A troupe of teen actresses telling their stories through writing and performance

Welcome to the Girls Surviving blog. We are creating this blog to reflect on the process we use in our work with teenage girls. We are two artists, Paula and Carolyn, who have been teaching writing, theater, and storytelling for many years. We are also mothers of daughters who had a hard time navigating their teens. We believe they would have benefited from a program that provided them with a safe place to talk about what it's like to be a teenage girl and to discover their unique artistic voices. Seven years ago, we began to form a troupe of teen girls who, we thought, could write and perform plays based on the experiences that inform their lives. Since then, we've watched the girls in the Girls Surviving troupe begin to take control of their lives with self-confidence and courage. We are writing to parents, teachers, counselors, and other artists who interact with girls in the hope that this blog will raise awareness of and open conversations about the lives of girls who are growing up in our complicated times.

“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Car Talk

There is something about being in a car that is conducive to conversation. I have had some of the deepest, closest, and most revealing discussions in a car – with friends, with my husband, and, perhaps, most of all, with my kids. The best conversations took place when the talk was one-on-one, but even when the car was filled with kids, we frequently had the kind of parent/child talk that is necessary for open communication and healthy relationships.
Almost as good as talking with passengers in the car is listening to them talk to each other. Teenagers, especially, seem to forget the presence of the adult driver when they become absorbed in conversation with their peers. I learned a lot about my daughters’ social lives by keeping quiet in the car.

From the program’s earliest days, Carolyn and I have offered to drive the girls to and from GS workshops. I think that our ability to do this has contributed to the success of the program. Practically speaking, our willingness to drive them makes it possible for some girls to attend workshops: girls whose parents work at night, girls with younger siblings who are ready for bed by our 8:00 pick-up time, and girls who live too far away, or in neighborhoods where it is unsafe, to walk home after dark.
There is also a less tangible side to providing rides to the girls which I think has been equally important to the program, and that is the phenomenon mentioned above – car talk is deep talk. Over the years, even short drives around the neighborhood as I picked girls up or dropped them off, have opened avenues of communication that probably would have remained closed without the time in the car. Sometimes girls have jockeyed to ride home with one or the other of us, or asked to be the last one dropped off, even when their stop was closest to the high school. When this happened, I knew that something needed to be talked out, either with Carolyn or me or with one or more of the girls in the car. And, as with my own children, I have heard things in car talk between the girls that helped me better understand them and, consequently, be a better teacher and mentor to them. I have also used the car to teach when I’ve overheard talk that was based in ignorance. In the car I’ve answered questions about sex, religion, diet, family values (the list could go on, and it would contain topics that were silly as well as profound) that I don’t think girls would have asked in a more public forum. I’ve also heard my answers to such questions repeated when they were relevant to a topic being discussed in the workshop. At these times, it was clear to me that the girl in question had thought about our previous discussion and synthesized its content. Car talk seems to linger, even after those times its audience seemed uninterested or unconvinced.

Since we resumed workshops at the beginning of the month, the GS car talk I hear is inaccessible to me because, as Carolyn described in her recent blog, most of the girls in the current troupe speak Spanish as their first language. When the girls talk to each other in the car, they speak a language I don’t know, and when they talk to me, many of them lack the English vocabulary necessary for real discussion.
The number of Latinas who are learning to speak English as a second language has gradually increased in recent GS troupes. So far, this hasn’t been a problem in workshops because there are always girls who can translate back and forth. In addition, Karen, who is fluent in Spanish, can communicate with family members when the need arrives. However, I believe that the absence of staff-accessible car talk could be problematic, and even with the best will in the world, there is no way Carolyn and I will become Spanish-fluent enough to make up for the lack.

The Latinas who are joining Girls Surviving may be the girls in our community who most need the program. Not only will GS help them improve their English language literacy skills, it will also provide safe space in which they can begin to come to terms with their past experiences and their current reality. But to provide maximum support to incoming troupe members, the program needs to adjust to changes in the community. This may dictate changes in staff. Carolyn and I were the right people to create and lead the program over the past 12 or so years, but our light is dimming. The group of girls we’re serving now need adult mentors with whom they can communicate on several levels, adults who are fluent in Spanish as well as English, who know the community, and who are teaching artists. It’s a tall order, but the future of the program may depend upon finding a way to fill it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How to Handle a Different Kind of Buzz

          It’s the first GS workshop of the school year. Everything feels familiar. The classroom where we meet looks the same as it did last spring.  The desks fit into a tidy circle, as they always do. I open the snack bag and spread the contents across a long empty table, knowing that, as usual, some girls will walk through the door hungry. Girls begin to trickle in, laughing and talking. As it always does, the room buzzes with first-day excitement.

