April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Theater Takes Center Stage in the Day School Curriculum

What do a pizza maker, a scuba diver, and a bully at an ice skating rink have in common? They are all roles acted out by day school students taking theater classes as part of their curriculum.

It’s the middle of the afternoon at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, and the elective improvisational theater class for juniors is about to begin. The girls gather around Instructor Matt Okin, Artistic Director and Founder of Black Box Studios, a company that offers in-school and after-school acting classes, drama clubs, and summer theater day camp programs in Englewood and Teaneck. The students eagerly tell me how much they love doing improv. “It’s time to let go, be creative, show originality; and you can use improv every day in your life,” says Dina Fley Shmakher of Fair Lawn. Daniella Jacobs, Bergenfield, agrees. “It’s relaxing, a stress detox. It’s fun to act. And we have the best teacher.”

Okin tells several of the girls to hop onto the stage in the auditorium, and then preps them for their assignment. They are doing a completely improvised mock TV talk show with the host moderating a discussion between a pizza maker and a rabbi. There are lots of laughs as the girls try out accents and jokes. Okin guides them into making points that show a connection between the disparate topics. And that’s where the exercise veers from unbridled fun to serious learning. The participants have to listen closely to each other, analyze what is being said, and form a meaningful response that is both cogent and witty with split-second timing. These are important skills that the students can use wherever life takes them—negotiating with clients in the business world, in front of their own classrooms as teachers, or perhaps as attorneys trying to convince a jury. That’s why day schools, from elementary through high school, have begun adding theater skills classes to the curriculum in addition to extra-curricular full-scale productions.

“Improv helps students learn how to sharpen their minds and think quickly; it gives students the self-confidence and ability to go on whatever happens,” said Okin, who has a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a background in directing and writing for theater. “It also teaches public speaking and how to work within a group. And for those who become interested in theater, the skills of improv are the building blocks to go into acting.”

Mrs. Rivka Kahan, Principal of Ma’ayanot, said students requested the Improvisation class, and she was happy to support their interest. “This is the first year we’ve done it and it’s been a great experience; we’re continuing it next year. It’s another form of self-expression and teaches life skills.” The class has also worked with Okin’s Improv students from Yachad, who visited and joined the improvisation class on four occasions. “Matt made the connection, but many of our girls volunteer with Yachad so it was natural; they enjoyed it very much,” said Kahan.

Okin also directs the after-school drama production at Ma’ayanot. This year, the group performed Street Scenes, a 1930s, cutting-edge, post- modern drama about immigrants living on the Lower East Side. Okin said he chose the play because it has many diverse parts.

“At Ma’ayanot, anyone who comes gets a role, based on skills, commitment, and seniority,” Okin said. “The student director, who this year was Naima Hirsch, helps train younger students.”

Many of the students also take his after-school classes and summer theater camp, which produces a drama and a musical. “Matt works with many Ma’ayanot students in summer and after school and the skills carry through in different venues,” said Assistant Principal Elana Flaumenhaft.

Okin worked for 10 years in Jewish entertainment as a producer, writer, and director. He began teaching at the Jewish Community Center on the Palisades and “fell in love with it.” He started Black Box in 2007 “to build something that didn’t exist” and now has programs in numerous New Jersey and New York yeshiva day schools as well as many after-school and evening classes for ages 5 to adult.

“Students need creative expression and artistic freedom to explore,” Okin said. “Drama is also another way for students to be successful. There are kids that can’t sit still in a classroom but shine on stage; kids that never say a word in class but love to perform.” In the schools, Okin develops programs according to students’ interests and each school’s hashkafa. “When I worked at Moriah some years back, the approach to kol isha in a musical was that no girls could sing alone. At TABC, the guidelines are no female parts and no cross dressing.”

He loves working with students who have never tried drama before, including adults whom he also teaches at Black Box, and serious drama students. Advanced students can audition for the elite, semi-pro Black Box Studio Ensemble. The company is now developing a strategic partnership with the Performing Arts School at the Bergen Performing Arts Center (Bergen PAC) that gives them a professional space and environment. “They have no issues with us being a Shomer Shabbos program,” said Okin. “We bring in a new clientele and they can have other events on Friday nights.”

At Yavneh Academy, the students in class 3A are following directions to warm up by Theater Arts teacher Rebecca Lopkin, Director of Envision Theater, who also teaches in New York and New Jersey day schools. These students are learning an important lesson, in addition to improvisation, playwriting, and acting. Their class is called Stand Up/ Speak Up and it uses theater skills to help the students understand and combat bullying behavior.

