Out of the Black Box

DM’s Black Box beloved home of theater community since 1999

ICONIC CLASSROOMS OF DM--Christopher Lessler will spotlight the classrooms that students say provide more than just a place to study and learn--but a place to live.

Sophie Perlstein

ICONIC CLASSROOMS OF DM–Christopher Lessler will spotlight the classrooms that students say provide more than just a place to study and learn–but a place to live.

It’s a laboratory for theatre training at times. Other times, it’s an active classroom, or even a small theatre. 

But for generations of DM thespians, the iconic Black Box, nestled across from the band room, is home.

“For me, it represents a very joyous place,” said junior Sydney Grom. “Ever since freshman year, if I was ever having a bad day, like just theater in general, when I got to that period, I was like, ‘Yes!'”

Characterized by distinctive black walls, simple black curtains, basic technical capabilities and an excellent set of actors, the incredibly versatile Black Box, used for theatre organizations worldwide, can become a small theater when needed—and even on a regular day, the room is the perfect setting for theater classes.

“This is exactly the kind of room I always imagined I would teach in,” said Mr. Willingham, DM’s new theatre teacher.

Mr. Willingham says he wants to make small modifications without fundamentally changing the Black Box, including repainting the room and possibly even installing a small permanent stage.

PLENTIFUL POSTERS: Many of the Black Box’s walls feature posters from past performances, such as these from recent years. “You’re really going to get a sense of theatrical history of Desert Mountain by walking down there,” said former DM theater teacher Ms. Mumaw. “There is evidence from all the shows Desert Mountain has produced since the school opened.” However, as many of the older posters age, Mr. Willingham says he is taking pictures of the posters and then removing them.”

“I’m not trying to change any of the things [former theater teacher Ms. Mumaw] did,” Mr. Willingham said. “If an opportunity arises and I can build on what she did here, that’s what I will do: I will build on it—but there’s no need to change something that works so efficiently.”

The Black Box is already used for Improv, and Mr. Willingham plans to also set a smaller theater production in the room. He says for next school year, he plans to have “one musical on the main stage, one play on the main stage, and something else in this room that is fully produced.”

‘A place of community’

“I’ve been in the theater program since I was a freshman, and I had never heard of the concept of a Black Box,” said Grom, but she says she quickly fell in love with the room.

Grom says she enjoys the versatility that the Black Box offers with its black surroundings and simple layout—but she also believes the value of the Black Box is more than just of the physical room itself.

“Honestly, I just think it’s a place of community among people involved in theater at DMHS,” Grom said.

A BLANK CANVAS: The Black Box features a large flat floor area that is currently occupied by chairs but that can also fulfill many other purposes. “It’s the versatility of it,” said Mr. Paweski, former theater student and current assistant to Mr. Andrews, noting “the different types of shows that you can do in there.” Even the uniquely-structured DM tradition of Coffee House was held in the Black Box once when the auditorium was unavailable.

Ms. Mumaw, who taught theater at DM until this year, agrees.

I’ve had all kinds of great memories,” Ms. Mumaw said, “and so I think the room itself just becomes this beautiful space for creative energy, maybe, to come about, but also in the physical connections.”

The Black Box is not only in the basement, but in what Ms. Mumaw describes as “the furthest corner of the basement.”

“I liked that as a teacher because I always felt like I had my own space on campus,” Ms. Mumaw said.

The Black Box bolsters not only connections between actors but also connections between actors and the audience.

“The students really loved having improv performances in the Black Box, down in the basement,” Ms. Mumaw said, “because it really provided a more intimate experience with you and the audience. Which, sometimes for a big show you don’t want that—you want a large audience—but with improv, we found it actually worked better to have the audience really close.”

A storied history

The Black Box has been a part of DM’s culture ever since 1999, only a few years after the school opened.

“It was my junior year that we built it, and I honestly, I had never heard of anything like it when we started the process,” said Mr. Paweski, former DM student and current assistant to Mr. Andrews.

When former DM theater teacher Mr. Messersmith first posed the idea of constructing a Black Box, Paweski says, “the whole class of junior and senior theater kids were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ We wanted the stage. But we trusted him.”

And that trust paid off.

Mr. Messersmith and his students transformed what used to be an unremarkable theater classroom into the iconic Black Box.

The Black Box remains an icon of DM to this day, with only a few minor tweaks made during the two decades it has existed.

“We were bored with our boring classroom and wanted to do something different,” said Mr. Paweski. “So we did.”

We’re covering the iconic classrooms of DM as an ongoing series of articles. Do you know of any other iconic classrooms at DM? If so, let us know by clicking on “Comment” below!