          This first day, however, is very different.  What’s different is the buzz.  For the first time ever in the history of the program, every girl in the circle is Latina, and three of the girls speak very little English. All of the girls are talking in Spanish

          This different buzz both energizes and confuses me.  I get the gist of some, but not all, of the girls’ conversations. I have to pay more attention than usual.  I’m aware that I’ve neglected my Spanish studies.  “Time to fire up Duolingo on my computer and dig out the Spanish dictionnary,” I say to myself as the workshop begins. 

          Luckily Karen, our bi-lingual counselor is there to help navigate the language barrier during the introductions.  Like me, Paula only speaks a little Spanish. 

          “How will we manage when Karen isn’t there?” I wonder.  Karen splits her time in GS with another counselor who does not speak Spanish. 

          “No worries. The girls will figure out how to handle the problem. They always do,” I think as I see them do just that. The girls who speak English fluently – all veteran troupe members – are following Karen’s lead, helping with translations.  The newcomers – all of whom lack skill and confidence speaking English - are listening with every fiber of their being.  When it’s their turn to speak, they concentrate and face down their fear of speaking English in front of this group of mostly unfamiliar faces.  They smile shyly when they offer a word or two and lower their eyes, except when they sneak a peek at one of us to see how we’re responding.  We smile back – big, broad encouraging smiles.  We’re thrilled by their courage and obvious desire to learn the language and engage with the group.

          After the introductions, we explain the program and the new project we have planned for the year.  We tell them how much we’ll need their help with the project because it will involve interviewing recent immigrants in our community, many of whom only speak Spanish.  We assure them that when they transform the immigrants’ stories into dramatic scenes, they may write in Spanish, and that when it comes time for them to perform their dramatizations, they may act in Spanish. 

          At the same time, we encourage them to engage as much as possible in English. Elissa, who joined the troupe a few years ago, does too. She tells them how much her participation in GS has helped her develop confidence writing and speaking in English.  Dara, a Latina who started the program toward the end of this summer, tells her story too -  how she perfected her English enough to perform successfully with the troupe in English, despite the fact that she had been in this country for less than a year. Impressed with these success stories, the new girls seem eager to find out more about how the program works.

           The buzz is good.

          We introduce the workshop’s major activity. The activity goal is two-fold.  First, we want girls who don’t know each other well to get to know each other better.  Second, we want to help them develop the interview, role-playing, and storytelling techniques they’ll need when it comes time for them to conduct interviews and create dramatic scenarios from the stories they collect.

          We ask them to pair up with a girl who is not their friend. Conveniently, the three new girls, who speak little English, pair up with the three veterans, all of whom speak English well.  Once the girls settle comfortably into their pairs, we explain the exercise.  We ask them to tell each other about one really important event that happened to them recently – an event that made them feel angry, happy, sad, frustrated, proud, or another emotion.  We tell them that -- after their sharing --they will come back into the circle, introduce themselves to the entire group pretending to be their partner, and tell their partner’s story in the first person, using their partner’s voice and mimicking her body language.  We ask the girls to focus less on remembering the details of her partner’s story and more on the emotion her partner conveys through her telling. In this way, we hope to teach them how to capture the essence of a story without getting bogged down in detail.

          Once they understand the instructions, our pairs disappear into corners of the room or step into the hallway to accomplish the task. As usual with any exercise, questions inevitably emerge. 

          “Can we tell the stories in Spanish?”

          “Yes,” we reply instinctively, then add immediately afterward, “When you present your stories to the entire group, however, please devise a plan to present at least parts of the stories in English so that we all understand what’s going on.”

          True, we had told the girls that they could speak, write, and perform in Spanish.  But as the workshop unfolds, our observations tell us an amendment is needed.

