While bringing The Diary of Anne Frank from Detroit to Arizona in 2020 helped Sally Ginn plant the seed for the Jewish Ensemble Theatre to have an Arizona presence, donors told her that they wanted to see jobs created locally for Phoenix-area actors and crew.
Bringing and mounting a new production of The Diary of Anne Frank from Michigan to Arizona in the middle of a pandemic has been a labor of love of epic proportions to say the very least. But with grit and clever resourcefulness, one fiercely determined snow birder extraordinaire and her small, but mighty, Scottsdale-area team of friends and relatives were able to make it happen.
For more than 27 years, the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) of West Bloomfield, a nonprofit, has produced The Diary of Anne Frank for student audiences in Metro-Detroit — that’s more than 200,000 students attending a live theatrical performance, some for the very first time. Shows were held at JET’s former space at the Jewish Community Center of West Bloomfield and, later, at The Berman Center for Performing Arts and the Detroit Institute of Arts, sponsored by the Nancy and Stephen Grand Support Foundation.
“But what if JET could reach middle-schoolers outside of Michigan with this very important story about the Holocaust?” JET Executive Director Christopher Bremer would often ask his all-volunteer board of directors.
“I felt that it was a strong mission — something that I really believe in — so I raised my hand and that’s when it all began,” said Sally Ginn of Farmington Hills, who has wintered in Phoenix for the past 30 years.
That was five years ago.
“Truthfully, people told me that it couldn’t be done. The logistics and money-raising has been monumental and non-stop,” said Ginn, who just wrapped producing the first local Arizona JET production of The Diary of Anne Frank at The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 11.
By January 2020, Ginn had put her Arizona contacts in motion and was able to have JET’s Detroit cast of The Diary of Anne Frank flown out to Phoenix to perform the show for one week to more than 4,300 students.
And then the pandemic hit, and JET pivoted to having virtual conversations about the life of Anne Frank.
“The students could Zoom in and talk with ‘Anne’ and understand what it was like to be in hiding and not being able to come out because they were quarantining themselves,” said Bremer, who has been working at JET since 1999. “Now, with our Arizona production and the Michigan one coming up at the Berman Center March 7-18, children can once again experience the human connection of live theater as an art form.”
A Detroit Production in Arizona
While bringing The Diary of Anne Frank from Detroit to Arizona in 2020 helped Ginn plant the seed for the Jewish Ensemble Theatre to have an Arizona presence, donors told her that they wanted to see jobs created locally for Phoenix-area actors and crew. With that promise, Ginn was able to secure funding from the Burton Family Foundation through the Arizona Community Foundation, the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation and the Molly Blank Fund through the Jewish Community Foundation.
“We had to start from scratch. We had to procure every single thing,” said Ginn, whose daughter, Peggy, flew in from England to help.
Everything included finding an off-site rehearsal space and The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts for the shows, reserving a storage facility for costumes, props and set pieces for future Arizona productions; reporting to the Actors Equity Association with COVID compliance updates, including ordering over 1,000 rapid-test kits for the cast and crew; and arranging and booking the school groups.
In addition to recruiting her Arizona friends for help, Ginn relied on Toby Haberman of Birmingham, who also has a home in Phoenix, to go on prop and furniture-finding expeditions to all the local Goodwill, thrift and resale shops.
“We needed to duplicate the Michigan set, costumes and props that we now own and store for annual use with the Arizona production,” said Haberman, retired owner of Haberman Fabrics in Royal Oak who has also been very involved with costuming at Michigan Opera Theatre. “I found objects on our list like a half-barrel that was tossed out at a Phoenix boutique. I also made assorted props, like a small lace Shabbos table cover and burlap potato and rations bags.”
Ginn also enlisted Haberman to help with registration during the local auditions. And Toby and her husband, Sam, graciously hosted the cast and crew party at their Phoenix home after the last performance on Feb. 11.
“When finding the set pieces and props, we tried to be as realistic as possible. Not only does that create an honest visual image to draw the audience into a believable scene, but it helps the actors develop their characters when they use or wear something that could have actually been from that time and place,” said Haberman.
While Ginn dealt with the production logistics, Bremer flew back and forth weekly from Michigan to Arizona, assembling his Arizona cast and crew while simultaneously preparing for the March Diary of Anne Frank Detroit production and getting the JET 2021-2022 season ready to reopen. Fully masked rehearsals started Jan. 13 in Scottsdale. Twelve rehearsals later, The Diary of Anne Frank opened at The Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts at a 10 a.m. matinee on Jan. 31.
“It was like doing summer stock on steroids,” Bremer says with a laugh.
With 10 matinee performances, more than 3,500 students attended, at half-capacity, with some schools driving from more than two hours away.
“I don’t consider this a field trip. It’s an educational trip,” said Ginn. “Eight months ago, it was mandated that the Holocaust be taught in Arizona [at least twice between seventh and 12th grade]. We’re doing something for humanity, for all walks of life and all cultures. That’s what keeps me going and really gives me a purpose. That’s why I joined JET.”
As a theater lover, parent and former teacher, Haberman is also dedicated to the cause.
“Perhaps more than ever, there are lessons that need to be taught in an honest, meaningful way. This production helps do that. The goal is to serve a crucial history lesson to middle school children throughout the community, from widely diverse backgrounds. This is a powerful educational, live-theater tool. Live theater done well can have a great impact, especially when young people watch what might be their first, professional theatrical performance, not a digital screen,” Haberman says.
JET provides every school attending with pre-and post-study guides and an evaluation form. Following each performance, there is an audience question-and-answer session with the cast. As a special enhancement to the Arizona production, local Holocaust survivor Dirk van Leenen attended every talkback and interacted with the students.
“One of the strongest takeaways after seeing the show is that children have a strong interest in finding out about other people’s culture and experiences,” Bremer says.
“You can never walk in someone else’s shoes or understand other people’s skill in society and success in life. It’s been an honor, privilege and responsibility to provide this wonderful experience to people.”
School groups can still purchase tickets to attend The Diary of Anne Frank at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts at 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Performances are at 10 a.m. Monday-Friday, March 7-18. Tickets are $10/student and $16/adult, with special financial arrangements available.
There will be one public performance open to everyone at 10 a.m. Friday, March 18. Reservations must be made for school groups and individual tickets by calling (248) 788-2900.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre will reopen its 2021-2022 season with:
Same Time Next Year by Bernard Slade
April 21-May 15
The Full Monty by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
July 14- Aug. 7
Aug. 25-Sept. 18
JET’s 2022-2023 Season begins Oct. 6 with the Rocky Horror Picture Show
Single ticket prices $49/adult, $47/senior, $42/subscribers.
Prorated subscriptions are on sale now. All dates and titles subject to change. To reserve, call (248) 788-2900.
JET is at 1124 E. West Maple Road, Walled Lake.