The fractured relationship of two sisters and their mother or the comedic dysfunction surrounding two parents of a preschool-age child: These are the stories of two student-directed, one-act plays showing Oct. 23-27 at California Lutheran University’s new Black Box Theatre in Thousand Oaks.

In a time of budgets cuts, California Lutheran University is investing in theater arts, offering an evening of free entertainment not only to students but to the local community. With movie tickets and concession prices skyrocketing, an evening of student inspiration at a local theater may be exactly what Thousand Oaks and the surrounding area needs. After more than 40 years, the demolition of the Little Theatre at CLU has made way for a new facility on campus: the major transformation of the gymnasium into what will be the hub of the university’s theater department. Housing the Black Box Theatre, the former gymnasium also includes a set designer’s studio, dressing rooms, a green room, a newly enlarged costume department and offices for Michael Arndt, theater department chair, and Ken Gardner, who is in charge of theater production. Both Mr. Arndt and Mr. Gardner joke that they insisted on having ceilings for their new offices, and ceilings are indeed being added to hide from view the still-evident rafters of the former sports facility. Although not near full completion at press time, students were working feverishly to hang lights, wire sound and race to the finish in preparation for the debut of Flooding the Grand, written by Brigette Stevenson, a senior, and Bright Ideas by award-winning playwright Eric Coble, which has been rewritten and condensed into a one-hour, one-act play by director and senior, Chelsea Brown.

Bright Ideas bears thematic similarities to films such as Knocked Up and The 40-year-old-Virgin for comedic and adult-age dysfunction.

Flooding the Grand is directed by Kaila Hochhalter, also a senior, whose past directorial experience includes a student production of the play Words, words, words, by Eugene O’Neill, while attending university in Richmond, England, a suburb of London. Ms. Hochhalter plans to use her creative talents in working with youth ministries after graduation next year. With plans to attend either the Pacific Lutheran Theology Seminary or the Minnesota Lutheran Seminary, she is eager to share theater and performance as a creative outlet for youth church members after obtaining her master’s degree in divinity.  The Little Theatre of CLU is gone but won’t be forgotten. “When they tore it down, I was in my office and I heard a strange moan as they pulled on the building,” Arndt recalls, “Yes, it was emotional but now we are in a bigger space and able to spread out.” The costume department, as Mr. Arndt remembers used to be a loft where, “I couldn’t even stand up straight without hitting my head, and now we have storage and room for students to set build, design and to be even more creative.” No one could be more excited with the larger space than Lolita Ball, the head of the costume department. While she stands proudly at the cutting table as she introduces her staff, she joins Mr. Arndt in sharing the recent memories of the tiny space she worked in before.

Remnants of the former gymnasium are evident as the scoreboard hangs above the maze of dressing rooms, studios and offices. The staff and students admit they are tempted to get the remote for the scoreboard and have a permanent winning score posted, in CLU’s favor, of course.

Both Mr. Arndt and Mr. Gardner have been overseeing the department since 1982 and 1985, respectively. They also oversee the Preus-Brandt Forum theatre, the auditorium with an audience capacity of 225 as well as the annual outdoor series Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival.  Although the term “black box” may not be familiar to some, it’s largely self-explanatory as the theater itself is a big black box, sometimes enclosed with moveable walls but in this case, surrounded by black curtains as its enclosure. The black box theatre is a flexible arena, with no stage and minimal catwalks above allowing for lighting. “This format puts the actors on the same floor level as the audience, allowing for a more intimate show and closer connection between participants and viewers,” Arndt said. “Of course, when a larger space for sets is required, we use the Forum which has a stage and auditorium seating.” The black box theater format also “allows the seats to be moved around to any configuration as required and envisioned by the director,” he added. This particular black box can house up to 95 audience members.

Flooding the Grand is the second produced work written by English major Brigette Stevenson. Her first piece, also a one-act play, entitled Kitchen, was selected and performed at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival competition in Los Angeles earlier in 2008.

Kitchen, thematically like Flooding the Grand, surrounds family conflict and again involves a situation between the mother-sisters relationship. When asked why she has used this theme twice in her two works, Ms. Stevenson says she is simply drawn to it. The script, albeit a challenging subject matter, is well crafted and emotionally charged.

Two works are chosen each semester by Mr. Arndt and Mr. Gardner from a variety of student submissions, and in some cases the writer(s) also submit a request for the director which is agreed upon by the department. “Everyone knows each other as it’s such a small campus and we all get along really well, too,” Ms. Hochhalter notes.

Faculty and students concur that both Flooding the Grand and Bright Ideas will provide variety to the audience; the former offers drama, conflict and the emotion-charged atmosphere of family while the latter is “a dark comedy showing the dysfunction of two parents figuring out the next phase of their kid’s life,” said theater arts major Chelsea Brown. In a time of declining interest in theater, Bright Ideas gives audiences a production they can warm up to. Not unlike many recent popular films Flooding the Grand offers equal parts humor and human conflict.

With the lobby and other aspects of this endeavor still under construction, the university continues to move forward with a great vision for the theater arts department. The Little Theatre of 40 years will be remembered by its footprint in the concrete outside the new facility as California Lutheran University plans to unveil the new theater’s name on opening night.   

Fall Black Box Series student directed one-act plays. Admission is free. Thursday, Oct. 23-Monday Oct. 27, at the Black Box Theatre, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks, 493-3415.