Theater’s Power in Kids’ Hands

Student actors rehearsed for the Black Box Performance Project’s “Antigone Now.” Dane Dupuis

The animating idea behind the Black Box Performance Project is deceptively simple. Its director, Tamara Salkin, said she and her co-founder, Amanda Jones, wondered what would happen if they stripped away all the usual adornments and detailed instructions that their youth actors usually get — the elaborate sets and costumes, the meticulous orders on where to stand, how to move, what to think — and instead challenged them to come up with most everything themselves.

Then, switching the point of view yet again, what would happen for the audience if you lessened the focus on the spectacle and trained it even more on the student actors and their work?

After nearly two months of rehearsals for “Antigone Now,” Melissa Cooper’s modern adaptation of the Greek tragedy “Antigone” by Sophocles, Ms. Salkin thinks the emerging answers are precisely what she hoped. 

“I think it proves that you don’t need all that extra stuff to have a really powerful experience at the theater,” Ms. Salkin said of the Black Box production, which will be performed on Friday, Dec. 14, and Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center.

“I asked the students at the beginning, ‘Have you ever been allowed to make your own choices?’ ” Ms. Salkin said. “And there were some ‘Hmms.’ Some shuffling of feet. . . . What we’re doing is educational theater. Here, they’re doing really deep script analysis, thinking about why their characters say what they say, the motivation behind their actions. These are things that professional actors do that they’ve never really done.”

All of the actors in the Black Box Performance Project auditioned for their roles. Some work with Ms. Salkin through South Fork Performing Arts, the company she and Ms. Jones started. The cast ranges in age from a seventh grader, Dakota Quackenbush of East Hampton, who performed recently in “Evita” at Bay Street Theater, to Madeline Kane, a senior at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor who has an onstage part in “Antigone Now” and was also instrumental in suggesting some of the staging ideas that Ms. Salkin called “brilliant.”

One of those ideas was to have the traditional Greek chorus from the time of Sophocles reimagined and staged in a coffee shop. “Which was perfect, because where else do you go today when you want to gossip and discuss things with friends?” Ms. Salkin said with a laugh.

The goal throughout the process, she said, is for her young actors to have an immersive educational experience in all aspects of production as well as a performance experience, a combination that mirrors her own career path. Ms. Salkin, 34, is an actress as well as a director. She appeared most recently in “The Money Shot” at the Southampton Cultural Center. She also has a master’s degree in educational theater.

She grew up in Southampton, now lives in Sag Harbor, and said East End schools provide opportunities for young people who want to act — if not full-time jobs for teachers certified to teach theater arts.

“So I thought, ‘How can I be a part of a theater where kids are learning, not just performing?’ ” she said. The result was Black Box, with its spare sets and staging and sound (which Ms. Jones is overseeing).

“And I couldn’t be more excited,” Ms. Salkin said, thinking back to last weekend’s three dress rehearsals. “What it’s shown is the concept of Black Box works.”

General admission to “Antigone Now” is $15, or $10 for students under 21. Tickets can be purchased at scc-arts.org or by phone.