May 22, 2024
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Black Box Performing Arts Center Opens for Spring Classes

Englewood resident Matt Okin constantly seeks to raise the bar on theater, performing arts and arts education. Over the past 15-plus years as artistic director of Black Box Performing Arts Center (BBPAC), a working professional theater; and Black Box Studios (BBS), the performing arts education arm of The Black Box PAC, Okin’s dedication has helped BBPAC and BBS become Northern New Jersey’s premier theater/performing arts school combination. At BBS, professional performers mentor and teach students of all ages, backgrounds and levels, beginners through emerging professionals. Here, students can interact on a daily basis with working actors, musicians, writers, directors and more.

BBS was started by Okin and some longtime collaborators in 2007, based on methods developed while working off-Broadway in New York for many years, on many shows, some for Jewish audiences. Okin said: “After teaching a class for young kids at the Tenafly JCC, I noticed a void for performing arts education that could mesh with the schedule of shomer Shabbat families and singles, and we first opened to fill this void with our offerings. This all expanded well beyond our community, of course, but there remains a very core Orthodox community presence in all facets of Black Box.”

Michael Gardiner is co-managing director of BBPAC and a master teaching artist at BBS. He also teaches the Yeshivat Noam Drama Exploratory offering, which is currently provided to every sixth- and seventh-grade student in the middle school. “They are an incredible group. We focus a lot on improvisation. Some improv sketches are so funny, we may have some of the next SNL performers on our hands,” he said.

Over the past few years Gardiner also taught improvisation to young adults with special needs through a long-running YACHAD NJ program, currently on hiatus. A number of adults who consider themselves “on the spectrum” are also integrated into his BBS classes, especially the Adult Acting Workshop. This happens without much fanfare but contributes greatly to the spiritual energy of the program’s efforts. A number of senior citizens participate as well.

“The Adult Acting Workshop has many returning students who have made incredible strides in their acting process throughout COVID,” Gardiner noted. “But I am also excited because we have some new students joining. That always adds a new and needed energy as we continue to work on acting technique through fun, challenging and interesting scenes, monologues and plays by stellar writers.”

The pandemic hit BBPAC/BBS and many entertainment entities extremely hard. Now, seeking to rebound, classes and private lessons, run out of the BBPAC, are open for spring registration. Located at 49 East Palisade Avenue, Englewood, offerings include collaborative theater workshops and group classes in acting, musical theater, voice and improvisation. Private lessons are also available. Workshops include kids’ musical theater, middle school drama, improvisation comedy, adult acting, acting and musical theater for teens and writing for adults.

BBS also runs drama clubs in private schools and day schools in Bergen County and the Greater New York area and offers private coaching in acting, singing and musical theater. There are also popular summer intensive theater programs for children and teens. Most programs are performance-based, with the resulting productions playing on BBPAC’s two stages.

Currently, BBS in-school and after-school programs run in three area Jewish schools: Yeshivat Noam for over eight years; Ma’ayanot for the 10th year; and Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, where BBS improvisation classes first started and have recently returned.

Okin noted: “Before we had our actual professional theater space, we had run drama and musical theater programs in numerous other schools, both Jewish and secular, private and public. We hope to rebuild that side of the business post-pandemic as well. Most importantly, however, we are hoping to get our students back, along with new students into our ongoing classes within BBPAC.”

In April, the Ma’ayanot Drama Society will present Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” rarely seen performed in a high school, on its new performing arts center stage, its 10th production.

Black Box’s professional teaching artists cover all disciplines, including acting, singing, dancing, music performance and composition, directing, producing, writing, managing and lighting. The teaching staff come from Broadway, off-Broadway, film, concerts, television and news media. For example, Danielle Ferland, Broadway’s original “Little Red” in Sondheim’s “Into The Woods,” will offer a master class in musical theater in early March.

“Since 2007, BBS has provided a proprietary and still-unique form of collaborative theater, drama, musical theater, improvisation, writing and more, that allows for maximum creative expression, a building of confidence, true teamwork and a building of skills necessary for success in the arts, personally or professionally,” said Okin. In recent years, two of BBS’ first students, Ilana Schimmel and Leora Hyman Lerner, from Teaneck and now from Highland Park, have become Black Box Studios teaching artists.

Schimmel is also a teaching artist for BBS at Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “We use the method of improvisation to build the Jewish connection amongst students and educate important Jewish values and experiences. This Purim, Black Box Studios is thrilled to be performing an interactive improv show for the whole school,” Schimmel said.

Commenting on classes she teaches at BBS, Schimmel noted: “Both the kids and teens musical theater classes encourage students to connect and trust one another as they collectively explore what it means to be an ensemble, all while developing their singing, dancing, acting and improv skills. I am determined to keep the youth arts alive by maintaining a safe environment, ensuring all students can comfortably explore their passions.”

BBPAC is a nonprofit organization founded in 2015. BBS has been operating in Bergen County since 2007. The theater side of the business, BBPAC, has received unprecedented interest and artistic support from a small group of acclaimed Broadway playwrights and musical theater professionals who are right now helping the nonprofit to survive and climb back up after the impact of the pandemic. But getting students back in the classes is a true key to the immediate stability and longevity of this unique artistic community.

For more information and to register for classes this spring, www.BlackBoxPAC.com, [email protected],
(201) 569-2070.

Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. Susan has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.

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