          First, the new girls already have signaled their desire to develop confidence speaking English.  Second, we’re already noticing that even the most proficient English speakers in the group are having trouble remembering English words after chattering away in Spanish for the first 45 minutes of the workshop.  Despite the fact that the new girls want to improve their English by participating in this program, it would be easy for all of these girls, including the veterans, to get a little too comfortable with the idea of doing the work of the program entirely in Spanish. If we didn’t encourage the girls to develop their English language skills, we would be letting them down.

          We also remember that we expect two girls who are not Latinas to attend workshops later in the year.  We know from experience as well that some of the girls in this circle may choose or be obliged to drop out of the program for one reason or another.

          As we move from one pair to the next, listening to their conversations, we hear nothing but Spanish.  We’re curious about how the girls will handle the presentations, but we don’t interrupt their work.  We wait and watch. When they’re ready, they reform their circle.  The pair that volunteers to go first crosses to a makeshift stage in front of the group.

          “How should we do this?” Elissa asks.  She is the veteran in this pair.

          Before we can respond, Elissa answers her own question. 

          “We’ll say it in Spanish first, then tell the story again in English.”
          “Good idea,” we say, again, thrilled.  It’s only the first workshop and this veteran is already taking charge of the process and finding a way to manage dual necessities: help her newcomer partner relax and simultaneously nudge her into taking a big brave step into an entirely new experience.

          All of the pairs follow the model proposed by Elissa. They work together to help all of us understand their stories.  When they finish, every girl seems satisfied with her first “performance”.  We’re pleased too.

          We’re confident we can work with both languages after the pairs finish. After tonight’s workshop we know the language buzz will not interfere with our work   On the contrary, we’re very much looking forward to the challenges and possibilities for growth offered by the changing group dynamic of Girls Surviving.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Spirit of GS

The GS Troupe, 2016-17

We are standing on the sidewalk outside the entrance to Frelinghuysen Middle School (FMS).  The troupe is going to perform their latest play for the very first time. Their audience?  About 20 8th grade girls selected by the middle school guidance counselors as potential candidates for the GS summer and fall programs.

Our actresses need reassurance that the event will go smoothly. Some have never performed before, others have switched or added roles at the last minute, one girl is new to the school district and has never set foot in FMS before.  None of them has run through the play from start to finish. So much writing had to be added during the rehearsal period that we never got around to having a dress rehearsal. And it’s the end of the school year with many other demands.

To ease the actresses’ minds, we decide to bill the FMS “performance” as a dress rehearsal.  Still, they’re nervous, even our seasoned seniors.
            “You are so brave,” I tell them as we wait to go inside.

“That’s the spirit of GS, don’t you think?” asks Paula.

“Yes, that is the spirit of GS,” I agree.

            It’s not just a pep talk. It’s true.  Over the years we’ve encountered nerve-wracking circumstances similar to the one I just described.  Every time we do, we watch the girls face down whatever obstacle gets thrown their way, rise to the occasion and finish strong.  That truly is “the spirit of GS.”

            Our girls are brave. The obstacles they face can be daunting. Sometimes they have to jump into new roles at the last minute because family, job or school obligations and emergencies arise that force a cast member to temporarily leave the program.  Sometimes our younger, less experienced girls think it’s okay to miss rehearsal because they don’t understand how essential every person is to the process. Our youngest troupe members are new to playwriting, acting, and the demands of collaborative theater making. It takes time for them to learn the ropes. If one fails to appear at the last rehearsal, someone else has to rise to the challenge of performing her part with almost no rehearsal.  When rehearsal time is extra short, as it was this year, the juggling act is a nail biter, even for a veteran actress.

            Most of our seniors have been in the program for many years and now feel comfortable with unpredictability.  They can handle last-minute casting changes and a shortened rehearsal period more easily than the girls who have never been on the stage before. Still, even seniors know it is risky going into performance without having a dress rehearsal.

Last-minute revisions 

            Experienced or new, however, this year’s troupe rallied, and the FMS “dress rehearsal” was a success. During the performance, audience members audibly expressed sympathy for those characters who suffered at the hands of the characters who behaved irresponsibly.  One scene brought a girl sitting in the first row to tears. After the play and during the talk-back, many of the 8th graders praised our girls for authentically bringing to life situations similar to those that they had experienced in their own lives.

