolish Pleasant Street," Lathrop said. Since then, volunteers have been busy cleaning, repairing and installing the seats in the rehabbed performance space.

Eldredge said he hopes to erect a plaque in the small theater acknowledging the seats' origin because "so many of us loved Pleasant Street." Donors who give $150 or more to the black box project will be recognized with plaques on individual seat backs.

The new theater space will mean more laboratory productions and more student-directed plays, said Eldredge, who is back to his full-time teaching schedule at NHS. The first show to debut in the renovated space will be "The Lady from Maxim's," a George Feydeau farce directed by NHS senior Ana Baustin that's scheduled to open in February.

Baustin, who's been involved in theater since her freshman year at NHS, said the black box is perfect for Feydeau's classic door-slamming comedy.

"In the auditorium upstairs, the front row is about 20 feet away from the actors and it's hard to get that intimate feeling," she said. "Here, they'll be able to hear the laughter from the audience and be encouraged."

More than 20 parents, students and staff gathered in the black box two weeks ago to share pizza and celebrate the room's newly painted ceiling and plush new seats before the official start of school.

"I'm really excited," said Tabachnik, a junior who appeared in a student-led production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" last spring in the small theater. "This room is where I learned the basics of tech and all the things about theater that aren't acting."

Rod Hart, who teaches English at JFK Middle School and will direct this year's Shakespeare production at the high school, admitted feeling envious of the black box space.

"This is a place where kids can try out new ideas, a laboratory for creation and experimentation," said Hart, who was also at the Aug. 31 party. "Given the tight budget, the fact that students and teachers can dream a project this big and make it happen within months is amazing. I want one of these at the junior high!"

Lathrop said her committee hopes to raise an additional $3,000 for a new dimmer-board system for the lights in the black box theater. An anonymous donor has agreed to give $2 for each dollar contributed.

Checks payable to Black Box Theater can be mailed to Black Box Theater, Northampton High School, 380 Elm St., Northampton, MA 01060.


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