Hooper, center, guides Vire and other Black Box students.
Francis, right, and instructor Amrita Dhaliwal observe.
Black Box students face off.
On a recent Saturday at Wicker Park’s Den Theatre, Laura Hooper pairs me off with a stranger. I turn my back to my partner and, on Hooper’s command, spin around to face him and bark out the first thing I see. “Nose!” Repeat. “Button!” Repeat, faster. “Teeth!” We continue as our ten classmates watch intently.
This is one of the first exercises in B1: Human Behavior, the entry-level course at Black Box Acting Studio, the actor-training outfit run by Hooper and Audrey Francis. Like everyone else this morning—a group that includes working actors, lapsed actors, improvisers and total newbies—I’m here as a student. The purpose, Francis explains, is to learn to react in the moment, one of the basic tenets of the training technique espoused by the late acting teacher Sanford Meisner. “Are you pre-planning?” Francis asks. A little, I admit. “Don’t.”
Later in the three-hour session, we take our first crack at a repetition exercise, for which the Meisner technique is perhaps best known and most derided. During introductions at the top of class, some of my fellow students said they’d had Meisner training before and found it silly, dull or impractical.
But after a few intense minutes repeating a statement back and forth with my partner, guided by Hooper and Francis to focus on intention and reaction, I can start to see the objective—and I’m not alone. Following a gripping, revealing exchange between another pair of students, one of the doubters exclaims, “I think I’m starting to get Meisner!”
Working actors as well as graduates of and later instructors for the School at Steppenwolf, Hooper, 33, and Francis, 32, founded Black Box in January 2009. Over coffee the day before our class, they explain they wanted to build an environment like Steppenwolf’s ten-week intensive, but ongoing—“a home [and] also a gym,” as Francis puts it. “As actors, we wished there was a place for us to come and learn and fuck up without apology.”
In three years, Black Box has grown from 12 students and two classes to a program with more than 350 students—among them some of the city’s most impressive young actors—and a core curriculum focused on Meisner, the Viewpoints approach developed by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, and a proprietary blend called the Hybrid. Francis and Hooper employ seven additional instructors, all working actors drawn from their first year of classes.
This week, Black Box announces a major new initiative: the Academy, a nine-month conservatory program for full-time students launching in September. The owners hope to accept 14 students into the inaugural ensemble, with auditions taking place in May.
Instructor Eddie Bennett, who’ll play Louis Ironson in Court Theatre’s upcoming production of Angels in America, says he never felt a strong sense of process before training at Black Box. “For the first time, I wasn’t spending 99 percent of my time ‘acting’ actually in my head, judging myself,” he says. It helped, too, that Francis and Hooper were at relatable places in their own careers. “They’re young. They’re in the industry. They understand it,” Bennett says. “Audrey could come into class and say, ‘I had an audition at Steppenwolf yesterday, I think I fucked it up, here’s what I’m going to do to fix it.’ ”
The school’s owners think their singular focus makes Black Box unique. “Where other schools bring in different teachers to teach different things, we speak this one language,” Francis says. “We’re the Kuma’s Corner of schools. We don’t try to do hamburgers and salads and Chinese food; we just make really good fucking hamburgers.”
Applications for the Academy are being accepted February 7–April 20. Visit blackboxacting.com for more information.