‘Imagine. Create. Perform.’
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‘Imagine. Create. Perform.’

Rebecca Lopkin’s Teaneck-based school theater company helps children collaborate and grow

Rebecca Lopkin stands in front of the Globe Theater in London. Envision Shakespeare is one of her programs.
Rebecca Lopkin stands in front of the Globe Theater in London. Envision Shakespeare is one of her programs.

When you’re at the theater, watching a performance, if it really works, if the performance and the writing and the direction and the set and the costumes come together in the way their creators meant them to, you can be transported. Metaphorically, of course — there is no magic-carpet-like wafting — but you literally can forget that you’re in a seat in a windowless room watching people onstage say other people’s words.

That’s because theater can be magic. As you sit there in the audience, in the dark, watching, listening, you find yourself journeying. When it all works right, you find yourself understanding more about other people. Or being exhilarated, or laughing until your stomach muscles hurt, or crying despite your absolute refusal to allow it.

That’s just the audience.

The heightened emotions, empathy, exploration, combined sense of freedom and safety, and sense of belonging that theater at its best can give theater people — and particularly that it can give theater kids, students who are drawn to it — can be even more transformative.

Rebecca Lopkin of Teaneck understands that because she was a theater kid, as her mother was before her; it gave her an entrée to a new school and friends and a platform when she was in high school. Now, as the founder of Envision Theater, she works in local day schools, giving students there the same opportunity she had to be nurtured and uplifted by theater.

Rebecca Strulowitz Lopkin grew up in West Orange, but her story really begins when she was 12, and her parents decided to move to North Miami Beach. Until then, Rebecca, the oldest of four children, went to the Hebrew Youth Academy in West Caldwell. (The school later moved to Livingston and was renamed the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, but that’s an entirely different story.)

Rebecca was going into seventh grade. That can be a hard time to move, but her parents, Sheila and Larry, put her in a new school, the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami. And the new school had an even newer thing, a theater program.

Ben Porat Yosef students perform “Hakuna Matata” from the “Lion King Jr.”

“When I was brand new in the school, they were holding auditions for ‘Oliver!’ and I decided to audition,” Ms. Lopkin said. “I HAD to audition. And I got a part. I was Mrs. Sowerberry; she and her husband are undertakers. I had a great song, ‘That’s Your Funeral.’ The song is about the art of being an undertaker, and how much they love it.

“At the end of the scene, my character ends up inside a coffin, and I get to do like this,” she said, as she mimed planking backward. “It was super fun.

“From there on, I was bitten by the bug for real.

“I did every play that was available all through school, so I was in many plays through twelfth grade,” she continued. Her mentor, Michael Andron, started the program, and he also “started a chapter of the International Thespian Society,” she said; the society is an educational program for high school students. She became the chapter president; Mr. Andron started a traveling theater company, and she joined that too. “Whatever he created, I got involved in,” she said. “He pushed me.”

The next logical step was to study theater in college, she knew. “I had my heart set on being an actor. My goal was to attend Tisch,” NYU’s spectacularly competitive, enormously prestigious performing arts school. I auditioned, I was accepted — I still have that letter! — but I chose not to go to the program.”

Why would anyone who wanted to be in theater turn down Tisch? “I stayed with NYU, but I chose to study educational theater, in the school of education.”

Why would she do that?

“Because the educational theater program allows you to study acting, directing, stagecraft, everything about theater, but it also allows you to get certification in teaching theater. I decided that it was a better idea for me, because I still could pursue theater, but I am a natural teacher. Even when I was a student, I always taught.” This way, she said, she could pursue both her passions, learn how to combine them, “so it was a really good fit.”

She earned both an undergraduate and a master’s degree in NYU’s school of education — acting and directing all the way — and then, logically enough, she taught. “For many years, I was a classroom teacher, and I would integrate the arts into my classes,” Ms. Lopkin said. She taught second and fourth grades, at Ramaz on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at Kinneret in Riverdale, at Maimonides in suburban Boston, and at Yavneh in Paramus. (Her husband, Benjy Lopkin, is a pediatric dentist with a practice in Parsippany; some of those moves were to accommodate dental school.)

Moriah students are cute if scared puppies in “101 Dalmations.”

She also hunted down community theater groups and acted with them whenever she could, although she was held back at times by the difficulty of finding companies whose schedules accommodated Shabbat. She also had to accommodate her children; Ms. Lopkin has three, 17-year-old Molly and 13-year-old twins Jack and Judah.

