Marsha Coplon, director of education, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, helped teach a three week playwriting class to 14 girls in the Gambia.
They are called “once in a lifetime” trips for a reason. Not that Marsha Coplon didn’t enjoy very minute of the three weeks she spent teaching theater to young girls in the Gambia, located in West Africa, this summer. But between the expense to travel there and the primitive living conditions during her stay, Coplon isn’t sure she’s up for a return trip anytime soon.
“I would work with these girls again in a second,” said Coplon, who is director of education at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. “I just don’t know if I could handle going to Africa again during the rainy season.
Coplon with students in the Gambia.
“That said, I learned a lot about myself on this trip, like how many flies can be on my food before I won’t eat it,” she said, joking. “But in all seriousness, I learned how to talk to people. The people of Gambia tell stories. They are such a welcoming people. There isn’t a word for stranger.”
“I also learned a lot about taking the time to be polite and connect with a person before you start doing what you need to do.”
Coplon, 57, traveled to the Gambia with longtime friend, Beth Drew, who is a teacher in Syracuse, N.Y. Drew had gotten to know a Gambian woman named Yassin Sarr, who lives in the United States half of the year and in the Gambia for the other half. Sarr’s dream is to open Starfish International Academy in the Gambia, which would empower girls there by providing them with an advanced education. Its mission also includes the girls learning a small business skill so they can bring money into the family. The program would pay their school fees so the families will allow them to continue their education.
Polygamy is practiced in the Gambia, and girls tend to be married off by the time they turn 13 or 14. The country ranks 155 out of 177 on the poverty scale and about 80 percent of the population is Muslim.
“While Yassin is raising money to start Starfish, she has a summer afterschool program where the girls who live nearby do service projects throughout the year and attend classes in the summer,” said Coplon, who along with Drew, taught a three week playwriting class to 14 girls, half of whom were in seventh grade, the other half in 11th grade. The challenge
for Coplon and Drew was in condensing the Rep’s 23-week “WiseWrite” program, which teaches fifth graders playwriting skills, into just three weeks.
“The Gambia is very much a storytelling and teaching theater nation. But what they consider theater is almost like role playing as opposed to what we call theater,” explained Coplon. “The hardest thing for the girls was writing dialogue. Their creativity was great. But they kept saying, ‘We need to put a narrator in to tell people what is going on.’ We had to assure them a narrator wasn’t necessary.”
Coplon and Drew decided the first exercise would be to adapt a Gambian folktale and turn it into a 10-minute play that would be performed by the girls at their summer graduation. “We had each girl bring in a legend, some story that their grandmothers would tell them at night, “ she explained. “From that, the class chose the one they wanted to perform. The one we did was Gambian about two Kumbas, one with mother and one without. It was kind of a Cinderella story.
“The other one they chose to do was Rumplestiltskin, but with a Gambian flavor. We ended up doing a Western or European folktale and then a Gambian folktale. There were representatives from the American Embassy at their graduation ceremony. It was very exciting.”
Coplon plans to publish the scripts, sending each girl a copy as well as sending one for the library, which is the only building at the academy right now. She said one of the unexpected benefits was that the girls saw her as a role model.
“For them to see a woman who has a good job, money to travel, who has not been married but has a very happy life, was a total shock,” said Coplon, adding that it was “the politeness of the people” that truly resonated for her.
“There was bleakness. These people live in poverty that we can’t imagine,” she said. “Whereas, I would have looked at them and said this is so hopeless, they were not hopeless at all. Everything and everyone was part of a community.”
“Though I am thrilled with the writing part of what we taught and working on dialogue and the skills the girls learned, what thrilled me the most was watching them do their plays and the way they worked together to solve whatever issues came up. The whole cooperative ensemble was so delightful to see.”
“They also seemed thrilled to have the tools to be more powerful in their storytelling and playwriting, and be able to write a bigger, issue play that is more then just role playing or preaching.”
For more information about Starfish International Academy, visit starfishinternational.org.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is a Sustaining Grant Recipient of the Arts and Education Council. Click here to make a donation to A&E’s Annual Campaign.