High Drama at JBFC

November 4, 2013 2:11 pm Published by

I am not the good Samaritan of my family. While my dad and siblings have dedicated a good portion of their lives to volunteer work in third world countries, I live in Los Angeles telling stories for a living. And while I love what I do, it’s not always the most selfless world to live in.

At Christmas this past year my older brother and sister, Sophie and EJ, were talking about their upcoming trip to JBFC. Because we all grew up with Chris Gates, Sophie and EJ have been working with JBFC for a long time now, with the help of our dad’s foundation. For years I had seen pictures and videos they’d taken while there, heard stories about the girls, and kept telling myself that I’d eventually go as well. Someday. When it was the “right time.” To be honest, I’m not really sure why I waited so long, but I think it was probably because I was scared, or intimidated, or thought I wouldn’t have much to offer the situation. My brothers and sister have years of experience working in third world countries. My most intense experiences of “roughing it” were school camping trips.

But while Sophie and EJ (EJ pictured on left) were discussing their upcoming trip, my dad came up with the idea that I start a drama and playwriting program with the girls. Now, I know literally nothing about permaculture, or health, or any of the areas my siblings excel in – but I do know about the healing power of creativity, and how it can change a child’s life if you let them write down their ideas and share them with an audience. So a few months later I had an arm full of vaccinations, a bunch of anti-malaria meds, and was on a flight to Africa.

I was blown away with what I found. It’s pretty impossible to describe what an incredible place Chris has created with JBFC. Aside from the sheer physical beauty of the campus (I mean, it’s right on Lake Victoria) the sense of community and family that exists there is something that’s hard to find anywhere. Literally, anywhere. But above and beyond everything else, the best thing about JBFC are the girls. It goes without saying that these kids have gone through stuff most of us can only imagine,
things that feel impossibly distant from my small problems in Los Angeles. But even with that, they are the most grateful, joyful kids I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Every night without fail there’d be some sweet little face at my door inviting me to dinner, and every time I went to evening prayer services there were at least five pairs of hands wanting to hold mine. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a kid myself, and so the immediate, protective love I felt for these girls was something I hadn’t experienced before.

As far as what we did with the theatre program – it was as much a learning experience for me as it
was for the students. I had my good friend and actress Milana with me to help. Since Milana’s an expert with Improv, we started with that. At first some of the girls were nervous about seeming silly, but once they saw us making fools of ourselves they warmed up pretty quickly.

Then we moved on to some vocal exercises that I learned from my incredible teacher Katie Bull while studying at Atlantic Theater Company. These exercises aren’t about sounding good, or being loud, they’re about finding your own strength by connecting to your breath, your voice, and your body. Letting go of the tensions and inhibitions that get in the way of everyday life.

A big obstacle we faced was the girls’ self esteem. A lot of them came from backgrounds where they weren’t allowed to be loud or assertive. During our early classes a lot of the girls were almost too shy to speak to me – instead fidgeting, looking at the ground and whispering. So Milana and I spent a lot of time working with them on the idea that it’s okay to take up space and to raise your voice. Most importantly we tried to show them it was alright to mess up, to look stupid and to not know what you’re doing. This was a concept that was pretty foreign to the girls.

Zai, 10

We worked on eye contact, finding strength by grounding through the feet, and breathing from your
core. I saw huge improvements from the girls – whereas at the beginning they were silently staring at

their feet, by the end we had them speaking in fuller voices, looking us in the eyes. One of the best moments was in a note I received from 10 year old Zai, who wrote “I now know I am confident.”

My favorite part of the program was helping the girls write and perform their own short plays. We spent a lot of time discussing some fundamental aspects of theatre; such as protagonist versus antagonist, a character’s goals and a character’s obstacles. The themes varied from group to group, but the girls totally ran with it. Some of the younger girls wrote a play about a kidnapped princess who had to be rescued, while the older girls explored heavier concepts like stealing, loyalty to your family, and women’s role in society. One of the groups wrote a play imagining what would happen if Tanzania had its first female president. During our brainstorming session I asked the girls, “Do you think a woman could be president of Tanzania?” and I was met with a resounding, “YES!” It was awesome.

Seeing the girls up onstage was obviously moving, but what was even more moving was seeing their

faces afterwards. They looked so proud of themselves. Every time the audience laughed at one of their jokes, I could see a rush of excitement go through them.

It reminded me what theatre can do in its best moments. Before I left, one of the older girls, Pili, said “We’ve all fallen in love with drama” and promised they’d get started writing another play. I hope they do.

Either way, I’ll be going back next year.

Until then, I miss them.

Guest blogger Meaghan Oppenheimer is an actress and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She started a drama program with the JBFC girls last August and hopes to continue in 2014. 

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This post was written by Mainsprings