Students in SUNY Buffalo State's Ensemble Theater course not only wrote and performed an original play, Dear Me, for students at 12 local schools over the fall semester, they also made powerful connections with many of the young audience members.
“I wasn’t sure how it would go, with freshmen especially, but they were really receptive,” said Danielle Jennings, a social worker at McKinley High School where the play was performed in October for the freshmen class. “At a time when kids are so involved with video games and high-action movies, it made me a happy to see them engrossed in a play.”
The 40-minute drama focuses on two high school students, one of whom kills himself after coming out of the closet. The other student writes a letter to his dead friend, and in the process, makes important discoveries about himself. After the play, audience members are asked to write a letter to someone they have lost connection with and then share the letter with the person sitting next to them or the whole group.
“Our kids really embraced the writing piece of it, incorporating their own lives into the letters,” Jennings said. “Some kids came into my office afterward to talk one-on-one about the letters they wrote.”
The Buffalo State students created Dear Me last spring, taking inspiration from their trip to Rwanda in January as part of the Anne Frank Project (AFP). Under the guidance of AFP director and theater professor Drew Kahn and assistant director Eve Everette, '09, they performed the play during the AFP conference in September and in two repeat performances on campus in October. The public school venture is part of the ongoing initiative AFP in the Schools, which teaches conflict resolution through storytelling.
“The educational cycle of this play—from Rwanda to Buffalo State to area schools—has proven successful beyond our expectations,” Kahn said. “I couldn’t be prouder of AFP, our students, and our partner schools.”
Allison Monaco, one student actor who helped develop, research, and write Dear Me, said any fears they had early on that the material was too much or too little for the audience were eclipsed by the play’s powerful message: You can always connect.
“Yes, we have heavy, maybe taboo issues that we address in the play, but overall, it has been accepted by all audiences,” Monaco said. “They seemed to respond and react with open hearts.”
Jennings said she is talking with Kahn and Everette about their returning to McKinley to present the play for older grades in the spring.
“I’m excited about the possibility of working further with Buffalo State,” she said. “It’s a dream of a lot of our students to go to Buffalo State someday.”