Bright Box Theater takes center stage in Old Town Winchester

By Ryan Cornell

There are certain parts of the Bright Box Theater that fit in at The Birchmere. And there are others that seem to belong more in a casino.

Take the venue’s air conditioning system, for example. Because it’s fanless, it won’t make any distracting noises during the performing arts venue’s films, concerts and plays it hosts. But what really sets the system apart is a sensor that will detect the carbon dioxide levels and pump in more oxygen from outside if it’s needed. Not only is it undeniably “cool,” but it also keeps audience members awake and enjoying the show.

The theater, which opened May 1 in Old Town Winchester, is a chameleon of an entertainment center in that its tables, chairs, lighting and stage can all be shifted and optimized to fit any type of event. As its name suggests, Bright Box is modeled after the concept of black box theater, a type of performance space characterized by its intimate atmosphere and easy-to-change arrangements.

To better understand the concept, owner Marilyn Finnemore hired black box design expert Milo Lanoue, who was associate director at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium and now teaches at Shenandoah University. He created, as Finnemore describes, “a space that allows you to do anything with it.”

When she was looking to install audio equipment for the venue, she turned to another expert, Pete Cosmos. The owner of Acme Professionals, Cosmos has designed the sound systems at so many big names that listing them — Prudential Hall, the Patriot Center, The Apollo Theater and so on — would look similar to a tour schedule for The Eagles.

The two consultants’ hard work paid off. Nicholas Hurst, a guitarist who played at Bright Box’s first open mic night recently, said he’s going to start suggesting the venue for any musicians who ask for recommendations.

“It looks fantastic,” Hurst said. “It has the best sound system that I’ve ever used. I was amazed by how quickly they adjust everything to make it work. And the people are really friendly.”

The story begins in 2005 when Finnemore and her husband purchased the neighboring Bright Center, renovating it until 2008. The Bright Box, crown jewel of the Center, took a year to finish after months of polishing and perfecting and nearly a decade of planning. But, as events coordinator Josh Huff said, she’s not rushing anything.

“She’s owned this building for eight years before she decided to do this side,” said Huff. “It’s all been very methodical and none of it is stressed or taxed in terms of time.”

The theater held a soft opening in January and would host the occasional indie flicks — “Searching for Sugarman” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to name a few — in March and April, but Finnemore said she waited until May to officially open because she wanted to coordinate its launch with the completion of the Loudoun Street Mall renovation project. A member of the Old Town Development Board, Finnemore is a strong believer in the neighborhood.

“It’s the way America used to be before we started sprawling out and building all these chain stores,” she said. “Winchester is the quintessential downtown.”

The theater can fit approximately 250 people standing or 150-180 sitting down. The room might be small, but it’s already seen some big names, such as bluegrass musician Larry Keel. And although Bright Box serves beer, wine and food, Huff is quick to point out the distinction between the theater and local bars with live music.

“Instead of a bar that has a stage,” he said. “We’re a stage that has a bar.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com