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Anna Scher MBE: drama teacher

27 Apr

Everyone has a story. Drama teacher Anna Scher has helped thousands of Islington kids develop their acting skills and confidence. An astonishing number of her students have gone on to become famous actors, with many taking key roles in Eastenders. So how does Anna nurture hard work and talent by running acting classes inspired by her catchphrase “integration through improvisation”? Interview by Nicola Baird.

Anna Scher, MBE

Anna Scher, MBE – who hass helped so many young Islington hopefuls make it big on stage, screen and TV.

Anna Scher’s reputation is formidable. She’s the drama teacher who set up an acting theatre for children that started the careers of Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson, Kathy Burke, Gary & Martin Kemp, Patsy Palmer, Susan Tully, Nathalie Cassidy and Gillian Taylforth. She’s also hosted TV shows in Denmark, won awards for peace work in Northern Ireland (1999) and been given the Freedom of the London Borough of Islington (2003). See Anna’s full c/v here

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Despite knowing so many stars Anna is no prima donna, during Islington Faces lunch she comes across as the nicest person. We meet at Kigi Café on Caledonian Road, which Anna’s been using for the past 10-15 years.

A newspaper cutting showing Anna Sher meeting the Queen is on the wall at Kigi Cafe.

A newspaper cutting showing Anna Sher meeting the Queen is on the wall at Kigi Cafe.

Kigi Cafe is clearly a home-from-home as owner-waitress Guler serves homemade stuffed aubergine and then organises for Anna to take home roast chicken for dinner. On the wall nearest the counter is a framed newspaper cutting showing Anna collecting her MBE from the Queen in 2013 and a photo of Guler’s godson’s favourite boxer.

Anna, 71, has been in the acting business for a long time. “It’s been more than 40 years but I still get excited about teaching,” she says, admitting she’s already “gearing up for the 50th celebration in January 2018”.

Since 2009 her Islington drama classes for adults and children have been held at St Silas church at the top of Chapel Street market. This is also where she met her PA Cassie, and where Cassie met her boyfriend.

Kigi Cafe is a family run cafe on Caledonian Road serving delicious homecooked food.

Kigi Cafe is a family run cafe at 322 Caledonian Road serving delicious homecooked food and good coffeee.

Places Anna Scher loves in Islington

  • Kigi Café is a lovely family owned restaurant run by Mehmet, Umjet and his wife Guler. I practically always have the wonderful stuffed aubergine.
  • Fredericks in Camden Passage will be holding a breakfast event for local businesses on 10 June, and several football receptions on 12 June when the World Cup starts, during Islington Giving Week 2014.

    Fredericks in Camden Passage.

    I love Frederick’s in Camden Passage – I go once a month with my dear friend Alan Blaikley (songwriter who famously wrote Have I The Right and Xanadu, 1960s pop hits). It’s also where she celebrated with her husband Charles and son John after receiving an MBE in 2013.

  • The Little Angel Theatre is a joy for children and adults. It’s just lovely. You must interview Lynde Wright (who set it up with her husband in 1961), she’s one of the nicest people in the world. https://littleangeltheatre.com/
  • I like to do a big shop once a week at M&S with my dear friend Cassie.
  • The Almedia’s my fifth! Pierre Audin (the first director) came for a chat when he was setting it up in 1979 – a very nice man.

Life story
Anna began her career as a child actress in Cork. But when she was 14 her dentist father (who was born in Ireland but had Lithuanian roots) decided to move his family to Hove (Anna’s the eldest of four girls and a boy).

“I wanted to stay in Cork. I was the only Jewish girl in the convent but they made me feel very special. On the day we left all the students from St Angela’s College came to the harbour and waved me off. I was in tears knowing I wouldn’t see them again,” she says. “My father thought that being Jewish we would have more opportunity in England.”

After finishing grammar school at Hove, or “Hove Actually” as Anna mockingly calls it, her father made it clear that she could only train to be an actress “over his dead body. We drew a compromise whereby I went to Trent Park, Middlesex for a General Teacher’s Certificate specialising in drama. But then a funny thing happened; I found that I loved teaching. I had a great time at Trent Park. We walked from Oakwood tube. I made a wonderful friend, Hazel, who was on the music course and we then lived together in the second year. It was the 1960s and it was fun – I had mini skirts!”

When Anna moved to Islington to teach English and Drama at Ecclesbourne Junior School she found, “In 1968 Islington was a very rough and tumble area. The playground behaviour was not good. I tried to see the funny side of things. I remember one girl said to another student, ‘I’ll smash your face in’. I said ‘that’s not nice’ and the students got the funny side of it – humour is a great diffuser.”

