Since it opened over a decade ago, hundreds of adults, kids and teens have taken part in BlackBox Foundation efforts to bring live theater productions to Casa Grande audiences.
“The theater was started as a way of bringing more performing arts to the community,” said BlackBox Foundation Venue Manager Jenn Elliott. “And rural arts are different than urban arts. There is more of a community feel to our programs.”
Started by Ken Ferguson and Stacey Seaman in 2008, the BlackBox Foundation has evolved from a small troupe of actors to a full-fledged theater, with acting workshops, classes and several shows throughout the year.
Each year, the nonprofit organization produces several musical and theater productions as well as improv, comedy and musical entertainment. It also offers workshops and classes for adults and young people as well as opportunities for Central Arizona College students interested in the performing arts.
Ferguson ran the theater for several years but stepped aside from the day-to-day tasks in 2019, although he is still involved in some of the creative aspects of the theater.
In 2018, the theater moved into the city of Casa Grande-owned Woman’s Club at 407 N. Sacaton St. The group renovated the interior, adding theater seating, expanding the stage and installing theatrical equipment.
The building has been converted into a theater and serves as a base of operations for BlackBox, which also produces shows at Central Arizona College’s Pence Center.
On average, the theater produces four or five shows a year, not including some visiting shows or other productions.
But COVID-19 has been tough on the theater.
“We’ve pretty much had the theater closed to audiences during the pandemic, but we did do a few video productions in a COVID-safe way,” Elliott said.
Among its recent productions was the BlackBox Foundation production of the city of Casa Grande’s 10-minute play contest.
This year, the theater again sponsored the city’s 10-minute play contest, but the show was virtual.
The BlackBox Theater typically hosts the 10-minute play contest, sponsored by the Casa Grande Arts and Humanities Commission. In the contest, amateur playwrights vie for prizes and accolades by submitting a short, one-act play. Submissions are judged and the five top scripts are read to an audience as the final act of the competition.
“It went well this year,” Elliott said. “In the spring, BlackBox hosted a play-writing workshop and some of the participants from that workshop submitted scripts to the 10-minute play contest.”
Elliott, who has performed in and directed several BlackBox productions, has also taken part in the 10-minute play contest both as a judge and a writer.
“Both are equally fun,” Elliott said. “It’s a a great contest and this year we had seven very good plays.”
Actors were brought into the theater and in a COVID-safe manner, acted out each of the competition plays, which were recorded and uploaded to Facebook. Visitors to the BlackBox Foundation Facebook page then had the opportunity to vote for their favorite.
“I think people really enjoyed watching the plays on Facebook,” Eliott said.
The play competition is just one of the ways the theater has made an impact on the community, she said.
“BlackBox Foundation has played a big role in helping to revitalize downtown,” she said. “By taking over the lease at the Woman’s Club, we’ve transformed the building into a nice theater and something that brings people downtown.”
Future plans for improving the theater include creating a lobby, adding a green room and installing a velvet theater curtain.
The theater is also earning praise and prestige, she said.
In October, Marcos Espinoza Jr. won a prestigious ariZoni award for his role in the BlackBox production of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”
The ariZoni Theatre Awards is a nonprofit organization that recognizes excellence in theater shows statewide. Before nomination for an ariZoni, a member of the awards committee must see the show. Judges watch about 120 shows a year, rating each one on a scale of 1 to 10, with a ranking of 5 being average, according to the ariZoni website.
“That was big for us, being invited to take part in the ariZoni awards program and having a winner,” Elliott said.
The BlackBox Foundation offers a variety of programs and workshops for children, teens and adults. Some children participate in the organization’s theater programs as young as 5 years old and continue on with other programs as they grow older, taking part in teen and community productions.
“We’ve had several teens from our programs go on to get scholarships and major in theater at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University,” Elliott said.
She said the theater is always looking for more people — kids and adults — to be involved in productions.
As the organization looks forward to eventually reopening the theater doors, in the meantime, it’s hoping to continue using digital resources as well as finding outdoor venues.
“We’re thinking of maybe doing outside theater productions,” she said. “We want people to come participate and be a part of the theater. We are there for every age group and have a lot to offer.” PW