Behind the Curtain: The Black Box Theatre at Elizabethtown College
February 6, 2015   //   By:   //   Arts and Culture, Features
black-box-etown student painting

From the files: a student works on set design for a black box production.

Elizabethtown College’s Tempest Theatre is a black box theatre, meaning there is no curtain. As soon as the audience walks into the space, they can see nearly all of the set. Michael Swanson, associate professor of theatre and director of theatre and dance, and Richard Wolf-Spencer, associate professor of theatre, are in charge of the black box theatre and its involvement in the Theatre and Dance division of the Fine and Performing Arts Department.

“[The theatre] is intended to be a flexible space and we take advantage of that,” Swanson said. Tempest’s flexibility allows students to learn to put on productions in different set configurations and levels of interactivity.

Wolf-Spencer said the set design for each production is the result of finding what best fits the action of the play and offers the best learning environment for students. The design team looks at how much interaction there will be between the cast and the audience. They also look at the positions of previous productions to make sure the next show uses a different set-up, as well as where exits and entrances should be located to make sure the configuration best fits the production.

“The type of play makes a difference,” Wolf-Spencer said. A comedy requires a different theatre set-up from a drama. For The Importance of Being Earnest, which opens Feb. 12, Wolf-Spencer said he and the director decided on the proscenium position, where the audience faces the action. The proscenium position most closely resembles the set-up of a traditional theater, which complements the play’s position in the classics category. “The director and I made a conscious decision to use less scenery – platforming and a couple of large windows we hope will give a sense of opulence and grandeur – and some furniture,” Wolf-Spencer said. It was a stylistic choice, he added.

The director and I made a conscious decision to use less scenery – platforming and a couple of large windows we hope will give a sense of opulence and grandeur – and some furniture.”

The scenery of a production must fit both the play’s setting and the black box theatre. The most important part of this production’s setting is to convey the time period, in this case the English countryside in 1895, which costumes and accents will best reflect. The scenery must be minimal, to allow for action, physical comedy and the space for the actors to move, as well as easier movement of set pieces. Because of this, Wolf-Spencer said, the design should give an impression of setting and time period without overshadowing performances or costumes.

Typically, productions are chosen by a committee, which includes Swanson and Wolf-Spencer. Each committee member submits several plays for consideration, which fall into one of three categories: classic drama; cutting edge, which must be unique in topic or structure; or a crowd pleaser, such as a musical.

This year’s choice for the cutting edge category is Ajax in Iraq, a mashup of Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax with the contemporary Iraq war. It will be performed in April. The classic choice is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which will open in Tempest Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 12, and close Sunday, Feb. 22. The crowd pleaser was the fall 2014 semester production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company.

You can find out more about the Theatre and Dance Division’s upcoming shows on its website, or contact Swanson at Tickets for The Importance of Being Earnest are $6 and can be reserved by contacting the box office at or 717-361-1170.

About the Author :

Emily Vasas is a 2015 graduate of Elizabethtown College.

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