“I asked the headmaster if I could run a lunch time drama club in the top art room of the school. He said yes. At the first class 70 children turned up including Pauline Quirke, then nine, and Linda Robson, 10.”*

“Seventy was the equivalent of two school classes and as a lot of the children were non readers improvisation was the method I used. I did a lot based on the number five. And I use that to this day, saying something like “Why are you always late?”. Script work can be very stilted.

The drama club’s success meant that students who’d left the school were coming back to it for classes, incurring the wrath of caretaker Mr Overington. “The head teacher said ‘Your drama club has got too big for this school, so I’m giving you a friendly ultimatum to have it for my kids only, or run it across the road.”

Q&A with Anna Scher

Q: Are all actors insecure?
Anna Scher: “Most actors are out of work for most of the time, so that has a negative effect on them…”

Q: Which actor do you really rate?
Anna Scher: Kathy Burke, a wonderful actor.

Q: Has your phrase “the smile is stronger than the smile” ever been proved wrong?
Anna Scher: “I was on Gloria Hunnerford’s show and saw Van Morrison in the foyer looking very morose. His songs are absolutely fabulous, I love Moondance and Brown Eyed Girl, but it didn’t work on him. It doesn’t always work – I was big enough to take it… and Gloria said he was in a foul mood.

Q: Should I send my kids to a drama class?
Anna Scher: “Drama classes are good for confidence.

Q: What helps you stay happy?
Anna Scher: “I used to be much more feisty and sharp. I try not to let anger get to me. One of my favourites quotations is ‘The soft answer turneth away wrath but grievous words stir up anger.’ (Book of Proverbs) It’s changed my life.

It was the push that got the Anna Scher Theatre School going, with its first independent home at Bentham Hall. By 1975 she had 1,000 pupils, and 5,000 on the waiting list – which gave her the impetus in 1976 to set up a charity and move to Bethany Hall – another old Methodist church – on Barnsbury Road. The next 20+ years saw the Anna Scher Theatre School’s influence spread

20160414_123722 (1)In 2000 Anna suffered from depression and stepped down from her role running the theatre school. Fully recovered two years later she wasn’t welcome back at the building – it is now known as the Young Actors Theatre. It was an unpleasant public fight covered by the local and national press, but many people rallied to Anna’s support at that time and even wanted to build her a new theatre. In the end that’s exactly what she got. Which is why you can now join an acting class at today’s Anna Scher Theatre school, run at St Silas’s, here.

Peace work
“I’ve done quite a lot of workshops abroad under the banner of integration through improvisation,” says Anna who has run sessions in Rwanda, Zimbabawe, South Africa, India, Northern Ireland, Lithuania (of which I am a quarter), Bosnia at Sarajevo, integrating Serb Croats and Muslims, and also Israel.”

“In Israel the peace village called Neve Sahlom Wahat Al Saldam (a mix of Hebrew and Arabic) invited me do some work with Jews and Muslims. In India I particularly wanted to work with Gandhi’s children – the untouchables – and I went to Northern Ireland seven times. Sometimes if there wasn’t a sponsor I’d go to a country’s Embassy in London and ask for contacts. Essentially it’s easy – you just go there and integrate,” says Anna quietly with her beaming smile.

There’s something about Anna Scher that makes anything seem possible.

In Islington it is easy to see how her influence has inspired so many kids to follow their dreams of making it big on the stage. It’s a bigger leap to understand how Anna had the energy and audacity to use improvisation in post-conflict zones to help Hindus and Muslims in India or Jews and Arabs in Israel heal bitter wounds by understanding each other better on a shared project.

“I’d bring a light suitcase of props,” says Anna brushing aside any idea that this might be a complicated – or dangerous – project. She even claims she kept control with a tambourine or a football rattle!

“I try to make everyone feel special. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said everyone’s a VSP (very special person) and that’s how I feel/ There’s a wonderful philosophy that all Africans have, summed up in the word Ubuntu. It means my connectedness is connected to your connectedness and kindness is paramount. I love that.”

At times of election, budget cuts and what sometimes seems like a very unsafe world it is truly heartening to know that kindness doesn’t just have a place, it can have a massive and beneficial impact. Now in Anna Scher style let’s try some improvisation: “What could you do to make yourself feel proud?”*

Also in that first drama club was Ray Burdiss, then 11, who became a professional actor/writer-director. In 2013 he wrote and directed the award-winning Wee Man, a Scottish gangster movie which featured The Auld Triangle on St Thomas’ Road, N4.

Also borrowing singer Heather Small’s song title, What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola




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