Our girls came away from the performance exhilarated by their success, proud of themselves and their achievement, and primed for their final show.  A week later, they took the stage again, this time for an audience of mostly adults. Once again, as always it seems, there were last-minute surprises.  And, once again, everyone pulled together for another success. 

Year after year we watch the same phenomenal transformation unfold. How is this possible?  Something happened after the last performance that provides an answer. The mother of one of our newest troupe members asked the seniors to offer a bit of parting advice to the younger girls.  Here is some of what they had to say:

“Don’t take yourself too seriously. What’s the point of trying to be somebody you’re not?”

“Even if you don’t think you like writing or acting, give it try.  What have you got to lose?

“Learn to collaborate.”

“Be open-minded.”

Offering Advice
“Be flexible.”


           Their responses were unprompted and thoughtful.  Theirs is good advice for helping girls grow into confident, non-judgmental, generous and articulate young women who aren’t afraid to forge ahead despite the obstacles – or perhaps - to spite the obstacles.  That’s the spirit of GS.

Monday, June 19, 2017

GS Works!

On June 7th, the GS troupe performed their new play, So One Day I Got Lost, for the first time for a group of about twenty 8th grade girls at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown. This yearly event serves as an introduction to GS for girls whom guidance counselors have referred to the program. In their introduction to the play, GS actresses called this year’s performance a dress rehearsal, and it was. Before they performed Lost at Frelinghuysen, actresses had only one complete run through of all scenes with connecting material. Not only that, at that last, mandatory, rehearsal, we were missing a cast member so one of our freshmen girls, a first-time actress, stepped into the role at the last minute. This casting change forced another: to avoid possible audience confusion over the same actress playing two different central characters in two scenes, Elaina, the freshmen who stepped into the new role, and Keisha, one of our senior girls, exchanged roles in another scene. The fact that the troupe was able to present a realistic and moving performance the week after these changes were implemented, with no rehearsals in between, is a tribute to the confidence of the actresses who made the switches and to the flexibility of the other troupe members. It’s also a testimony to the effectiveness of the GS process.
Girls who enter GS don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers or actresses. Most of them have never participated in any theater activity before they join the GS troupe, and some of the girls enter the program with little writing fluency. Yet, after nine months in the program, insecure writers have contributed to deep, insightful theater scripts, and inexperienced actresses are able to realistically portray characters, even with scant rehearsal time. How does the change come about? For a complete and detailed answer, you need to participate in one of our training seminars and read our book, Girls Surviving: Teaching Teen Girls to Speak Out. But the short answer is that the program is designed to give girls a safe place to speak their minds and to take risks without fear of failure, and that the process we’ve put in place to meet those goals works.   

By her third or fourth week in the program, a new girl has begun to form bonds with her fellow troupe members and with program staff. By then she knows that she can say or write anything without being censored; that the group will listen thoughtfully and take her ideas seriously; and that just because someone doesn’t agree with her doesn’t mean she’s wrong. In conversations about writing, she’ll see veteran girls accept suggestions for revisions without getting upset, and she’ll hear staff members readily acknowledge that they may not have the best idea of how something should be done. She’ll also come to understand that, although staff members hold each other and the girls in the troupe to high artistic standards as well as high standards of behavior, that they realized all the skills they value need to be learned, and that it’s okay to be anywhere along the learning continuum, as long as you’re actively participating in workshop activities.
Unlike most conventional theater programs, any pressure a girls feels about the success of her performance comes from within herself. She doesn’t have to memorize her lines because all performances are staged readings. Through weeks of theater games and activities, she has gradually learned to how to embody a character, so, once gentle guidance from her director sets her on course, the rest comes naturally. Her fellow troupe members are flexible and forgiving; she know they make mistakes and need do-overs, too. Also, because they have truly formed a troupe, the girls support each other so that nobody ever looks bad on stage.  All of these things come together to give each girl the confidence she needs to perform successfully.
This confidence was evident in their June 7th performance and in the follow-up discussion with audience members. When asked about their writing and performance process, the answers of the veteran girls showed that they have completely understood and assimilated it. Even the newest girls seemed comfortable talking about their experience. Several moments in the play had elicited audible emotional responses from the audience. There were moments of laughter, but there was also a scene that caused the 8th grade girls to gasp in shock at the way one character spoke to another. Not only were the actresses able to play through these moments as they occurred, but they were also able to talk freely about their own feelings and listen carefully to those expressed by the younger girls in the post-performance discussion. Even (or, perhaps, especially) the actress who, speaking of her comfort on the stage, told the audience, “Right now I am terrified,” is evidence of the program’s success. She spoke with poise and complete confidence that her confession would elicit only sympathy and empathy.

