No Costumes + No Set = Terrible Show, Right?

“Honestly, I expected it to be terrible. When you told me that the actors don’t where costumes and that there is no set, that they only use these black boxes, I expected it to be the worst show I ever saw.”

This is what one of my students said to me after he saw my first show in Saudi Arabia. Then he added this:

“But, wow, I was impressed. It was so good.”

Drama, theatre, stage plays, musicals – they are not about spectacle. It is not costumes or elaborate set pieces or impressive special effects that make or break a dramatic performance.

At its most basic core, successful drama connects a story to an audience.

That’s it. All the bells and whistles in the world won’t make a lasting impact if this most basic fact isn’t adhered to.

That is why I have fallen in love with the concept of black box theatre. I’ve been doing it for years and I’m always struck by the fact of how many people tell me its their favorite type of drama performance after they see it.

We do small vignettes or sketches, short plays, actually, that are connected around a certain theme. Our actors all wear blue jeans and ensemble t-shirts, typically black, and we use minimal props and no set pieces at all except for our black wooden boxes. The boxes are 2 ft X 2 ft X 18in high. They have handles cut into the sides for easy movement. The boxes can become anything at all. A single box can be a chair. Two boxes can be a love seat. Three a couch. They can be stacked to create a staircase. Two stacked boxes can be a podium. Add a few more for a counter. The uses for them are endless. It allows seamless scene changes between sketches and provides the audience with more than enough visuals for their imaginations to take over for them.

This type of storytelling gets rid of distractions and allows everyone to focus on the content of what we are trying to communicate.

This type of drama is unparalleled in giving the actors unique and difficult material to grapple with. It’s raw. It’s intense. It’s face-paced. It’s meaningful. It’s griping. The ensemble nature of my shows give all actors challenging and varied roles which gives the terrific opportunities to grow in their skills.

I will probably be doing this kind of drama for the rest of my life.

It’s not all I do. There’s a time and place for elaborate productions and over-the-top costumes. I love spectacle as much as the next drama enthusiast.

But you don’t need spectacle to make an impact, and in fact it may oftentimes inhibit its formation.

Try striping down a show. Go minimalist. No costumes. Only black t-shirts. No set pieces. Only black boxes. Let the story be the focus.

You might just be amazed.

I always am.

 

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