Happy Birthday, Anne Frank

Drew Kahn (c) Bruce Fox, SUNY Buffalo State.
Drew Kahn is a full time professor of Theater at Buffalo State College where he teaches acting, voice, movement (President's Award for Excellence in Teaching/SUNY) and directs mainstage productions (Kennedy Center Award). He is the founding director of "The Anne Frank Project," a multi-layered social justice initiative at Buffalo State College that utilizes the wisdom of Anne Frank as a springboard for the intense examination of genocide, bias and conflict resolution through the lens of storytelling and performance. He presents internationally on the universal language of theater and the intersection of storytelling and genocides as a means towards meaningful social change. Here's his story in his own words:

I enjoy driving the Anne Frank Project bus, but there are a lot of seats and people in it, and lots of help. Collaboration is at the heart of storytelling and what we do. I always feel like if we are not doing what we are teaching, we are not authentic. Our business plan is really, just doing what we teach. I know that we are wired to communicate, to commune, to collaborate and to connect. I don’t think it is overstating it by saying that all of the world’s problems come by defying this design. We are meant to be with each other and solve the problems together. That’s the thing about the story-building process when students get very concerned about the product and what we will put on stage. I tell them, that I have a secret for them – I don’t care about the story. What is important to me is the process you have gone through to build that story. That to me, that story and story-building is a vehicle for community. I really want them to understand in this laboratory that we have in the form of the theatre hall, is that they have the tools and the vocabulary to make people, communities and their families and organizations outside their theatre better. I’m fortunate because I get to practice what I preach.

The university I teach at, I think they thought I was a little cuckoo when I would say that theatre is really only here to make the world better. They were like ah, he is a theatre professor from California, he is crazy – but now, I hear our college administrators saying things like theatre exists only to make the world better. I think that is primarily why theatre should exist in an academic framework, not necessarily to make more actors but to create more diplomats, conflict resolvers, community builders and identity explorers.

One of the things we do is work with many schools, middle and high schools, and the teachers ask me after a workshop or a residency what I believe are the most important lessons for a teacher. I always have two quick answers to offer: (a) Listen to your students, their stories, they’ll tell you where they want to go, and, (b) You have to model, especially in today’s generation. Students are very savvy and if you do not do what you say, they disregard it.

I started at Buffalo State University, which is part of the SUNY (State University New York) system, which has 64 campuses in this large system in New York State. Buffalo state is one of those campuses, and I’ve been teaching here since 1993. For the first decade of my work, I was a traditional theatre professor, teaching and directing plays, but always tweaking plays because I thought they were great vehicles for issues that mattered to students, not just about making a good production that looked good, but also those that added meaning to their lives. As my mom would always say, I’ve always had a social justice bug. I’ve always been a little itchy and angry. Part of being an activist is that you wake up being a little angry at the start of the day, and you want to be less angry at the end of the day. But that fight, that fire – that keeps me going.

My campus is a very diverse campus. Half of our students are non-white, which is beautiful. So, very often, we produce plays in America that are written by white men and with parts for white people. So, a lot of our diverse communities don’t see themselves on stage. That’s a big loss because a big part of America looks as much as like you as it looks like me. When we decided I was going to direct the Diary of Anne Frank – I being Jewish, grew up with Anne Frank, but I was shocked to know that a lot of my students didn’t know about Anne Frank. Of course, it is mandatory reading for most American seventh grade schools, but a lot of teachers have gotten bored and have chosen to look at other Holocaust readings. One of the frustrations for me is that Anne is looked at as a celebrity, like the poster child of the Holocaust. We lose the fact that she was a little girl. I wanted to reintroduce our audience to the little girl, Anne Frank, not the celebrity. I also wanted my students of all cultural and diverse backgrounds to see themselves on stage.

The Diary of Anne Frank (Jewish Anne)
(c) Bruce Fox, SUNY Buffalo State.
In my research, I looked at comparative genocide and Holocausts. I had known about them. But when you immerse yourself deeply, though, as a theatre director, you see some consistencies. One of the most frightful and terrifying things was that it is the same formula that is repeated: you dehumanize your victim, you provide a system for the eradication of that victim, you fund that in some financial way, and you make sure that good people do nothing. That recipe is a recipe for disaster. We’ve seen it time and time again. Genocidaires learn from each other, and we are seeing elements of it around us. Some techniques around us are borrowed from predatory governments of the past.
The Diary of Anne Frank (Rwandan Anne)
(c) Bruce Fox, SUNY Buffalo State.

Anne Frank has taught us to put our radar up and to realize when things like this happen. The same ingredients go into making bullying successful: dehumanize your victim, provide a system to harm the victim, get support for it, and make sure good people do nothing. Those little microcosms, those little atoms – if you let them go unattended to, you let them become things like genocide. It’s the same format – I try to impress upon teachers and students that we can eradicate this.