There were years, early on, when Carolyn and I would be nervous wrecks as performance time approached. No more. We’ve learned what’s important, and we know that the girls will be fine.  After all, we’ve been working this program for 12 years.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Watching Them Grow

The girls have been in rehearsal for the past two weeks, and they have two rehearsals to go before their first performance on June 7. There was a time when having so few rehearsals would have worried them, but that time is gone. At least, for this troupe. Five of the eight girls who will be in the play are now experienced GS actresses. They know that they will be able to pull things together in the time they have to practice. As I watched them work on a scene during last week’s workshop, I shared their confidence.
They had begun their work on the “Sandra” scene the week before and, by the time they got through to the end of the scene, everyone agreed that it was a mess. The concept was great, the actresses did their best with the script, but the writing was so weak that the scene made no sense. The problems in the script weren’t apparent to the girls until they saw the piece on its feet. During previous readings, they couldn’t seem to get their heads around problems when Carolyn and I pointed them out; they needed to physically work through writing to find its weak points: speaking the dialogue as they interacted with each other, trying to visualize the setting as they moved in the performance space. Once they saw the problem, they sat back down to fix it, reading through the script, line by line, identifying problems, adding dialogue and suggesting character actions that would help the audience place the characters in the setting and understand the motivations behind their words.
This is part of the GS writing process and, although it is time consuming and can be nerve wracking, especially with show time right around the corner, it works because it is led by the girls. Carolyn and I could have fixed the script in days before the girls first rehearsed it, but we’ve learned that doing so would be counter productive. Last week’s rehearsal of ‘Sandra’ was proof that things work best when the girls do the work.

At the beginning of the workshop, Carolyn handed out new copies of the revised script and the actresses, in character, read it aloud.
“That’s it?” asked Claudia after the actress playing Sandra read her last line, “It just ends like that?”
“The characters are in a group therapy session,” we said, reminding them of the frame that connects the three scenes, “what might she say to the group as this re-enactment of her ‘lost’ experience ends?”
The girls looked back over the last lines and began to talk to each other.
“There are still problems with the Spanish,” said Lisa, whose knowledge of the language is primarily academic. “The word for joke is broma, not bromio.”
(I’ve noticed that the Spanish language skills of our English speakers, including me and Carolyn, have been improving through our work on this bi-lingual scene.)
“And,” added Carmen, who speaks Spanish at home, “I don’t think Sandra would call her parents ‘mis papas’. She would say, “’mis padres’. Papas mean potatoes,” she added.
It can mean parents, too. I say mis papas,” said Giselle, another Spanish speaker.
“C’mon, don’t argue; make a decision,” said Angel. “We only have three more rehearsals.”
“Only three more rehearsals?” This was from newer girls.
“It will be fine,” I said.
“It always is!” Lisa, who is a senior with three years in the troupe spoke with confidence, but I remember the time she was one of those most nervous about our scant rehearsal dates.

After fixing a few more problems, the girls began to rehearse in earnest. Carolyn reminded them of the blocking and the scene began. Angel, the actress playing Sandra, is a freshman who has never acted. As she worked on the scene, playing and replaying her lines at Carolyn’s direction, I watched her develop as an actress, right before my eyes! It was like watching a time-lapse video – one of those where you see a flower sprout, grow, and bloom in just a few minutes. This development is also apparent in the other new girls, and you can see them gain confidence as they begin to feel comfortable in their roles.
The girls worked on the scene, stopping to play something differently when problems developed. Carolyn directed; Renee and I observed and interjected with praise and suggestions. By the final run-through of the scene, near the end of the workshop, it was working.
Two weeks to go. One scene has still to be blocked and rehearsed. But the girls will pull it off and present an emotionally complex and moving performance. They always do.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Time to Act

“I’m so excited to be moving around,” Adrienne said as we gathered into a circle and stretched. The troupe was warming up for their first rehearsal. 

