ST. LEO — When the Saint Leo Theatre Company came together last spring to stage A Murder is Announced, a play written by Leslie Darbon and adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie, cast and crew faced a mystery that had nothing to do with the whodunit theme of the play itself.
"Saint Leo has had a drama department for years, but no theater," said Alicia Corts, assistant professor in the department of language studies and the arts at Saint Leo University and director of the play. "We performed plays in lecture halls and sometimes outside."
The mystery has now been solved. The university's Black Box Theatre opened to the public April 1, played to packed houses for A Murder is Announced and is now preparing for a busy 2016-17 season.
The theater is on the ground floor of Benedictine Hall, the former home of Holy Name Monastery and the residence of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida.
When the Benedictine Sisters moved to a smaller facility across State Road 52, Saint Leo University acquired the building, repurposing the space for faculty offices and, on the ground floor, the performing arts facility.
According to the university, the theater owes its name to its status as a rectangular shell of a space with dark walls — one that can be easily adapted for smaller productions.
"All things are possible here," said Corts. "This theater is wonderful."
The 40- by 40-foot performance space can accommodate 100 to 150 people.
"It's an intimate space," said Corts. "The audience is right here with us."
The theater also features a box office, a sound studio, and a full costume storage and changing area.
"Trying to arrange costumes for the plays we performed outside was always an adventure," said Rebecca Van Orskie, a member of the costume crew for A Murder is Announced. "Here we can really put it all together."
Both cast members and crew for the play found much to like about the new facility.
Stage manager Nadia Marshall said she felt the new setting would teach her a great deal about theater technology. Elizabeth Panek, a biology major who played Letitia Blacklock, the lady of the house, appreciated the technical aspects of the production.
Said Vincent Pensabene, who played the role of Patrick Simmons, one of Miss Blacklock's cousins: "In this theater, you have a more intimate experience with the audience."
Other cast members, while not drama or music majors, feel that they are still learning a great deal through their theatrical experience.
"Here kids of all majors are valued," said Amelia Evans, a marketing and multimedia management major who played Julia Simmons, another of Miss Blacklock's cousins. "Here you get knowledge and hands-on experience."
Corts said the theater company plans to stage multiple productions each year at the Black Box Theatre, which also will host school concerts.