Teaching theater during covid
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Teaching theater during covid

Envision Theater, for yeshiva day schools, keeps going even now

This summer, socially distanced, masked students performed scenes from “Twelfth Night” for a similarly distanced and masked audience in Ms. Lopkin’s backyard. (All photos courtesy Envision Theater)
This summer, socially distanced, masked students performed scenes from “Twelfth Night” for a similarly distanced and masked audience in Ms. Lopkin’s backyard. (All photos courtesy Envision Theater)

In the Before Times, when we were free to leave our houses and sit next to people not in our pod — when we had no idea what the concept of pod possibly could mean — Rebecca Lopkin of Teaneck ran a theater program for Jewish day schools in the metropolitan area.

The theater is magic. She knew that then, and she knows it now. Theater can open the hearts and minds and imaginations and souls, for both its makers and its audience. All you have to do is let it in.

That is, as long as there is theater. As long as someone is behind the scenes, making it work. That someone is Rebecca Lopkin; her company, Envision Theater, is her vehicle, the apparatus that makes it work.

In other years, she’d teach theater in schools — she works with about 15 of them in Bergen and Essex counties, as well as in New York. She also would offer Envision Shakespeare, a Shakespeare interpretation and performance competition that allows students from many schools to perform the same scene and get feedback from theater professionals as well as from each other.

That was then.

But now being what it is, the desire for theater’s magic is at least as strong as it was before — maybe, with our need to escape from our homes and Zoom boxes, it might be even stronger — but the practical means to create theater often is lacking.

But Ms. Lopkin is used to creating art out of the tools at hand.

Rebecca Lopkin

Over the summer, Envision put on a one-hour play in Ms. Lopkin’s backyard. The players — all masked and socially distant from each other and from the audience — did three performances. Audience members had to make reservations; they were seated in socially distanced family groups. The performers almost all had just graduated high school and had missed out on their school play. This was an attempt to make up at least part of that loss. Not only did it succeed, it got Ms. Lopkin and her business partner, Nancy Edelman, to think about what they could do next. (Ms. Edelman, who also lives in Teaneck, is the head of the humanities department at the Idea School in Tenafly.)

Over the summer, Ms. Lopkin and Ms. Edelman had no idea what schools would want this fall, so they sent out an email saying that they didn’t know what they’d do, Ms. Lopkin said. “The response was strong,” she said. “They said please run the program. Our students love it. We love it. Please figure out a way.

“So we brainstormed.”

One result of that brainstorming is classes for students to perform in online plays. Some schools find the idea of any kind of afterschool club too daunting right now, but others are hungry for them. Ben Porat Yosef in Teaneck has chosen to offer a class that will culminate in a virtual show.

“We’re doing it in the same way that we normally would, but you get to rehearse from the comfort of your own home,” Ms. Lopkin said.

And there are many plays to choose from. Many have been written specifically to be performed during the pandemic. “We’re doing ‘Super Happy Awesome News,’” Ms. Lopkin said. “It’s for grades 3 through 8, and it’s really cute.” Based loosely on actor John Krasinski’s YouTube series “Some Good News,” the musical is about a girl who “starts a show from her bedroom, and her younger sister wants to be involved. They have a cute conflict, and then they cut to the news reporter and the weather reporter.

Girls from the Bruriah School in Elizabeth perform a scene at school.

“It is fun and uplifting, but also some of the characters express how difficult this time is for them. It is relevant. You get to explore the different factors of what it’s like in this new world. And it ends in a positive, uplifting way.”

Envision also is offering a Sunday morning class, “because so many of our school partners are not offering their own programs,” and Ms. Lopkin and Ms. Edelman knew that the classes would make kids happy. The class will put on another musical, called “The Show Must Go Online.” “It’s about a drama teacher reaching out to her drama club,” Ms. Lopkin said; in its updated way, it’s got the feel of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show mode.

Envision also offers a play in another Sunday course. “It’s called ‘Mirror Mirror on the Wall,’” Ms. Lopkin said. “It’s a fractured fairy tale where the wicked queen from Snow White looks into the mirror, but she gives the mirror an extra dose of power.” That power allows kids to look into their mirrors and see not only themselves but each other, and those little views of each other look a lot like they’re all on Zoom.

Envision Theater also is planning an outdoor festival in May. The plans are tentative, and of course depend on the course of the pandemic, as well as CDC, local, and rabbinic guidelines. Should the situation not worsen, however, should it be possible, the festival — with requirements for masking, social distancing, and every other precaution in place — will go ahead.

The theater needed a big space with a tent, and Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, offered them exactly that. “That was really exciting,” Ms. Lopkin said. Normally the program attracts between eight and 10 schools. This year, she will run it with four, and she’s had expressions of interest from more than four schools so far, so she’s confident that it can work. The schools that usually join include Kushner and the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, the Frisch School in Paramus, TABC and Ma’ayanot in Teaneck, Bruriah Girls’ High School in Elizabeth, and the Idea School in Tenafly.

Every year, Ms. Lopkin and Ms. Edelman pick one scene from a Shakespeare play. They always look for a scene that can allow up to six actors plus two extras; this year, they also have to find a scene that “will naturally allow for a socially distanced but in-person rehearsal.”

The guidelines demand “no props, no costumes, just four folding chairs. The idea is to let the dialogue and characterizations come through, and not be bogged down with fancy sets or costumes.

Students from the Ideal School in Tenafly rehearse for Envision Shakespeare at their school, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“The idea is to level the playing field, and you can do that when the budget is zero. What you get is the most innovative and creative scenes. The kids end up using their own bodies to create the scenery. Their physicality is always amazing.

“It’s also always amazing to see eight different versions of the same scene. The kids love seeing what other groups did; how they each looked at it entirely differently.”

The rules allow for six actors to be onstage at once, plus another two who function as background. “We try to be a little flexible,” Ms. Lopkin said, because some schools have many students who are interested in being part of the program, while other schools have far fewer.

“On top of that, we hire professional actors and directors and producers who are experienced with Shakespeare to judge the scene,” she continued. “It’s not just about competing. It’s also about bringing these Jewish kids together in a social environment, where they are meeting other kids from other schools in New Jersey and New York.”

It’s a way of addressing one of the holes in a day school education, she said. “Typically, in a public high school you might have 50 kids in a theater program. In yeshivas, you might have 10. This broadens the circle.

“A big part of my mission, bringing theater to the Jewish community, is to give all of these children not only the exposure to this incredibly rich literature, and to enrich their lives, but also because there is so much that you gain from getting into theater. You get to understand other kinds of people and their experiences, to empathize with people of different backgrounds.

“Our kids are limited in their exposure to the greater world. This is a way for them to try on other people’s shoes. To live in their world. And it gives children so much confidence in themselves, and in their opportunity to problem solve.

Golda Och Academy students rehearse their Envision Shakespeare scene in West Orange.

“There are so many opportunities in the performing arts.”

And some of them are available even now, even in this time of covid. When arguably we need them most.

Envision Theater is at envisiontheater.com.

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