Lopkin guides them step by step so that they learn words like prologue (the beginning), scene, and tableaux (frozen picture). They also learn words like aggressor and potential ally. She gives them a scenario, a day at the ice skating rink in the class I visit, and helps them think of lines of dialogue that will give their future audience a picture of what they are doing. The students improvise and their teacher writes down the lines they will keep. At the end, this will become a script and they will perform for a second grade class. The kids take turns in different roles so they can put themselves in the shoes of different characters. “Any one of us can become any one of them,” Lopkin says. She gives them a “virtual tool box” of words to say so they can help themselves and their friends—and maybe turn an aggressor into a friend. They learn to say things like, “You can’t talk to me like that” or even “Why don’t you come play with us?”

“Children are taught to read and write but we don’t spend enough time on character education,” Lopkin said. “We brainstorm about why the aggressor might be behaving this way and different ways to handle the situation. I give them proper words and confidence so they can help themselves or their friends in real-life situations.”

At the end of the eight-week session, a rapt audience of second graders watches the performance. Two friends are skating and one is having trouble. Off to the side, another child sulks silently, miffed that he wasn’t invited to go along. But he doesn’t know how to say he feels badly. Instead, he tries to break up the friends by making fun of the one who can’t skate and trying to convince the other to ditch and go with him.

“You are hurting my friend’s feelings,” the potential ally says. “Why are you acting so mean?”

“Well, you didn’t invite me to skate with you,” the aggressor says.

“That’s not a reason to treat other people like you did.”

“I am sorry. I lost my temper.”

In the end, they all skate together.

Lopkin moderates a Q&A. “How many of you know what a bully is?” she asks the audience. Sadly, most of the kids, who are around 7-8 years old, raise their hands. “What else can you do in a situation like this?”

“Say, ‘don’t talk to me like that.’”

“Walk away!”

“Go to a teacher.”

Lopkin reminds them that these third graders are now experts, and if they need any advice, they should find one of them to talk to.

Assistant Principal Barbara Rubin said Lopkin approached her several years ago about a class using scenarios to teach right and wrong, and the class has been very successful. She said Yavneh devotes significant resources to drama. Boys can take Lopkin’s technical theater class where they learn how to create special effects like faux blood and stage make-up and how to build model sets. Girls have an acting class in which they build an ensemble through scene work and theater games. The eighth grade writes, produces, and performs a Holocaust play annually under the direction of Dominique Cieri (see JLBC April 4, 2014). “Theater gives kids freedom of expression,” Rubin said.

Lopkin began her interest in theater when, as an eighth grade student at Hillel Community Day School in Miami, she performed in Oliver. She earned a BS and MA from New York University in educational theater, where she studied acting, directing, and methods of incorporating theater into an academic curriculum. A certified classroom teacher, she taught elementary and middle school for 15 years before turning to theater education full time. She has also worked in theatrical productions as an actress, director, and designer. Lopkin began Envision as an educational theater company for schools throughout New Jersey and New York “to foster self-esteem, individuality, and teamwork in a fun, safe, nurturing environment.” While her goal isn’t to produce professional actors, she runs classes, workshops, and productions to professional standards.

At Yeshivat Noam, Lopkin has worked with Rabbi Jeremy Hellman, 8th grade history and Shoah teacher, to develop the “Holocaust Living Museum” unit for the grade that combines theater, creative writing, art, and historical research. Each student selects someone to research, a family member or historical figure, and writes something to bring that person to life: a diary entry, letter, post card, or historical fiction account. The students make a presentation, using their acting skills to deliver the piece they have written, and include visuals like a diorama or photo. Lopkin brings it all together with a written narrative and timeline.

Becky Troodler, Assistant Principal, General Studies, said Yeshivat Noam uses Lopkin and Okin to achieve different goals for their drama curriculum. “Lopkin builds empathy by using drama techniques to connect the students to the Holocaust. Okin directs the exploratory drama activities in the middle school. Exploratory is like an elective; the student has an opportunity to develop an area of interest at its weekly meetings. With theater, for the past few years, we’ve been doing comedy with a performance at the end of the year. Matt is an expert.” Additionally, the eighth grade works all year on a full-length production under the direction of Barbra Solomon, who has experience creating theater productions in summer camps.

“We invest a lot in drama,” Troodler said. “It’s a meaningful way to meet our goals of empathy, cooperation, collaboration, and communication. That’s why we make it a priority to integrate it into the curriculum.”

For the 2014-15 school year, Lopkin is developing a Shakespeare competition for area yeshiva high schools based on a Southern California program documented in the film Shakespeare High. Participating schools will rehearse the same scene throughout the year and then compete, tournament style, for the winning trophy. Awards are also being considered for most creative staging, most original interpretation of the scene, or excellence in acting. Lopkin is planning Envision Shakespeare with Nancy Edelman, Senior English department faculty at Torah Academy of Bergen County. Schools wishing to participate should contact Rebecca Lopkin or Nancy Edelman at [email protected].

Professional acting is a problematic career choice for a Shomer Shabbos youth. But acting for self-expression and communication is a valuable skill everyone can use. As Shakespeare says, “All the world’s a stage.” Our children need the best education we can give them to be effective players.

By Bracha Schwartz

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