When the twins were born, Ms. Lopkin decided that although she loved classroom teaching, “I was done with it,” she said. “I decided that I would dedicate myself to theater education.”

The world in general is full of groups and organizations that those of us who know nothing about the field know nothing about. Many of those groups and organizations have their headquarters in New York; many of them are performing arts groups. Her first gig was with the New York Theater Workshop. “They hire teaching artists,” she explained; you have to audition first. The jobs are not full-time or long-term; instead, “You work on different residencies in New York public schools, for 10 or 12 weeks.” It’s a model she’s adapted for Envision Theater.

In that first job, Ms. Lopkin “went to an elementary school, where I worked with children to adapt a story into a play. There was a process, using improvisation to write a script, and then they would perform it. It was great — a great way to ease back into working.” The job offered flexible hours, took her all over Manhattan and the Bronx — she’d say no to jobs in the city boroughs less easily accessible from Teaneck — and gave her the chance to work with children and theater.

Soon, Ms. Lopkin realized that as wonderful as working in the city can be, given that she had small children, a lot of ambition, and a challenging schedule as an artist and an observant Jew, she would do well working closer to home, and if possible in her own business. So she built the business — Envision Theater — using the teaching artist model she’d seen in the city, and reaching out to schools. She could run drama clubs and afterschool programs, she told administrators; she began with the schools her children went to, and then to others where she’d had connections. More and more referrals helped her business grow. Now, most of her work is in Bergen County, although she still works with the Lincoln Center Theater, which hires teachers to offer four-week sessions to students who go to one Lincoln Center production a semester. That Lincoln Center group takes New York City high school students to some of its productions. This fall they went to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the fall trip is to see “My Fair Lady.” So they see American and British plays, musicals and straight plays, plays about racism and class structures and also musicals with brilliant wordplay and period-piece costumes and assumptions. The students prepare for the productions by discussing the plays’ themes, the background, the characters, and the stagecraft. She couldn’t give that one job up no matter what, Ms. Lopkin said. “It is just a fabulous program, and I love the mission. I love being able to work with the public school students and their teachers.”

BPY students rehearse “Lion King Jr.”

In 2013, with her business growing, Ms. Lopkin decided that it was time to incorporate. She formed Envision Theater. The name sounds ethereal, if perhaps also a bit disconnected. What’s that about? One of the many things that Ms. Lopkin learned is how hard it is to name something. “We were sitting around with some of my siblings and siblings-in-law, and everyone was throwing out ideas, and I kept saying no, because they were so silly. And then the name came to me. I envisioned it!” At first that name also seemed silly, but it quickly grew on them because it encapsulated her vision; soon it no longer seemed funny, or grandiose. She added the second part of the name — Imagine. Create. Perform. It was just right.

Since then, Ms. Lopkin has been adding partner schools in Bergen County, Long Island, and New York. She fits the programs she offers to the nature, structure, and belief system of each of them.

Locally, she runs drama clubs, directs productions, and works collaboratively with classroom teachers. She has set up a program called Envision Shakespeare at Ben Porat Yosef, the Yavneh Academy and Yeshivat Noam, all in Paramus; the Moriah School in Englewood; the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey (better  known as RYNJ) in River Edge; Yeshivat He’Atid  and the Torah Academy of Bergen County (aka TABC) in Teaneck, and the Idea School in Tenafly. She also works with the Kushner Academy in Livingston. She works with eight to 10 contractors; they’re teaching artists, the job title she once held.

TABC presents “Treasure Island.”

“My goal is to find out what a school needs, to work with the school to create programming to cater to those needs,” she said. We have been hired to do everything from a fifth grade drama program on a weekly basis to special programming.” At TABC, “in the Bare Witness program, I collaborated with the Holocaust studies teacher, and we worked collaboratively with the students to listen to survivor testimony and adapt those stories to the stage,” she said. At Yeshiva Har Torah in Queens, “my teaching artist did a bullying prevention program called ‘Stand Up Speak Up’ using theater.”

She is driven by the desire “to bring performing arts to as many Jewish day schools as I can,” Ms. Lopkin said. As a day school alumna and the mother of day school students, she is profoundly committed to day school education, which she believes provides essential education to Jewish children. But, she said, “there is just not enough opportunity for the performing arts in Jewish day schools. They do education wonderfully. They do sports wonderfully. But arts — not so much. So I see it as my personal mission to bring the performing arts to as many Jewish day schools as I can.”

Envision Shakespeare is a direct response to Ms. Lopkin’s desire to provide that missing part.