As I was looking at all these genocides of the 20th Century, I came across Cambodia, Turkey, Bosnia and Rwanda. America was introduced to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide by that movie, Hotel Rwanda. It was helpful in being an ambassador for what was happening while we were ignoring it, but it was filled with fallacies, too. I did a lot of work and I came across a really beautiful Documentary on Rwanda by HBO, called Sometimes in April and another one called Ghosts of Rwanda. Those two pieces of research really opened my eyes to what was happening in 1994. My students were born in 1993, 1994 and 1995 – it wasn’t this distant thing called World War II. It involved Africans, so a lot of our non-white students could see themselves on stage!

We ended up saying, why not have two Anne Franks? – our Jewish Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis during World War II, and our Rwandan Anne Frank, a Tutsi girl hiding from Hutu extremists in 1994 Rwanda. There’s a book called Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza – who is really Rwanda’s Anne Frank. She was really the source for my Rwandan Anne Frank. In the native Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda, we called our Rwandan Anne Frank “Anana,” which meant looking up to god.

In the theatre production of Anne Frank, Anne is hiding in the annex. The way the play passes time, is when Anne is narrating her story, she breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience directly, quoting passages from her diary to the audience. Then, she returns to the annex, which may be a couple of months later. During those moments, I brought out both Anne Franks. They shared the diary. Unbeknownst to them, they were reflecting each other. We also had a short movie I made, preparing the audience with images from the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. Their souls were already warmed with the idea that something unique was going to happen. That eventually, seen together, was so successful, largely because of the team, the designers, the faculty and the students, who were incredible. They embraced the concept, and we had a great rehearsal process with survivors from both Holocausts. They lived the work in a way that was really committed. After the first week of showcasing the play, we broke attendance records.

I started to feel a little guilty because we should have had 30 Anne Franks on stage – the theory that we have an Anne Frank in every genocide proved true. Calling the project the Anne Frank Project was amazing – it is amazing that we have this diary, because she was an incredible writer with a huge soul and crammed an enormous amount of life within her fifteen-year long journey.But what about all those diaries we missed, those children, from Syria and every country imaginable? How about those diaries we don’t have? Certainly those stories are worthwhile. If I had a dream to do the play again, I’d do it with different nationalities every night – and unfortunately, we would never run out of ammunition.

Story Building work in Limuru, Kenya (c) Bruce Fox, SUNY Buffalo State.

The President of the college told me that we should do the play every year because it activates our diversity mission. We’re on an academic campus where thinking is everything and doing is not as important – but on our campus, thankfully, both are equal. I told her we can’t do the play every year because it will get boring, so maybe we could do a conference. I was invited to present our work in Amsterdam in the International Diversity Conference. I didn’t think anybody would pay attention, but they were hungry for what we did. SO I thought we could do a one dayconference and rally around one of Anne’s quotes, and then have other departments do a kinesthetic workshop around it. We didn’t want it to be about talking about it – we want to do it. You don’t ask students to be involved in a story or peace process by saying “Here are theories you can apply some day.” We want them to leave the work of the Anne Frank Project having already done it – that they leave as an activist, not as a hopeful activist. We did that conference and called for proposals. It started at 9:00 AM and was to go on until 4:00 PM, but it lasted until 8:00 PM when I had to kick the students out of the theatre—it was clear that we were on to something special.

The students felt so good about applying their passion! We used Anne’s quote to ignite the conference: “How wonderful it is that we need not wait a single moment before starting to improve the world!” We were onto something that needed to continue. This year will be our 8th Annual Social Justice Festival. It is a mainstay and an expectation on our campus. We’ve gone from a theatre program to an arts program to a university-wide program. I now report to our Provost, and AFP is a tool for our campus in many ways. We invite people to participate from all over the world – we have a 1/3rd-2/3rd system, with 1/3rd being theory and 2/3rd being action for every session. We’ve welcomed over 40,000 participants to our festival over the years. We have always identified our mission to be consistent with the mission of the college. I consider us a car in the college’s garage that they should drive when it is about activating the diversity, community and international education missions. That festival is our annual big event.



Immaculee spoke at our campus, in 2010. We also have Sophia Veffer on AFP’s advisory board, who happens to be a Holocaust survivor, and went to school with Anne Frank and had a very different experience of the Holocaust. She had 15 different hiding places, until they found her and she spent two years in Bergen Belsen. She eventually survived. Her legs were badly damaged. She was in hospital, and a female doctor in Holland at that time – which is very rare – told her that she wanted to give her a book that had a story which reminded the doctor of Sophia. It turned out to be one of the original printings of Anne’s Diary – except, back then, it was a compilation of her entries, not so much the publication it is today. She went back to Holland and resumed her life. She has been at the center of the Anne Frank Project in multiple ways. You could imagine – introducing her to Immaculee was heart stopping. Sophia speaks at our festival each year. We always pair her with another survivor. Last year, we had a 25 year old Congolese student who survived the war in the DR Congo. We’ve had survivors from Nepal, from Cambodia, others from Rwanda, from Bosnia – but always, in partnership with Sophia.

