Local students get into the act
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Local students get into the act

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In another scene from”Les Miserables” were, from left, Nediva Susman, Ari Krischer, Yakira Markovitch, Aleeza Katz, Zehava Seidman, and Talya Kornbluth. Photos by Tim Decker

Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, is a firm believer in “multiple intelligences.”

“Some children are outstanding in math and sports,” he said, “while others have a real talent in the arts.”

With that in mind, two years ago Prager sought out Matt Okin, director of the Englewood-based Black Box Studios, which provides collaborative theater workshops in local schools.

Some 30 students now participate in Moriah’s middle-school theater program, which is run as an afterschool club.

“They love it,” said Prager. “The proof of their receptiveness is that kids who participated in the first half [of the year] in both years have all come back for the second half.”

Okin – who has led groups at Moriah, Yavneh, and Yeshivat Noam – noted that the general plan is for schools to put on two shows each year, one musical production and one drama. At Yavneh, however, which mounts a Holocaust play each spring, he chose instead to present five short plays by Sam Shepard during the fall semester.

Yavneh eighth-grader Leora Hyman of Teaneck played a variety of roles in those productions.

“I really enjoyed the group,” said the 13-year-old, who was featured both as a cowboy and an alien.

“I always loved to act,” she added, noting that she has participated in the Rock Musical Theater Camp Okin runs at the Jewish Center of Teaneck each summer.

In addition to learning more about acting, Leora said, she learned about “different ways to speak. I had to have a strange accent” while playing the alien, she said, “but it wasn’t really hard.”

Leora, who said she will attend the JCT camp again this summer, added that the school acting club is “really cool.” Rather than having to “work all the time, we take a break and do something fun.”

“It improves lives, providing an important opportunity for students to express their talents and interests in areas not covered by the curriculum,” said Prager.

He pointed out that while the arts are included “to some extent” in the curriculum through, for example, visits to museums or lectures, “when it comes to the theater arts, we haven’t had an opportunity to incorporate that.”

Prager spoke warmly of Okin’s rapport with the students.

“Matt is not only a gifted theater person, but he has a wonderful way with kids – bringing the maximum amount of talent out of kids in a warm, supportive way.”

Moriah eight-grader Malka Schnaidman clearly loves the experience. The 14-year-old Teaneck resident, who has played roles ranging from Noah’s daughter-in-law to Javert in “Les Miserables,” said she loves to sing and act.

“A lot of kids like to act,” she said, “and a lot of schools have plays.”

Malka pointed out that even shy students become confident on stage.

“My friend was self-conscious, but not on stage,” she said. “It was amazing.”

Malka said she has made many new friends, of all ages, through the theater club.

“All that matters is that you love to act,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are or what grade you’re in.”

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Rebecca Epstein, Nediva Susman, Malka Schnaidman, and Sara Fogel in Moriah Drama Club’s production of “Oliver!” last spring. Photo by Ira Machefsk

Barbara Rubin, assistant principal of the middle school at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, said Okin and his colleague Mandy Decker met with students two hours a week during the school’s fall semester, teaching “the methodology and technique of acting,” from speech development to characterization.

The afterschool club, embracing students from 11 to 14, “enabled students to reach within themselves and allow the acting piece to come out,” said Rubin. “It made a wonderful difference in their lives.”

Not only did the students “present the plays beautifully,” said Rubin, “but they were very comfortable.”

She noted that Black Box Studios takes the details of the production upon itself, ensuring that the sound systems are in place, designing publicity posters, and providing scenery.

Suggesting that “children do perform naturally and this gives [a production] a true air of credibility,” Rubin said that while Black Box will not launch a production at Yavneh in the spring, she hopes that the school will create some variation of the program for the spring semester, focusing perhaps on speech development and methodology.

According to Okin, the afterschool program is still very new. This year, he began work in a number of new schools – all of which mount different productions.

“I try to keep it exciting for all of them,” he said. “Every year we do different shows across the board since there’s a crossover of kids” from school programs, drama clubs, and workshops such as those offered at the Jewish Center in Teaneck.

“There’s been a huge jump in numbers there,” he said, noting that the shul offers seven classes for both children and adults, drawing participants from both day schools and public schools.

He pointed out that while Moriah and Yavneh run the program as an afterschool club for middle-schoolers, Yeshivat Noam makes it available to younger children, in grades one to five.

For its fall performance, Moriah students performed “Les Miserables,” he said – “the authorized version for school kids.” This semester, they are tackling “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Addressing the issue of religious sensibilities in a cast including both boys and girls, Okin said, “we go with the flow.”

While productions in secular and day schools are “not much different, we make it accessible for whatever level of religion you follow. Whatever the religious sensibility, we work around that.”

Since the Yeshivat Noam program is for younger children, “we try to find short pieces that are not often done,” said Okin, noting that they have used small plays based on “semi-famous folk [and other] tales.” For example, they are working on a play that tells the Peter Pan story from Captain Hook’s point of view, as well as “a hip version of ‘The Princess and the Pea.'”

“Schools have noticed our work and have come to us,” he said. “We started in Moriah two years ago and then the word spread. Day-school dual-curriculum students need creative outlets. They’re hungry way for this. They need something to [help them] let loose and build confidence and self-esteem.”

Okin said that while day schools have traditionally placed an emphasis on sports, “some students don’t shine in sports.” While he is “not trying to find the next star,” he said, he is “absolutely finding talent. You can see it right away.”

“Some students don’t even know they have it,” he said. His theater groups “put them in a comfortable environment, so they’re free to take risks.”

Okin said he relies on team teaching to mount the school productions in the limited time available. For example, in producing “Les Miserables” at Moriah, he was joined by a musical director, production manager, and a professional working in the performing arts.

Using more staff makes Black Box “able to do a lot more in a shorter period of time without overtaxing the kids,” he said.

An Englewood resident for 13 years, the director said that Black Box Studios is built around a core of four people who have worked together in producing Off-Broadway shows in New York City. Okin, who began his career as a writer and theater director, “fell into teaching” five or six years ago when he was approached by Deborah Roberts of the JCC on the Palisades to start a program there. Later, he was invited in by the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. He now leads theater workshops full time, though he works on larger theatrical projects on the side.

His workshops are “all about self-esteem, group dynamics, and collaboration,” said Okin, noting that while the groups are taught from an acting-based point of view, they touch on as many areas as possible, “literary, design, lighting, set design, costume, and analyzing scripts.”

He recounted the story of a sixth-grade girl on the technical crew at Moriah – who was not familiar with the Broadway production of “Les Miserables,” which used a revolving stage – who “came up with the idea” of using such a stage for the school production.

“We went ahead and did it,” he said. “Let the kids have their dreams come true.”

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