“About five or six years ago, I was in my basement painting scenery — because in this business you have to do a little bit of everything — and I went on Netflix for something to watch while I painted. I found a documentary about Shakespeare education for public school students in L.A., and I was like, ‘This has to happen here!’ Because nothing like this exists here.

“So I reached out to my friend Nancy Adelman” — a master English teacher who’s now at the Idea School — and I said, ‘I just watched this documentary, and I want to do this. Do you want to do it with me?’” Of course, the answer was yes.

Envision Shakespeare is a competition for Jewish high schools in New York and New Jersey, Ms. Lopkin said. Schools sign up for it in September. Each school is assigned the same scene; working with a student director and faculty adviser, they study, cast, research, and produce it. And then, in March, “one of the schools hosts Envision Shakespeare Day. I bring in professional actors and directors, who teach and give workshops during the day.” This year, Frisch hosted; the other schools that participated this year were TABC, Ma’ayanot, and the Idea School, as well as SAR in Riverdale, Bruriah in Elizabeth, the Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, and Brooklyn’s Yeshiva of Flatbush.

As the list makes clear, this is a wide range of schools from across the Jewish spectrum.

Envision teaches a theater class at Ben Porat Yosef.

During Envision Shakespeare Day, which includes a competition, each of the groups gets to present its version of the same scene; performances alternate with workshops taught by the professional actors and directors Ms. Lopkin brings in. There always is a keynote speaker. “We always bring in an Orthodox Jew who is working in the arts,” Ms. Lopkin said. “Part of the purpose is to show them that you can continue to be Orthodox and have a career in the arts.”

This year, there were about 85 students at Envision Shakespeare Day. The keynote speaker was Paula Eiselt of Teaneck, the documentary filmmaker whose most recent work was “93Queen,” about the all-women chasidic ambulance service in Brooklyn. Last year it was Leah Gottfried, the filmmaker whose most well-known work is the web series “Soon By You.” The year before that it was Peter Avery, the theater director for the whole New York City public school system.

The students meet the speakers and the judges, awards are given out and so are prizes for trivia competitions, and “everyone gets a competitor T-shirt and we say, ‘See you next year,’” Ms. Lopkin said.

Another of the goals is to foster the idea of competition and fellowship as perhaps in tension but not in opposition to each other, she added.

One of her challenges is finding the right script for the right school, she said. “I am always reading scripts. I have piles and piles of scripts.” They have to be right for the students’ ages and developmental stages, and they have to be appropriate for each school’s own culture and religious sensibilities, which of course adds another wrinkle. Take “The Sound of Music” — upbeat, set in history, with great music and many parts for kids. She can’t use it. It begins in a convent, and its main character is a would-be nun.

The language has to be acceptable, or it has to be tone-down-able.

Some schools just don’t want Broadway plays or musicals; they think that the values in those shows are not compatible with their own. Others don’t share that blanket rejection, but there is much that they cannot accept.

Also, the rights have to be available; that’s not always the case.

Some schools use the principle of “kol isha” — the prohibition on men hearing a woman’s voice. That principle is turned into policy in different ways. At Ben Porat Yosef, Ms. Lopkin said, once girls have turned 12, the age of bat mitzvah, they cannot sing solo in the presence of men. The students performed in “The Lion King,” and “we had a workaround,” she said. “Each of the female soloists was paired with a shadow speaker. “We used stagecraft to make it work.

“And the head of school was very gracious,” she added. “He came to our rehearsal, and he explained what the halacha says and how he interprets it, and how we can make it work. It was a learning opportunity.”

TABC presented “Treasure Island” in the fall; here, students build a set for the production.

That head of school, Rabbi Saul Zucker, agrees that Ms. Lopkin came up with a sensitive way to handle the situation. “Every school is going to have its own guidelines and sensitivities; at BPY we are comfortable with having groups of girls sing but not with having solos, and Rebecca usually does musicals, so she goes out of her way to rewrite some parts and stage blocking to ensure that what they do conforms to the school’s standards.”

Art is essential, Ms. Lopkin said. “There are a million reasons why, from the confidence you gain to the collaboration you learn to the responsibility you assume to the creativity you can discover.

“It’s about the students’ growing ability to build empathy and compassion. It exposes you to people who are not like you, so you have to understand what they are going through, so that if you meet someone like them one day you will understand them.

“That’s true for everyone, but even more true for day school programs,” she added.

She works with many children on the autism spectrum, she said; theater gives those children an ease that often doesn’t come naturally to them.

