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Thinking Outside the Black Box

The Albright Theatre Department’s Virtual Black Box
project opens creative opportunities for all students.

Chicken Henry is a puppet with an affinity for Shakespeare. “Tits the Musical” is an original production by Gina Sarno ’11. “Xerxes” is Billy Balmer’s ’10 senior project. But you won’t find any of these performance pieces on the Wachovia Theatre stage, otherwise known as “the black box.” Instead, they are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the Virtual Black Box.

The Virtual Black Box is the brainchild of Jeffrey Lentz ’85, artist-in-residence in Albright’s Theatre Department. It was sparked by the social networking success of Fish Out of Water, a play written by Lentz and adjunct theatre instructor Cocol Bernal, utilizing the web site Twitter.

“We have more and more students who juggle both theatre skills and digital media skills,” says Lentz, “so we increasingly find ourselves with tons of talented theatre students and not enough real student work space in which to let them create.”

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With physical space gridlocked, the Theatre Department has instead created virtual opportunities for students to train and perform. The Virtual Black Box, a combination of performing arts and digital media, creates an outlet on the Internet for students’ performance art.

The award-winning Domino Players theatre program has a long standing history of success at Albright but physical space is at a premium. Students who audition for the four yearly productions are finding the process increasingly competitive. “If they aren’t cast in a main stage show or backstage as a design assistant, etc., then they are left without any access to training and projects,” says Lentz. “Without those projects or training how can they ever hope to increase their skills sets?”

For example, in September 2009, a record 61 students auditioned to be a part of Fish Out of Water. While 46 of those students were put to work either on the stage or behind it, the rest did not get to be a part of the production. When Fish Out of Water closed some students went on to work on the next project, The Miser, but 57 of the original 61 students were now “out of work.”

So, when physical space was not available Lentz and colleagues Bernal and Kristofer Updike ’99 created a virtual space in which students could train and perform.“Seventy percent of future performing arts jobs will be in film and digital media, so this type of project seemed to be a perfect fit,” says Updike. “Students are performers by default, this gives them real-world experience in other types of jobs which they may not even know exist.”

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The pieces are also much shorter than a full-length feature or play. “These types of projects give younger students much more manageable goals,” says Lentz. “It also fits in with the shorter attention spans of today’s audiences.”

There are many facets to the Virtual Black Box, including a children’s theatre project that created a 20-minute “Theatre for Young Audiences” piece. This group performs interactive short stories and poems geared toward children and youth. While the work is available on the web, faculty look forward to taking this group on the road and directly into schools.

Green and Growing is a student playwright group that allows students to write and develop their own plays over several years. “Tits the Musical” is under development by Gina Sarno ’11. This project is a triptych of stories concerning the reality of living with and through breast cancer. The play, which had its debut reading in December, stars a group of young people who, thanks to their participation in a breast cancer awareness walk-a-thon, develop into a dynamic support system for each other as they grapple with the fragility of life.

While this production may not be on the Domino Players’ roster, anyone can enjoy a reading of the play on the Virtual Black Box. Viewers can follow the development of the play and hear commentary from the writer.

Visitors to the Lynn Morrow Lobby of the Wachovia Theatre have probably noticed a large flat-screen television mounted to the wall. Originally, it was used very little. “I saw that beautiful TV of ours continuing to sit there turned off every day and the only time it was being used was to broadcast productions live to the lobby,” Lentz says. “It inspired us to create acting projects for the camera courses.”

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These courses now allow an entire new group of students to be a part of a production. Behind-the-scene action, video testimonials from actors and rehearsal footage are all added to videos, which now run all day on the television. Digital media students, under the leadership of Bernal, create commercials for upcoming productions, auditions and workshops. All of these are now available to anyone passing through the Center for the Arts. “Even the Admission tours are stopping there now to take a look,” beams Lentz.

Alumni have even begun to participate in the project. Former Domino Player Tyler Arcaro ’09 recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to move to Paris. He is now contributing videos to the project which show cultural differences between France and the United States. It also gives current students a glimpse into the life of alumni—and the opportunities available, after graduation.

While created out of a need for space, the Virtual Black Box has become much more. “This is as much, if not more, about teaching professional skill sets to group members—and assessing the learning curve that goes with developing them—as it is about providing cutting-edge programming and cyber advertising,” proclaims Lentz.


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