Say theater and many folks picture a huge stage framed by an imposing proscenium arch. Cue an orchestra, lush velvet curtain, plush seats, and revolving sets. The action is up there and the audience is down here, separated by an imaginary fourth wall.
Black box theater — intimate, more spare — turns these assumptions upside down, maybe inside out. Luna Stage in West Orange and The Theater Project, presenting its upcoming July-August season at the Burgdorff Cultural Center black box in Maplewood, dispensed with that fourth wall from the get-go.
If live theater is not part of your world — yet — here is a simple definition. Black box theater is a simple space with black walls and ceiling, signifying sort of anytime, anywhere. Black box gives free rein to the imagination of theater directors, designers, and the audience. It enables multiple configurations and relations among the actors and audience.
Post-performance, black box is an ideal setting for informal receptions, talk-backs, and discussions, all strengths of both Luna and TTP. These post-play exchanges among the playwrights, directors, actors, and audience deepen the theatrical experience.
The Theater Project’s Founder and Artistic Director Mark Anthony Spina grew up loving Broadway. In college he started exploring New York City Off Off Broadway. “I was going to plays in basements and lofts above or below delis and diners. Some of these spaces didn’t even qualify as black boxes — they were just rooms with folding chairs,” Spina said. “Sitting close to the action, I felt intimately connected with the actors and the stories they were telling. I wondered why I had ever wasted money paying Broadway prices to sit far from the action.”
Luna Stage Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith, who like Spina often directs her company’s productions, embraces the flexibility of black box. She reeled off a rundown of possibilities. “We can do alley, thrust, modified thrust, in the round, and even build a proscenium arch if we want that frame,” Kreith said. “The primary consideration is what best serves the story and what best serves the audience’s relation to the story and to each other. Do we want the audience focusing exclusively on the action or also watching one another watching the action?” Kreith continued.
Kreith has a not-so-guilty pleasure, too. “We strive to do a different configuration for each play in our season,” Kreith said. “I love hearing audience members enter and argue over whether they have been here before or not.”
With superb writing and directing, deft lighting, imaginative set design, props, costumes and Actors’ Equity performers — plus very affordable ticket prices — nothing is short changed. Both not-for-profits, Luna and TTP are dedicated to making theater financially accessible to everyone in the community.
History and Geography
The larger of the two companies, Luna Stage, a regional company, makes creative use of its two purpose-built performance spaces, the main stage seating about 150 and the second stage accommodating 50.
Founded in 1992 by Artistic Director Emeritus Jane Mandel in Montclair, Luna Stage was seeking a permanent home in 2010. Meanwhile, West Orange Township and HANDs, a not-for-profit redevelopment agency, were seeking an anchor for the Valley Arts District.
West Orange wooed and won Luna Stage with a proposed adaptive joining and repurposing of two commercial buildings at 555 Valley Road. Artist Dan Fenelon was commissioned to paint Luna, an exuberant exterior mural, and the first play premiered there in 2011. Luna fast became a destination throughout the metropolitan area and beyond. Some years later, the adjacent not-for-profit West Orange Arts Center expanded the complex.
For the past few years, The Theater Project, founded in 1994, has been presenting at Maplewood’s Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, which was originally a 1925 fieldstone church. Pews removed and risers built for audience-friendly seating, the former worship area accommodates 100 while the adjacent community space is part-time reception room, part-time dance studio and, this summer, a 50-seat black box theater for TTP’s three-play/two-special presentation summer season. (See below for full schedule). In earlier years, TTP had presented in college theaters, with the audience on the stage and in black boxes crafted in bank lobbies and empty storefronts, pure alchemy, all. TTP continues to create area black box pop-up performance spaces. TTP, like Luna, attracts regional audiences and national playwrights.
“The Plays the Thing”
For both Kreith and Spina, of course, “the play’s the thing.” Their plays travel through time and place to explore the spectrum of human experiences from a newly emancipated African-American woman desperate to reunite with family (Luna Stage’s Torn Asunder) to a contemporary woman hell-bent on revenge against her husband (The Theater Project’s Exit, Pursued By A Bear). Luna laid bare the electric wars between Edison and Tesla here in the Oranges. TTP imagined the tense cat and mouse game between Hermann Goering and a fictional version of his 23-year-old Jewish-American Army private interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials.
I asked both Mark and Ari, “Why live theater now?” Let Ari speak for us all. “Theater is where you explore what it means to be human,” Kreith said. “It invites us to dream new possibilities for our world.”
The Upcoming Theater Seasons
The season at The Theater Project includes Sunset Park (fuller discussion below), Kaleidoscope Kabaret, a program of six short plays with interludes of songs, and Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage, a comedic interactive work with audience volunteers as part of the action. There will be a special July 31, August 1 presentation of Black Lives/Blue Lives with a panel-led discussion. Commissioned by TTP, these two monologues are vital for both individuals and community groups. A July 22 only matinee and evening Broadway Jukebox sung by TTP alumni celebrates Broadway standards.
This August, Luna’s student summer season continues. Its main season is on the cusp of being announced. (It will be later highlighted by The Four Oranges.) “We are a professional regional theatre from September to May,” Kreith said. “Over the summer we feature our youth programs on the main stage so that they can have the full experience of production.”
Coming up August 5, 6, 7 is a student led and performed production of Pulitzer-nominated playwright’s Will Eno’s Middletown, which ran in NYC in 2010 to rapturous reviews. Like Vitale, Eno is known for writing that is both moving and laced with humor.
The Theater Project
The Theater Project opens its July-August season this Thursday, July 6 with Sunset Park, a new play by award-winning playwright Joseph Vitale. A festival finalist, TTP opened the play to great acclaim at the New York Theater Festival this past fall.
Sunset Park is three successive, interlocking stories of older people on a park bench in Brooklyn, with prologue and epilogue. I asked Vitale why he wrote it. “Older people are underrepresented in today’s theater,” Vitale said. “If childhood is its own country, so is getting older. We cross an invisible barrier into unfamiliar land. I wanted to write about the effects of aging on the human spirit, but also how love, longing, jealousy and hope remain constants in our lives.”
Vitale, a TTP stalwart, creates complex characters and compelling dialogue. With two full-length Vitale plays, a pandemic Zoom of his long-running Murrow, live short plays, and some TTP Vitale New Play Readings under my belt, I have made my plans.
This play is for all ages. Make your plans now. BUY TICKETS HERE.
The Theater Project
Friday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm
Meet-and-greet after each performance.
Songs and six short plays.
BLACK LIVES, BLUE LIVES
The Theater Project
July 31 & August 1
Monday and Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m.
Performance followed by audience discussion led by Dr. Sara Compion and Daaimah Talley.
MISS ABIGAIL’S GUIDE TO DATING, MATING, AND MARRIAGE
The Theater Project
Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm.
Dates to be announced
During the pandemic lockdown, Luna worked with famed playwright and screenwriter Gabriel Jason Dean (“feisty as hell,” The New Yorker) to produce #RIFT, a virtual experience sent out over text. The experiment tracked the changing relation, sometimes in shared real-time texts, between the politically left Dean and his half-brother, an incarcerated murderer who embraced Alt-right white supremacism in prison.
Luna will present #RIFT’s premiere as a gripping full-length work as their second production in their coming main season. Playgoers will have access to replicable portions of the virtual material.
Each of the playwrights cited have individual websites. Find the full theater company schedules and activities including podcasts, new play readings, classes, workshops and more at lunastage.org and thetheaterproject.org