The Black Box Turns 10
A decade after opening its doors the Belfast arts hub continues to play a pivotal role and build on its legacy at the heart of city's cultural quarter
The Black Box is, well, a black box. Nestling cosily on the corner lot where Hill Street intersects with Exchange Place in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, the building harbouring the arts venue looks soberly business-like and unprepossessing to the casual passer-by on the partly cobbled road and pavement.
Inside, though, things are different. The small entrance vestibule leads directly to the ‘Black Box’ itself, a rectangular room with a drinks bar shoe-horned sideways to the right, a stage area to the left, and a sparkling disco ball depending from the ceiling.
It is a distinctly closed-off, hermetic environment. There are no windows to the outer world, and the feeling is that of some special inner sanctum, a snug, escapist bolt-hole from the workaday realities of life in central Belfast.
The Black Box is currently celebrating its tenth birthday as an arts hub for the city, and continues to curate a dazzling array of events including films, concerts, stand-up comedy, plays and lectures.
It is also a key host for the annual Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, now in its 17th season. The festival’s director Sean Kelly knows the Black Box as well as most, and as a board member and founder, better than many. He is unequivocal in his praise of what the venue has to offer.
‘I think the Black Box has played a pivotal role in the development of the festival, I doubt if we could have come so far without it,’ he says.
‘For me it is everything a good venue should be. Sizeable enough for bigger acts yet still with a great feeling of intimacy. Great sight lines from everywhere in the room, top quality acoustics, a relaxed atmosphere, a great beer selection, and even excellent pizza.’
It’s a view shared by Joe Nawaz, press and marketing officer for the festival, who also knows The Black Box intimately, not least because his own theatre company Shot Glass has mounted shows there.
‘Black Box has been at the epicentre of excellent art in the past ten years,’ he says, ‘and is as much an incubator for emerging talent as it is a top-class live venue for comedy, music and theatre.’
Nawaz particularly relishes the cussedly non-elitist atmosphere which The Black Box cultivates. ‘It’s a venue with a big heart, it won’t turn anybody away,’ he comments.
That’s a point reiterated by Adam Turkington of the Seedhead Arts company, who has been programming and attending events at The Black Box since it opened.
‘In my opinion it is the most important arts organisation in the city. It facilitates risk takers and outcasts. It’s the beating heart of the Cathedral Quarter, a little rough round the edges, not expecting you to be smart or educated or serious, but delivering a space that the creative sector are queuing up to fill because it’s unpretentious and welcoming.’
Such plaudits will be music to the ears of Sarah Jones, director of The Black Box, and the individual responsible for steering the venue’s course into a second decade of existence.
‘The Black Box was initially meant to just be there for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘but we are still here ten years on. The venue is now open at least six nights a week, and we also work with the NI Science Festival and Belfast Science Café to encourage people to engage with science, and see how the sciences and the arts can work together.’
Among the hundreds of performances of various kinds hosted by The Black Box over the past decade, many remain firmly etched in the memory of those who saw them. For Joe Nawaz, one event stands out particularly.
‘The Edwyn Collins gig at the Out to Lunch Festival of 2010 will stay with me for a very, very long time,’ he remembers. ‘He'd just recovered from very severe illness and here he was on a stage in front of 300 rapt individuals. That narrative, the triumph, the music - on a very good night, you only get that sort of magic in The Black Box.’
Sean Kelly has equally vivid memories. ‘I'm not sure where to begin really,’ he says. ‘We've had David Soul reciting the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and Liam Clancy singing his heart out in the last few months of his life.
‘Stephen Rea reading Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, The Strypes blowing the roof off when they were barely sixteen, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s were unbelievable too. For a venue which is only ten years old, the legacy is immense already.’
Sarah Jones, for her part, recites a litany of lighter moments, from ‘a real life pony in the Green Room, to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk having the entire audience waving meat-scented air fresheners around, Seasick Steve walking across tables and chairs while playing his guitar, actor Tim Robbins performing from the audience while drinking a pint of Guinness, and Bob Log in a blow-up dinghy crowd surfing.’
With fond memories, inevitably, come fears about the future, and the continuing viability of the Black Box in a straitened funding environment where the revenue flows of many arts organisations, big and small, continue to take a hammering.
In the short term at least, it seems, the outlook for The Black Box is positive. ‘We have secured financial support for the next four years from Belfast City Council,’ says Sarah Jones, ‘and will be continuing to work with our other funders, such as the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and The Big Lottery to continue the life of the venue.
‘We want to take more control of our programming, and are actively looking to partner with new promoters and organisations to create more new work in the venue.’
That will be music to the ears of The Black Box’s loyal audiences, and its many stalwart supporters. Let the eloquent words of Joe Nawaz speak for them, as the Hill Street venue celebrates the April day ten years ago when it first opened its doors to the public.
‘It's a huge deal if you can step into a place, even by mistake, and not be made to feel belittled or overawed. Furthermore if you can do this whilst also hosting or producing top live events throughout the year, you’ve got a rare and precious thing on your hands.
‘The beauty of The Black Box is that it's not even at full potential yet. And that offers a badly needed sliver of hope for the artistic future of our often culturally besieged city.’
The Black Box is celebrating its tenth anniversary throughout the year with an array of upcoming events from the worlds of live music, literature, theatre, visual arts, comedy, film and much more. To stay up to date with what's on and book tickets visit www.blackboxbelfast.com. Images by Jonathan Ryder, from The Black Box Facebook page.