New Mexico State University (NMSU) Resident Costume Designer Deb Brunson labored many hours making lizard costumes for two actors in Black Box Theatre’s inaugural production — Edward Albee’s Seascape — in the fall of 2000. With fond memories of that highly successful show in mind and the lizard costumes still tucked away in the loft at the Black Box (BBT), owners Ceil and Peter Herman continue to research plays as they plan future seasons at their theatre.
Biologists to Theatre Owners
The Hermans both retired from the NMSU Biology Department the same year they opened BBT, looking forward to new careers as theatre owners.
“This is our second act,” Ceil said.
The couple had started going to theatrical performances in Las Cruces and around the world long before they had ever thought of building their own theatre. And Ceil had found a passion for directing plays doing seven minutes of Lonesome West as her Directing 1 class final project at NMSU in 1997. She continued directing as often as she could at Las Cruces Community Theatre (LCCT) and other local venues, with Peter pursuing his interest in lighting and set design and construction.
But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to direct or design at other theatres in town, so the Hermans decided to open their own. They broke ground on BBT in February 2000, rehearsed that summer without air conditioning or adequate lighting as the theatre was being built around them, and opened Seascape that September to rave reviews and 11 straight sold-out performances.
It was quite a beginning to what has continued as a highly successful addition to downtown Las Cruces.
Celebrating 20 seasons at the Black Box Theatre
In 20 seasons, the Hermans have produced about 150 shows at BBT, with Ceil directing an average of three a year. (She also found time to direct Mousetrap during LCCT’s 50th anniversary a few years ago, its best-attended play ever.) They have developed a loyal audience that regularly fills their nearly 100-seat theatre and have carved out a niche for themselves by producing lesser-known plays by well-known playwrights, plays by lesser-known playwrights, and the original works of local playwrights, Peter said.
BBT’s history includes timeless classics like Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals; the best of popular American playwrights, including Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, Steel Magnolias by Robert Hardin, and On Golden Pond by Ernest Thomson; award-winning musicals, including Sweeney Todd, Godspell, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; and works by local playwrights, including Bob Diven, Monika Mojica, Amy Lanasa, and former NMSU Theatre Department Head Tom Smith.
BBT has also regularly featured cutting-edge plays by contemporary playwrights like Steven Dietz and William Missouri Downs. In fact, when BBT presents Surviving Your Family at Christmas this December, the Hermans will have produced more of Downs’ plays (five) than any other theatre. He will pay his second visit to BBT opening night. Last season at BBT included Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright in America today. Their 20th season opened with the premiere of The Mrs. Wheatland Pageant by Lisa Wagner Erickson, whom Ceil Herman described as “an up-and-coming playwright.”
“If we see something somewhere, we try to bring it here,” Peter said. And the Hermans have seen a lot of plays over the years in most major cities in the United States as well as in Sweden, Paris and London. “We’re on a theatre-finding trip if we’re going anywhere,” Peter said.
BBT has also opened its doors to other production companies, including, since 2004, the Gilbert and Sullivan Company of El Paso and, more recently, Dance Eclectic of Las Cruces.
“We try to provide opportunities,” Peter said. “I think by and large we’ve kept the quality we’ve wanted. Just because you’re an amateur company, you don’t have to be amateurish.”
“I just personally like to feel less constrained by what we choose,” Ceil said.
Favorites Over the Years
Peter said his favorite play produced at BBT is probably David Auburn’s Proof, which Ceil directed in 2003 with the late Joe Denk (he was also in Seascape) and the late Rachel Space leading the cast. “I loved the set and how it worked with the actors,” Peter said.
Ceil’s favorite was Mad Gravity, a play Downs wrote that BBT produced in 2015 with Ceil directing. “It was so much fun,” she said, becoming a performance art piece in the second act with choreography by retired NMSU Dance Professor Debra Knapp and live musical performances by Rafael and Tommy Medina and Marissa Bond.
“Our niche is to sort of push boundaries without breaking them,” Peter said.
The Hermans purchased a private home on Lucero Street near the theatre in 2008 and converted it into Black Box II, which is a rehearsal space when one show is on stage at BBT and another is in production. They’ve had a lobby gallery for artwork by local artists — often tied to the show in current production — at BBT since it opened. Four years ago, they put in all new seating at BBT, and this year added a mural by Las Cruces artist SABA on the Main Street-facing side of the theatre’s back fence.
The move from NMSU to a owning their own theatre “wasn’t that big a transition” for the Hermans, Peter said. It’s worked out well for them and for actors, directors, and theatregoers.
Black Box Theatre
430 N. Main St., Las Cruces
Posted by LasCruces.com