“I have known one particular student who I worked with in elementary school and through middle school and now in high school,” she said. “I have known her for six or seven years, and the growth that she’s had within herself is incredible. I’ve had long conversations with her mother about that.

“For example, at the beginning, we were doing a scene in her elementary school where you have to look the other person in the eyes, and it was so hard for her, but she learned to do it. Now, in the high school program that I direct, she’s like a welcome wagon. When a new student comes in, she’s the first to walk over, shake her hand, and say hi.

“She’s still on the spectrum. That doesn’t change. But her ability to interact with others has changed.

Cruella de Vil and her henchmen Horace and Jasper sing “My Beautiful Coat” at a dress rehearsal for “101 Dalmatians” at Moriah.

“There was another, similar student who I’ve known throughout elementary school. At his bar mitzvah — he did the whole thing, the speech too — and his parents said to me, ‘We want to thank you so much for the program. Because when we asked him if he was nervous about the bar mitzvah, he said no, not at all. I am so comfortable because I have done so much theater that I am so prepared!’ His parents told me that they could not have imagined that.”

Theater allows all kids, off or on the spectrum, to discuss their feelings, and therefore to be more aware of them. “In high school, about 20 minutes before the audience comes in, we do a gratitude circle,” Ms. Lopkin said. “The lights are off, and we go around the circle, and I say, ‘If you want to share what you are grateful for in this program you may, and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.

“Kids are not always so quick to share, especially boys in boys’ schools, but this allows it. It allows for sharing and risk taking.

“We establish the concept that everyone is here to support each other. This is an environment where you are allowed to take risks without any negative consequences. We are here to take risks and to support each other.

“For a lot of kids, this is their safety zone. It’s the place where you build friendships with people in other grades. It is an equalizer.

“In the theater, everyone is important, whether you are a supporting character or a lead, on stage or backstage. Theater is collaborative.

“One of the things I love most about theater, particularly in high school, is that there is always a spot for everyone,” Ms. Lopkin concluded. “It’s not like in sports, where if you’re not an athlete you can’t be on the team. I don’t work that way. Everyone can be in my program. I don’t cut people. There’s always a place for you.”

Ben Porat Yosef’s Rabbi Zucker thinks that Ms. Lopkin is doing an admirable job.

“Rebecca is fantastic,” he said. She works with elementary and middle school students, and her big productions “are amazing for school spirit. She gives the students a chance to really shine, and to develop their creative talents.

“Rebecca invests in every student. She not only works with them to teach them to act wonderfully and to sing wonderfully, but she specifically invests in developing and building and strengthening their sense of self-confidence and pride.

“It is an amazing thing to watch students blossom under her tutelage; students who are on the shy side, who are on the quiet side, who get up on stage. For them, it is transformative.

“She is beloved by the kids,” he added. “And I have great admiration for her.”

Rabbi Asher Yablok is TABC’s head of school; TABC is an all-boys high school. “Over the course of the last few years we have expanded our theater opportunities for our students,” he said. “We now have two productions a year, one in the fall, one in the spring, and we also offer an eleventh-grade elective in theater direction; that one has a film component to it.

“It has evolved into a passion of mine — instituting an evening of the arts, where we celebrate all the arts in the school by showcasing not only drama but also short films, music composition, and visual arts.

“Rebecca Lopkin has been a catalyst for that expansion of the arts here.”

Rabbi Yablok appreciates the way that the theater program has allowed him to see facets of his students that otherwise would not be visible. “I see dimensions of students who I usually interact with in the halls and in class; students for whom theater does not come naturally as well as students for whom theater is their usual outlet. When we did ‘Bare Witness,’ students who weren’t the ones who normally would sign up for a play were inspired and moved by it.”

This year’s productions also include “Treasure Island,” which was in the fall, and the upcoming “A Few Good Men” ( which incidentally had a script that demanded some of Ms. Lopkin’s profanity-to-clean-speech translation skills, she reported).

“It gives me such pleasure to sit in the audience and witness the students’ self confidence, sense of humor, their timing, and their ability to connect through drama while sharing a message with their audience,” Rabbi Yablok said.

And it provides important life skills, he added. “I think about our TABC graduates, students who will graduate after four years who are the future leaders of our community. This experience” — the theater work with Rebecca Lopkin — “will spill over to the ability to speak in front of a crowd, to have a sense of drama and know how to create a moment. Whether or not they pursue a career in drama, it allows our students to become dynamic graduates.”

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