Why dramatic Anna's peace work takes centre stage

ACTING instructor Anna Scher has spent her life trying to bring world peace through drama workshops.

Irish-born Anna's peace mission began in 1979 when she was invited by the Northern Ireland Arts Council to set up peace drama workshops in the troubled country.

Anna, who was the only Jew in her Cork convent school, said: "I had Catholics working together with Protestants.

"Nobody knew who was what and it worked beautifully. But while we were doing the peace workshops, Lord Mountbatten was assassinated. It was ironic.

"Here we were doing peace workshops and, in another part of Northern Ireland, poor Lord Mountbatten was killed."

But Anna was not put off by the tragedy, redoubling her efforts and returning six times to different parts of the troubled land.

Anna - whose first pupils in her popular children's drama workshops included Birds of a Feather stars Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke - did not stop her peace work with Ireland.

And she was soon invited to other troubled areas of the world.

She said: "It just came naturally. It grew and grew in me as well. I went to Zimbabwe and Rwanda where I worked with Tutsis and Hutus together. It was wonderful in Rwanda. The young people were so bright.

"I have worked in a lot of other countries - in Bosnia and Herzegovina with Serbs, Croats and Muslims working together. That worked very well.

"I went to the Israeli village Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), where I worked with Jewish and Arab children. The Jewish children were very strong about how their Arab counterparts could not get the jobs they hoped for.

"The Jewish children were really standing up for the Arab children. It was interesting to see this expressed through an improvisation class."

Anna's classes are based on her five heroic role models - Anne Frank, Martin Niemoller, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Still teaching at almost 70, Anne Frank was the subject of the class Anna was preparing when I spoke to her this week.

She said: "We all live in the shadow of the Holocaust. This week in class we are doing Anne Frank's A Diary called Kitty. I talk about when Anne was in the attic staring out of the window and thinking where was God. But Rabbi Hugo Gryn asked where was man.

"I think of Anne at the age of 15 looking out and seeing the church spires and thinking that a church should stand for goodness. And yet here she is in abject misery."

Anna began life wanting to be an actress, performing as a child in pantomimes at Cork Opera House and in revues further afield in Ireland.

But her dentist father, the late Dr Eric Scher, didn't want his daughter on the stage and persuaded her to qualify as a teacher.

Anna recalled: "When I was about 12, we made a compromise that I would be a teacher first."

After moving with her family to Hove, Sussex, at the age of 14, Anna, who went to cheder in Cork and Bnei Akiva in Hove, qualified as a teacher in London. Her first job was at Hendon's Bell Lane Junior School, which had a large proportion of Jewish students.

But she admitted: "I still wanted very much to be an actress. But I realised that actors are out of work most of the time. That would be very frustrating."

So, in 1968, coincidentally the year in which one of her heroes Martin Luther King was assassinated, she set up a lunchtime drama club at Islington's Ecclesbourne Junior School.

She said: "It was very popular from the word go. About 70 children turned up, including Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke."

As she had such a large class, many of whom were poor readers, Anna decided on improvisation as her main acting tool. It became a roaring success.

Her junior school pupils didn't want to leave when they went on to secondary schools. The junior school club was becoming flooded with older pupils.

Anna said: "The children wanted more. When they left to go to secondary school they came back to me. The head gave me an ultimatum to have the club for only his school or find other premises.

"I found a council hall across the road. I continued there as the children got older. Now we have pupils of every age up to the 70s."

Yolanda King, Martin Luther King's first born, visited the theatre on its 30th birthday. Based on Rolf Harris' song Two Little Boys and Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, white Anna and black Yolanda walked the length of the stage as "sisters carrying out the dream".

Anna's life was not always a success. After a bout of depression in 2000, she stepped down as head of her school. On her recovery the school, under new management, did not want her back.

But Anna fought back and re-established the school under her own name in a nearby church.

She was awarded an MBE for services to drama last year and has previously received the Jewish Care Woman of Distinction Award and Peace Person of the Year award in Ireland.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph