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UBC Theatre Prof. Robert Gardiner - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Theatre Prof. Robert Gardiner - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 2 | Feb. 2, 2006

Black Box Studio Largest in Western Canada

By Lorraine Chan

Bulldozer tread marks still pit the cement floor, but a former factory space at Great Northern Way Campus (GNWC) has turned into a prized asset for Vancouver theatre and dance companies.

"This is the largest space of its kind in Western Canada," says Prof. Robert Gardiner, head of UBC Theatre, Film and Creative Writing Dept. "And it's two or three times bigger than anything else in Vancouver."

Measuring 892 sq. metres, the Black Box Studio offers affordable rental space for both rehearsal and performance. Even before the city's real estate crunch, this cavernous warehouse spelled heaven for performers mounting large-scale productions. The ceiling soars seven metres high and despite measuring 37 metres long by 24 metres wide, there are only three posts to obscure sight lines.

In theatre, a "black box" refers to a space where the relationship of the stage with the audience is not fixed, but always changeable. A director is free to specify a traditional stage, theatre in the round or even have the audience move around the performers.

Gardiner, who teaches scenery and lighting design, is spearheading a joint venture to upgrade and further establish the Black Box Studio as a rehearsal, performance, research and training facility. He explains the City of Vancouver requires seismic, fire-safety and other upgrades in order to grant a permanent occupancy permit, which is necessary for regular performances.

GNWC is located east of Main St. and runs parallel to the old Canadian National railroad tracks in the False Creek Flats.

In 2001, four major post-secondary institutions in B.C.'s Lower Mainland joined together to establish the GNWC. The British Columbia Institute of Technology, the Emily Carr Institute, Simon Fraser University and UBC are now co-owners of the 8.9-hectare parcel of land, previously owned by Finning International Inc.

The GNWC institutions are currently working together -- in concert with the B.C. and federal governments, the City of Vancouver, industry and other agencies -- to build a unique, integrated centre of excellence in teaching, learning, research and entrepreneurship. Initially focusing on two themes of Urban Sustainability and Transforming Arts and Culture, GNWC aims to provide program and collaborative research opportunities not available on any one campus.

Two UBC theatre production classes are taught at GNWC. And recently, Black Box Studio events drew Vancouverites to the raw, industrial site for Susan Kozel's video-dance installation Trajets, the Vancouver Art Gallery Gala and the Vancouver Arts Awards.

Gardiner hopes the Black Box Studio will provide Vancouver with a site for future international projects. "Theatre at UBC has been talking to Kaleideskop Theatre in Copenhagen about a co-creation, but we don't really have a place to work. And several companies with the PuSH Festival have talked to us about possible collaboration with theatres in Europe. The Black Box Studio would be ideal for developing new work of this kind."

Gardiner adds, "We want to pool resources to create an artistically experimental lab where there's opportunity to share ideas. This would be fabulous for teaching students or hosting site-specific performances, film projects and installation pieces."

In a 1,115 sq-metre warehouse next to the Black Box Studio, UBC operates a scenery production shop, which supports organizations as diverse as B.C. Ballet, PuSH Festival, Mortal Coil, NeWest, Pi Theatre, Bard on the Beach, The Electric Company, UBC School of Music Opera and Judith Marcuse Projects.

"It's great for innovation and sharing resources because the UBC facility acts as a hub where smaller companies can access a ready pool of designers and technicians," says Gardiner. "The below-market rental rates mean smaller companies can build sets and also re-use stored scenic elements like stairs and walls."

During June 19-23, GNWC will host the seven-day International EARTH Village Festival, associated with the United Nations 2006 World Urban Forum. The Festival, a UNESCO-designated event, will be produced by Judith Marcuse Projects and will feature premiere performances of its EARTH production, a large-scale music, theatre, media and dance exploration of youth's thoughts and feeling about the planet.

More than 20 countries will take part in Festival events that include performances, exhibitions, street theatre, food, public dialogue and sustainability workshops.

Marcuse says the gritty setting of the Black Box Studio is part of its charm and that it readily "transforms into a magical venue."

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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