Big dreams at Black Box

Big dreams at Black Box

‘Bad Jews’ launches Matt Okin’s Teaneck theater adventure

Mike Gardiner, background, David Meyers, and Molly Heller rehearse for “Bad Jews” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center. (Glenn L. Photography)
Mike Gardiner, background, David Meyers, and Molly Heller rehearse for “Bad Jews” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center. (Glenn L. Photography)

Three years ago, writing in this paper, Joanne Palmer praised the play “Bad Jews” as “good theater” and as an effective portrayal of contemporary American Jews that is “more witty, more specific, often more profane, and therefore more probing than the anodyne prose of the Pew survey.”

Then, it was produced by Roundabout Theater and played on Broadway.

Now it’s playing in Teaneck, at the Black Box Performing Arts Center. The grandly named center’s building is a former furniture factory, tucked behind a post office and looking out into (and sharing) the parking lot of a kosher supermarket. Inside, the black metal-and-plastic chairs arranged on movable black wooden risers mark the theater as a “black box” — a simple room where the seating can be arranged in different configurations and the scenery is de-emphasized. “Bad Jews,” for example, is performed in the round.

The center is the latest permutation of the theatrical dreams of Matt Okin, a playwright, theater educator, and director.

Mr. Okin came to town in 2008, and he created Black Box studios, which first offered acting classes to area day schools. It later branched out, offering afterschool and weekend drama classes for kids and adults. It rented space in Teaneck shuls before opening its building last year.

The classes continue. Five drama classes and three improv classes are on the schedule this semester, which began this week. Black Box continues to offer drama at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus and the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

Now, with the new building, Black Box can host shows, such as “Bad Jews,” with professional actors. Mr. Okin plans to offer professional productions on weekends, while maintaining his schedule of classes and student performance.

“It’s a Jewish themed show but it really reaches everybody,” Mr. Okin said of “Bad Jews.” “It’s hysterically funny. The dialogue is amazing.”

Mr. Okin, 47, grew up in a theater-loving family in suburban Maryland, outside Washington D.C.

“My parents basically dragged me to anything that played in D.C.,” he said. “A couple of times a year, my dad would take me on the Amtrak to New York, we’d go to TKTS and watch three shows in one night.”

He was in a rock band, “but at a certain point I saw so much theater that I knew it was the art form I loved the best,” he said.

For college, he went to New York University theater school, studying in its dramatic writing program. Before long he was producing theater in Greenwich Village, “and I was hooked on it.

“I later dabbled in other entertainment media, but I’m always drawn back to the stage. Live theater never gets old.”

Actual acting didn’t appeal to him. “I never had the itch to be on stage,” he said. “I did a couple of plays as a kid, but I just never felt I needed people to watch me.”

Matt Okin
Matt Okin

A year after graduation, Mr. Okin decided to “check out Los Angeles. I dabbled in everything — some screenwriting, some TV, some radio.”

While he was in Los Angeles, “I stumbled into Chabad,” he said. “I embraced some of the Judaism I was not interested in when I was growing up.”

After a couple of years — “and a couple of earthquakes” — he had enough. He came back East.

“I wanted to combine some of the spiritual with the theater,” he said. He was a ba’al teshuva, a newly minted Orthodox Jew, and he called his production company BT Media. It specialized in Jewish entertainment. With collaborators, he wrote, directed, and produced shows that toured across America, playing off-off Broadway theaters in Manhattan and Chabad events in the Midwest.

“They were contemporary original Jewish pieces,” he said. “One of them, ‘Twist of Faith,’ we’re about to revive in November, 18 or 20 years later.

“It wasn’t light-hearted fare. It was button-pushing Jewish stuff, but acceptable to all denominations. There’s no overt sexuality. The language is sharp but tempered. It’s still good theater.”

After three religious-themed dramas, he put on “A Match Made in Manhattan,” a Jewish version of “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” that he wrote. For $70, show-goers would get a catered meal at Levana’s kosher restaurant and listen in as actors playing the bride, the groom, and their families acted out the dramas that can occur at all weddings, and particularly one that brings together families of different religious backgrounds.

This was followed by “Soul Searching,” a musical whose book he wrote, looking at dating on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It went through various incarnations. “When it started to veer a little more secular is when it took off the most,” he said.

In 2007, he started teaching kids at the theater program at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. It was his first attempt at teaching, and at first it frightened him. But he found his directing style “was adaptable to teaching like it was natural.” His parents both are educators, and they had told him that teaching was rewarding — but he didn’t understand just how rewarding until he did it. “You can’t really explain it,” he said. “If we’re on Broadway tomorrow, I’ll still be teaching. You can’t get that feeling from being on Broadway.

“There’s something about creatively empowering a student at any age or level and see them flourish in front of you. You can’t beat it. You get somewhat addicted to it.”

And as a playwright, “It’s incredibly rewarding to give a play that I wrote to some of my high-level students,” he said. That includes plays from before and after his ba’al teshuva phase.

“In the first years, our student work was not controversial,” he said. A couple of years ago, a teen drama group performed Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio.”

“That was the first time we allowed the kids to go a little bit uncensored,” he said. “Since then we’ve let the trained kids take more risks with the student stuff.”

That’s one benefit to Black Box in having its own building. “It wasn’t going to be long before no synagogue wanted any part of this,” Mr. Okin said.

That said, Mr. Okin is continuing his relationship with synagogues. He has brought in rabbis, including Steven Sirbu of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth and Alberto Zeilicovich of Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom, to lead discussions after the show’s performance.

“The idea here is really to serve every audience,” he said. “The idea is programming that anyone can see. Teaneck’s diverse. You’ve got to provide that.”

Next month, he plans to put on “Evil Dead: The Musical” as a late night show, targeting college students. In April, he will present “The Whipping Man,” a play about the interplay of the Civil War and Passover. Five other shows are scheduled through June. Now that he has his own space, Mr. Okin also has the luxury of setting up a long-term schedule — he doesn’t have to worry about a performance or a rehearsal fitting into a synagogue’s bar mitzvah calendar.

“I’m looking for imagery that sticks with you,” he said. “Things that shock but also delight.”

Why go out to theater rather than staying home and watching Netflix?

“Theater is live and it happens in the moment and anything can happen because of that,” he said. “It’s not stagnant. It changes and morphs. If it’s a good play you can see it once and then again and it’s going to be a different experience.

Also, “It’s a shared experience. You’re with other people from every possible background watching the same thing. That’s interesting.

“It’s still the only art form that never bores me, no matter what.”

What: “Bad Jews”

Where: Black Box Performing Arts Center, 200 Walraven Drive, Teaneck

When: 8 p.m. September 16, 17, 22, 23, 24

Price: $20; $18 students

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