They were ready to act.  The girls don’t come right out and tell us when it’s time to put their pens down and finish writing their play on their feet.  They let us know in other ways. Discussions about problems with the script begin to bog down.  Last week for example, the girls spent about 30 minutes trying to rewrite one line.  Then they started giggling, peeked at their cell phones, chattered about school, the prom, and upcoming exams. Almost in unison, they asked to take a break and bolted for the bathroom. Sitting and talking can become counter-productive when it’s time to polish the writing.

After the girls’ break, we set up a stage area in the classroom we use throughout the school year for every phase of the program – writing, rehearsal and performance. Because it once served as the high school’s dance studio, floor-to-ceiling mirrors dominate two sides of the room. There is no stage either. Finding a place to put the stage, therefore, presents a logistical problem.

“Which is the better option,” we asked ourselves. “Place the stage facing a mirror or place the audience facing a mirror?  Who would be more distracted looking in the mirror, our teenage actors or the audience?”

Our final decision has a lot to do with the reason why we got the girls out of their seats in the first place: lack of movement can lead to distracted behavior.  During the performance, the girls will have too much to do both physically and mentally to notice the mirror, even if they are distractible teenagers.  The audience, however, will be stationary and some will be newcomers to GS performances. We decided that they would be too tempted to take a peek at themselves and check out what else is going on in the room if we stuck them in front of a floor-to ceiling mirror. If one of the goals of theater is to fully engage the audience in the lives of the characters in the play, our choice was clear. What we thought originally was merely a problem of logistics turned into an artistic one.  Logistics and art go hand-in-hand when creating theater.

Later, as we started to block the play, the girls, too, discovered that artistic decisions overlap with practical ones in theater. While they knew they had to get from point A to point B on the stage, they found that the route they chose and the way they moved across the stage could alter the meaning or the impact of the moment. The girls began to notice how some of their movement choices enhanced the dramatic effect of the text more than others. Even a seemingly insignificant change can make a huge difference in the way the audience perceives the characters’ lives and personalities.

We started the blocking with the entrance of a character named Chili.  Initially Chili entered the playing area from the side, but something about her entrance didn’t seem right.  We weren’t sure exactly what was wrong, but we decided to play around with other options. When we changed her entry point to an upstage corner, we knew at once why the first choice didn’t work. Entering from the side, she appeared in profile to the audience, and, as a result, her first line lacked punch. When she came in from upstage, far removed from but fully facing the audience, the character blossomed into the quirky, confident, “chill” 16-year old girl named Chili that our writers had envisioned on paper. Far from falling flat, her first line popped out like a bullet, demanding attention and smiles from the audience.  “Ok girl,” she says as she looks over her friend’s immaculate bedroom, “two words…NEAT FREAK.”

The blocking process also reveals flaws in the writing that the girls fail to notice when they’re focused only on pen and paper.  For example, we knew that the ending of one of the scenes they had been working on was insufficient. While we had been trying to explain that to them for several weeks, it wasn’t until the girls acted the scene out that they realized it too.

As soon as Kate, the actress whose job it was to end the scene, uttered her last line from the stage, she turned to us, incredulous.

“What!” she exclaimed.  “That (line) makes no sense at all!”

“This scene goes off, first in one direction, then in another,” added Suzanne, who had been struggling with her role in the play too. “All my character does is yell,” she also observed.

Staging had provided us with the “teaching moment” we had been waiting for.  Moving through the scene on the stage had allowed the girls to realize on their own what we had been trying to tell them during our writing and discussion workshops.  

Rehearsal invigorates our writing process. Exploring when and how to move with the dialogue frees the girls to explore the script in new ways. By activating another part of the brain, it allows them to discover nuances in the writing that would have eluded them had they never gotten out of their seats.  As a result, they gain insight into what distinguishes dramatic writing from other genres.  They learn how to transform their writing into the unique artistic experience we call theater.