Robin Garbose, a former Hollywood director who runs a performing arts conservatory in Los Angeles for Orthodox girls, targets the “women-only” demographic. And most of those women are frum.
But for that demographic, Garbose, who became Orthodox 20 years ago, is something of a hero. When her second musical feature, “The Heart that Sings,” premiered here recently at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 700 girls and women packed the venue, cheering as Garbose’s name appeared on the screen.
Garbose’s first film, “A Light for Greytowers,” was released three years ago and proved to be a hit, especially among Orthodox teenage girls. Set at a Victorian orphanage in England, a young girl named Miriam is separated from her parents after escaping Czarist Russia. She must fight to observe Judaism in the orphanage under the rule of a cruel matron.
“Greytowers” screened to 50,000 women in cities across the U.S., Canada and Israel, including at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Jewish Eye World Festival in Ashkelon and the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Cinematiques.
Now comes “The Heart that Sings,” which tells the story of a young Holocaust survivor, also named Miriam, who lives in New York in the 1950s and spends a summer at a girls camp in the Catskills as drama director. At first the campers take advantage of her quiet, broken spirit, but in the end all are transformed.
Fourteen-year-old Malka Kugel, who lives just a few blocks from the museum in Crown Heights, plays one of the mean girls in the musical. Kugel, who received no training before attending Garbose’s Kol Neshama conservatory last summer, says she felt “like a professional actress” after merely seven weeks in the program.
“When we were filming it was magical,” Kugel says. “Everything we were taught came together.”
About the film and its potential appeal, Garbose said at the premiere, “There’s something so compelling about the character of Miriam. We’re not used to seeing a beautiful young woman with a number on her arm. It makes you experience the Holocaust in a new and emotional way.”
Armed now with two films, Garbose is creating a new genre in the world of women’s entertainment. Both movie musicals feature religious actresses, singers and dancers trained at Kol Neshama. Because of Jewish laws of modesty that allow women to sing and dance only for other women, opportunities are sparse for talented girls and women wishing to perform professionally.
Garbose says that “we broke the ice with ‘Greytowers’” by ensuring the film be screened exclusively for female-only audiences.
Yocheved Daphna, whose daughter, Golda, attended Kol Neshama and acts in “The Heart that Sings,” said, “I’m so glad they have an outlet in a proper environment for actresses, singers and dancers. To have a first-class project with a professional to fine-tune their skills.”
Garbose, whose films give girls who have never previously appeared on the big screen a chance to hone their acting chops, discovered Rivka Siegel, who played the lead role in both “Greytowers” and “The Heart that Sings,” when Siegel was acting in an eighth-grade play about a decade ago. Siegel’s talent motivated Garbose to start Kol Neshama, which she launched in 2000.
The summer camp movement depicted in the film began in the 1940s and took off in the ‘50s for Orthodox youth who attended public schools during the year (the only schools readily available then). Not steeped in Judaism as they had been in Europe, most religious children experienced Judaism in the summertime. The film’s historical yet fictional Camp Zimra is where the drama unfolds.
The film, based on a short story by Gershon Kranzler and shot in 18 days for an economical $350,000, used a ranch near L.A. for exterior shots, an RV park for interiors and downtown L.A. for some Manhattan-style architecture. Garbose rented period cars from the late 1940s and found Brooklyn props to properly replicate that era.
Before becoming Orthodox, Garbose began her career in theater, teaching at Juilliard and New York University, and directing 35 plays in L.A. and New York. She then dabbled in television, directing “Head of the Class” and then — as a Sabbath-observant director — “America’s Most Wanted.”
A director for 27 years, Garbose says, “It’s time for authentic Jewish content to emerge in the world of film.”