Chicago's Black Box Acting promotes a curriculum that cultivates a fight club mentality in students when advocating their own perspective on the live stage.

By David Berner

Just before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in late January, Laura Hooper and Audrey Francis, the co-founders of Black Box Acting, step out from a car parked across the street from the brand new address of their five-year old acting school. They’re carrying a simple mop and a plastic bucket. It's been just a few days since moving into the new headquarters at 2625 W. North Avenue near Chicago’s Logan Square, and the dust is still settling...real dust. 

“Still needs some touching up,” Laura Hooper says, smiling. “Got to keep the place clean, and we love it.”

Black Box Acting’s new home is a recently rehabbed 3,200 square foot space washed in a bold and contemporary design. There are three classrooms for training and performances, each plainly appointed with nothing more that what is absolutely essential to the school’s acting technique: hardwood floors, a few chairs and dark painted walls.

“There are going to be different directors and set designers everywhere you work,” Audrey Francis says with affable confidence, “but all there is here is the actor.” she explains. “You learn how to be an actor in a naked space. It’s a ‘black box’ for the actor to work in.”

In 2009, Black Box Acting began in comparatively tight quarters, a 600-square foot boutique studio in Wicker Park with 12 part-time students and just two classes. Now, the school employs five full-time staff members, nine instructors, and has trained in its two programs nearly 700 aspiring performers from all over the world. The Studio class is a five-week program set on a part-time schedule; and The Academy, which launched two years ago, is an intense five-month accelerated program geared toward the actor who is ready to begin a professional career. Black Box not only needed the physical space to match its continuing growth, it also needed the space to match its developing reputation. 

Hooper, who trained at the School at Steppenwolf and continues to act and direct, firmly believes Black Box can revolutionize acting in Chicago. “A Black-Boxer is someone who plays fearless in the room, and when I’m out auditioning I can see the difference between those who have trained here and those who have not,” Hooper says.

The Black Box method is based on acting in its rawest form and has its roots in the Stanford Meisner Technique, a method based on the actor building an emotional life and a unique, personalized response to the craft. Hooper and Francis say their method is based on that very premise and employs physical and emotional impulses, encourages imagination, and builds an actor’s stamina and focus.

“It allows the actor to take risks,” says Francis, who met Hooper at the School at Steppenwolf and continues to act in independent films and television, including a recent episode of Chicago Fire. “We want the people who are in control of theater in Chicago to take more risks with the underdogs, underdogs with some talent.”

There are plans to line the lobby walls of the school’s new building with large portraits of Black Box students, portraying battered and bloodied actors, as a way to continue the school’s dynamic theme. The large photos are expected to fit in perfectly with the suspended bare light bulbs that pay tribute to what the co-founders call the school’s “Fight Club” attitude.

Actress and Academy student Amanda Fink, whose talent led her to be cast in a show Francis was directing, says the school’s boxer attitude suits her just right. “I push myself harder here than anywhere else I have ever trained,” Fink says. “The work is tough and so very honest.” Student Johnny Kalita believes the school’s values make total sense. Kalita, also a member of The Academy, is a tall, movie-star-handsome actor dressed in a sport jacket and tie. He's trained in a number of places in and around Chicago but says he wasn't really ever satisfied with any one program until he began his work at Black Box.

“Here, you can be brave enough to expose every side of yourself even if it’s scary,” says Kalita.

Hooper and Francis admit starting Black Box Acting was an extremely risky venture. Five years ago they both were struggling actors, not getting the parts they wanted, and starting a training program from such a shaky platform was undeniably dicey. But, as Francis points out, she and Hooper were committed and willing to work hard just like their students.

“Through our own struggles as actors, we became really good teachers. It helped us develop and copyright our method,” Francis says. But, both she and her co-founder concede it wasn’t always an easy process and there were difficult times. “We had our fights,” says Hooper, “Only one or two, though.” Hooper admits one of the arguments was intense, but understands it needed to happen. “We worked at it and fixed it. And in the end, it was a real cosmic shift. It made us and Black Box stronger.”

There’s still physical work to be done at the school’s new headquarters and development work for the future of Black Box Acting. A few more details and some design work will complete the look of the new headquarters, and Hooper and Francis say they must continually consider what will come next for the school as more actors find success through their method.

“I know it sounds weird,” says Francis, “but we train people not to act.” She says the students who get the most out of Black Box come to believe that what they bring to the craft is unique and fascinating. “We don’t want our students to be what someone else thinks they should be. We want them to fight to find their distinctive place as an actor. We want them to throw some punches.”
Students take part in training sessions in the "Black Box Method," cultivating a fight club mentality when approaching acting on the live stage (photo courtesy of Black Box Acting).

Training Day