Having done so much on Rwanda, after Immaculee visited, I wanted to go to Rwanda. I received a grant, and went with a dear friend of mine, Carl Wilkens. He was the only American that was in Rwanda during the genocide. He was doing work for the 7th Day Adventist church. He and his family lived there. He stayed and helped save lives of many orphans and children. I met him at a conference and asked him to take me to Rwanda – I had enough money in the grant to pay for both of us. It was an incredible honor and I got to access places I wouldn’t have known about without him. I went on a friend-raising tour to see if I could bring students. We went to experience first-hand Rwanda’s reconciliation process. It was life changing. The country’s story is not spoken about enough and should be a model for so many countries suffering from conflicts and oppression! I’ve visited once a year, for the past ten years, and for five of them, with students. To put them in the middle of this country that has decided to rebound from a bloodbath, and rebuild themselves based on community, unity, forgiveness and compassion, is a sincere honor – one of my students on the way back, was processing and crying, and she tried to put into words what she experienced. She said, “In Rwanda, they don’t just read or talk the Bible. They live it. They live it. They live it.”

We go to schools and prisons and teach drama-based education, communicate and dance. We visit victims and their families. We go to refugee camps of mostly Congolese, and to arts organizations. We go on a safari to watch animals. We go to Genocide memorials. Rwanda chose to memorialize Genocide in a very non-Western way. For instance, popular locations for the horrors of the genocide were the many churches. They would tell Tutsi on the radio to come to a church and father so-and-so would protect them – but once they got there, they were killed. Rwanda chose to leave the churches as they found them. There’s blood on the walls, clothing of those who perished on the pews. It is an enormous emotional experience. My son once asked me if I get used to it – But no. I can taste it as I tell you and it is extreme. Rwanda wanted to make sure that people remembered the truth. There are many genocide deniers and this memorialization is therefore very important. My students have to process that and we go to two or three of these memorials where they have to put words and feelings to this. We do a lot of drama-based education, exploring and processing through story-building. We walk the walk of storytelling…we use it as our primary processing tool.

The President of our college says that going to Rwanda is not just an academic brain-stretching experience, it is a heart-stretching experience. That’s something we do not do enough of in Western Academia. Life is really difficult and if our job is to prepare our students to navigate the complexities of their lives, then to take them to London to see theatre and have fish and chips may not be enough. We need to trust our students and we need to immerse them in situations where they develop the tools and vocabulary to succeed. Since I graduated from Grad School, no one ever asked me to write a 30-page term paper. But they have asked me to tell my story and life continues to present me with heart-stretching, challenging and emotional experiences. Shouldn’t our responsibility at least partially be to prepare students for experiences they are going to experience, and not those that live in a book?

To continue that sequence, we bring students to Rwanda, their hearts explode, we do it carefully of course. We come back together, take a few weeks off and then we spend the semester together in a class called Ensemble Theatre. We ask them to consider their international learning and present their experience in any way they find it fit to the campus community. They have to give it a theme and title, and unbeknownst to them, they are involved in these story-building processes.

That’s the first part. Then those stories come together, and there’s usually about 10 to 14 students in class. We take all those story’s themes, find common themes they talk about, and then we take all of those stories and start to build our story. That’s the second part of the class. We build a story with the intention of performing at the end of the semester, and tour it to local high schools in the following semester. It is not a play about Rwanda, but one inspired by Rwanda, with the full knowledge of what the students would like to have seen and taught when they were in high school. Last semester, we eclipsed 100 schools that we’ve visited! We have become a staple in the local school system, and never do a play without a workshop. A play, then, in a sense, is always unfinished. We leave the play at a point of “What would you do?” My students follow the play with a workshop. They go from actor to facilitator and teacher, and they cross that sacred boundary of the stage and go into the audience. The workshop is always about having the students who just watched the play to practice the lessons of the play.

One play my students built was called Dear Me, about a boy whose best friend committed suicide in High School because he came out as gay and that didn’t go well, so he drowned himself in the school pool. The play starts at the funeral. The main character runs away from the funeral and goes to their secret hiding place and he starts to write him a letter because his friend loved writing. As he writes souls from conflicts past come alive, Anne Frank, a Native American, a teacher killed in a school shooting, a Rwandan genocide survivor all visit him and help him through the grieving process. At the end of the play, we ask all of high school students to write a letter to someone they want to connect to. The theme of Dear Me is toshow that you can always stay connected. Then, we choose one of the letters to make into a physical play. We have had some incredible experiences with that play. And we do this in the presence of the school counselors – we are not therapists, so we make sure that there is help if it is so needed. We’ve had a bunch of high schools asking us to do a Social Justice Festival exclusively for them. We’ve also evolved into residencies where we spend a full semester at schools to train teachers how to use the story building process of AFP in their classrooms.

Going back to the four-fold process that keeps everything from bullying to genocide alive…the way to counteract bullying, oppression and genocide involves three steps, which I learned from Rwanda. One, the perpetrator must publicly apologize. Two, the victim or their representative must publicly forgive. Three, the two of them must come together to agree to a reconciliation process guided, driven and tailored by them. People in Rwanda have used this – to the point that a person they once saw as the devil, is now seen as a family member.   This process is difficult and incredibly successful in Rwanda—exposing our students to this proves to them that real change through forgiveness is actually possible.


Today, when I look back, I always say that the Anne Frank Project has been the biggest professional mistake of my life – it’s been a beautiful accident that I did not intend. 
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