April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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Prose and Poetry at The Writing Center, Playwriting at the Black Box

It’s said that every thinking person has a story inside yearning to come out and be told. Two very different teachers of the art of writing believe this is so, and that is why, barely a mile apart, Barry Sheinkopf of the Englewood Cliffs-based Writing Center and Matt Okin of Englewood’s Black Box Performing Arts Center offer writing classes designed for adults.

Sheinkopf, a long-time professor of writing with the City University system and an editor for various New York publishing houses, is a published author with a slew of detective thrillers, historic fiction epics and books of poetry to his credit. His unabashed passion for good writing expresses itself in his conviction that “people learn best in environments from which the conventional obstacles to creative learning have been assiduously removed.”

Okin, a professional playwright and director whose list of credits is too long for simple listing, founded Black Box Studios in 2007 and opened the Black Box Performing Arts Center, a 501c3 not-for-profit tax-exempt organization, in November 2015.

His playwriting classes are just some of the many different kinds of programs offered by Black Box, ranging from standup comedy to acting and improvisation. While some Black Box classes are for children, teens, and adults, the playwriting classes are for adults only.

Okin and Sheinkopf are both familiar with the needs of the observant Jewish community, which is why their classes and make-up schedules are compatible with the Jewish calendar.


Material Read Out Loud

While both are enthusiastic teachers open to the efforts of seasoned writers as well as novices looking for direction, their styles and the environment in which their classes are held are very different.

Sheinkopf offers relaxed seminars held around a conference table in his wood-paneled office. Since 1977, students have been bringing their material to be edited by Sheinkopf’s sharp eye, indefatigable passion for finding the right word and phrase, and experienced sense of when a piece needs more detail or fewer words.

The choice of material is up to the student. Some bring works of fiction; others want to write non-fiction reportage or how-to manuals; and many are interested in setting down memoires that can be of interest to their own families, and, often to their great surprise, the public at large. Some write poetry. If students need prompts from Sheinkopf, he is ready for them.

Believing it is good for students to hear their material read well, Sheinkopf, a trained performer who has often given readings, reads his students’ work aloud.

“I’ve found that the Writing Center’s unique combination of line-by-line editing and small class size allows for a tailor-made course of study for each student, which eliminates the need for specialized genre courses,” he says.



The Black Box PAC, a streetfront three story complex, usually offers its playwriting classes within full view of the first floor windows. Okin prompts his students to write and is then eager for others in the class to read the resulting material aloud.

Some students are writing or want to write plays; others have ideas for screenplays or treatments. Many would-be playwrights come hoping for ideas, which they get not only from Okin but from the other students in the group.

Because the Black Box features several theatrical troupes, there is always the possibility that the PAC can offer a staged reading or even a performance of the finished products.

“The entire Black Box community of writers and performers share our space with the Black Box Repertory Company, a cutting-edge group of theater professionals. As one of the premiere performing arts schools in the New York tri state area, we offer a unique form of theater training, including playwriting, which allows for maximum success in confidence building, group dynamics, creative output and flow, and true freedom of expression,” says Okin.


Inspiration and Guidance

Some students come to the Writing Center or the Black Box playwriting program with ideas that need to be shaped and clarified; others come knowing only that that they want to write and are hoping to find inspiration and guidance.

Both programs offer that in abundance.

Okin likes to start his classes with exercises that in his experience have taught him help students’ creative juices flow.

“Sometimes the exercises find their way into a student’s work. Sometimes they just help clarify what the student wants to do. Sometimes they show students what they don’t want to do, and that’s good, too,” said Okin.

Many of Sheinkopf’s students go on to publish their material in venues ranging from popular magazines and newspapers to highly competitive book publishing houses. Some publish with Sheinkopf’s own boutique house, Full Court Press, which offers both written and digital versions of the book available on many outlets, including Amazon.


Hours for Adults

The Writing Center’s seminars are held on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings. For more information on the Writing Center, located at 601 Palisade Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, Sheinkopf can be reached at 201-567-4017 or by email at [email protected].

Okin and the Black Box PAC is located at 49 East Palisade Avenue in Englewood. He can be reached at 201-569-2070 or [email protected]. Playwriting classes are held on Thursday mornings.

In a series of letters between the late Jewish writers Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, the latter once wrote: “Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood, there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade. Perhaps I felt that I was a pretender or an outlaw successor. After all, it wasn’t Fielding, it wasn’t Herman Melville who forbade me to write, it was our own WASP establishment, represented mainly by Harvard-trained professors. I must say that these guys infuriated me more than they intimidated me.”

On the other hand, young Anne Frank wrote that she could “shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

For those itching to see what they can do as writers, Sheinkopf and the Writing Center and Okin and the Black Box PAC are available right here in Bergen County.

By Susan L. Rosenbluth, www.TheJewishVoiceAndOpinion.com 


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