Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Nestled at the back of the Glatt Express parking lot is a low, red, square edifice. Other than the black lettering on its simple billboard, passersby would never guess the amount of artistic activity that takes place within these humble walls on a daily basis. Yet 200 Walraven Drive houses both the Black Box Studios as well as the Black Box Performing Arts Center and is a beehive of activity day and evening.

Founded by artistic director Matt Okin in 2007, Black Box Studios is a unique, collaborative performing arts school. It offers adults, teens and children from all backgrounds an array of innovative workshops in theater, both drama and musical, as well as acting, music and writing. Programs are run throughout the year and culminate in productions that play at the Black Box Performing Arts Center.

The Black Box Performing Arts Center was initiated by Okin in November of 2015. It serves as the home of the Black Box Studios, its performing arts school and its professional productions. Okin is a playwright, director and composer, having earned a BFA in dramatic writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and some of his original works and those of his closest collaborators have been performed at the center as well as an impressive list of off-Broadway and original shows.

According to Okin, “Black Box Studios and Black Box Performing Arts Center is the only such combination of a fully functioning theater and performing arts school in our area. With a student population ranging in age from 1st graders to adults into their 60s, this venue allows amateurs to interact with professionals as mentors as well as sometime co-actors.”

Okin, an Englewood resident, has been deeply affiliated with the Jewish communities of Teaneck and the surrounding areas. Black Box Studios was actually initially housed at the Teaneck Jewish Center during its first four seasons. Many local families have been involved in Black Box since its inception. Simon “Shalom” Krischer of Teaneck, master set builder, has been building background sets for Black Box from its beginnings. His wife Ellen and children have been taking classes in acting and improvisation at Black Box for years. Daughter Devorah is a theater major at Brandeis and attributes her interest and skills to being part of one of the founding families of the Black Box Studios.

Esti Mellul of Teaneck, now 24, has earned the title of the “oldest” student of Black Box, having begun classes while in 10th grade. Mellul recently earned a master’s degree in communications from Rutgers University, where she co-founded a student-run theater group known as Shem Productions. She has also written and produced a music album for the Queens College a cappella group, Tizmoret. Mellul’s ties to Black Box continue as she currently serves in key roles including actor and teaching artist.

Shifra Schapiro of Teaneck, Tanach and creative writing instructor at Ma’ayanot High School, has had three of her daughters attend classes at or run by Black Box. Most recently, in response to her third daughter’s urging, an all-girls drama class was offered this past fall, and it has just begun its spring semester with participants from Teaneck, Passaic and even as far as Highland Park. The classes are held on Sundays to accommodate the Yeshiva high school schedules of the participants.

The Hiller family of Teaneck has been actively involved in Black Box for years. Father Ezra serves as videographer and Mother
Tzippy has often found time to assist with organizational, behind-the-scenes efforts. Sons Eitan and Ari have enjoyed leading roles in Black Box productions. Eitan is a student at Teaneck High School, from which Ari also matriculated. He is currently on a theater scholarship at Goucher College. Both have also participated in their high school’s theater productions.

Black Box Studios teaching artists have also run drama programs at local yeshivas since its inception. At Ma’ayanot High School, Okin himself has offered the spring drama program for the past six years, culminating in full productions including A Few Good Men, Street Scene, Grapes of Wrath, My Aunt’s Son Vinny and, most recently, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All were met with rave reviews. This season’s play is currently being selected and will soon begin rehearsals.

Black Box teaching artist Allison Falkenstern, a Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate, works with Okin to run programs at Yeshivat Noam. Mike Gardiner leads a dedicated group of young adults up to twice weekly at the Mendel Balk Adult Community Center, part of Yachad, now housed at the Teaneck Jewish Center. The group has studied improvisation for the past three to four years and is now working on its first mini-production, slated for June.

Okin shared that from the beginning Black Box Performing Arts Center has attracted numerous shomer Shabbat students from the community. “We provide a comfortable and creative outlet for yeshiva students whose interests lie in the dramatic arts. We introduce these students to professionals in the field and they are mentored by teaching artists. If they want to continue their studies in theater on the college level, we guide them and help them prepare for auditions—all without compromising observance.”

The Spring 2018 schedule for Black Box Studios at Back Box PAC has recently been released, and classes are just getting underway. To view their offerings and to register visit www.blackboxpac.com For all other questions contact [email protected] All programs are designed to accommodate a shomer Shabbat schedule.

By Pearl Markovitz