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.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dreams Know No Boundaries

           Phyllis Hassard is a long time friend of Girls Surviving. Periodically she visits us during a workshop to tell her remarkable life story and share her considerable wisdom with the girls.  We’ve heard the story many times, but every time she tells it, we come away from the experience feeling inspired and energized by her charismatic presentation.
          We know that our girls will be inspired too, even though some will struggle at first with a few of Phyllis’ references from her long life and career.
          “I’m here to share.  I’m here to help.  I’m here to tell you to never, ever give up on your dream,” Phyllis tells the girls during her visit last week. “You can do it, but you’ll have to work hard, sometimes 24/7, and you have to stay with it.”

The Latina troupe members who have recently come to the U.S. and who speak little English don’t understand all of what she says. Colloquialisms like “24/7” make no sense to them.  They also haven’t been in the country long enough to be able to comprehend the historical context of her story. They have no idea what it means that Phyllis “broke the glass ceiling,” for example. What they do hear is the passion behind her words and her determination to succeed no matter the obstacle.
          “Your dream must be greater than your fear,” she tells them. “Stand proud and always believe in yourself and all you can – and will – accomplish,” she says as she, herself, straightens her back, adding with a laugh, “I’m so short I have to stand tall!”
          They also understand that her primary struggle was with powerful men. Phyllis entered the work force when few women with her middle class upbringing pursued serious careers. More shocking at the time was that she did it as a single mother. More shocking still was that she decided to pursue a career selling advertizing, a job only open to men.
          While the girls don’t understand all of these details, they do understand oft- repeated phrases like…

“Women are not allowed….” (to be members of Toast Masters).

“There are no women….” (selling advertizing).

“Single mothers don’t….” (get apartments and raise their kids on their own.  They live with their parents). 

“Women don’t….” (go to business conventions or play golf).

By the end of her presentation, the girls understand that no man was going to stop Phyllis from pursuing her dream to become a top executive in the field of advertizing, a position she still holds today more than 30 years later. In other words, they finally understand the underpinnings of the phrase “to break the glass ceiling.”

When the presentation is over, I ask one of our troupe members and a recent immigrant how much she understood.  She gestures that she got the gist of it, then she smiles and adds, “I liked the fish.”  We both laugh. 

No story illustrates Phyllis’ courage and determination more than the story of how she caught a 50-pound fish on a deep sea fishing trip she took with her all male fellow employees while away at a business convention. Every time I hear it, I smile. 

This time in her telling, Phyllis embellishes the story with bigger gestures and broader facial expressions.  Later she tells me that in doing so she hoped to help the girls who don’t speak a lot of English understand more of the story.  They do.  They love it. They all laugh when at the end of the story she shows them with her hands how just big her fish was compared to the puny fish caught by the men.

As I think about Phyllis’ story today – a few days post-presentation - I’m simultaneously thinking about the stories of girls in our troupe who have recently come to our country.  I reflect on the parallels between Phyllis’ experience breaking the glass ceiling and the girls’ experiences crossing the border into the U.S.  Despite their differences in age, race, economic status, language, and culture Phyllis and our young troupe members have a lot in common.  They are fighters and dreamers who dared to take a risk. 

What is astonishing to me is that our girls – our newcomers to the country and to GS – are so very young to have faced such daunting challenges.  I hope that hearing from Phyllis that they are not alone in their struggle - that other people – other generations – including U. S. citizens who come from entirely different backgrounds - have faced down disappointments, abrupt changes in circumstances, and unimaginable difficulties - will help them move forward and never give up.  I hope they come to recognize, as Phyllis did so many years ago, that:

          “When one door closes, a better one will open. Change is opportunity waiting to happen to you."

Friday, November 10, 2017

Finding Our Way in Translation

Last week the girls had their first experience interviewing people whose stories could provide inspiration for the scenes in their new play. As Carolyn wrote in her most recent post, they had created and revised a list of interview questions in previous workshops. They had also interviewed each other. In the workshop Carolyn described, all of the girls present had experienced a move – from a different town, a different country, or a different school. Because everyone spoke and understood the same language, the girls could tell and listen to their troupe mates’ stories of change. The stories were compelling. A couple were heart-rending. After the storytelling, Carolyn conducted playback theater exercises that allowed each girl to watch the others enact part of the memory she had shared. You could almost see the bonds between girls strengthening as they lived for a moment in each others’ lives.

The following week, last week, the dynamic of the workshop changed dramatically. Not only were we back in translation mode, but there were adult guests in the workshop, women unfamiliar to most of the girls. One was the mother of a new participant; the other a non-teaching employee of the school district. One woman had immigrated from Mexico; the other from Poland. One woman understood no English; the other had no Spanish. Both women had volunteered time from their busy lives to help Girls Surviving realize the goals of our immigration/integration project.

As girls and guests arrived, I felt tension in the room. With the exception of Carolyn and me, I don’t think anyone was sure of what was expected of them. The guests had agreed to talk about their lives, but I don’t think they knew why we wanted to hear their stories. The girls felt the discomfort that children often feel in the company of unfamiliar adults and I imagined that the girl whose mother accompanied her to the workshop also carried every teenager’s dread that her parent would say or do something to embarrass her. And someone was going to have to translate every question and every answer from English to Spanish or vice-versa. However, almost as soon as the interviews began, the tension started to dissolve.
Although we sat in our usual Girls Surviving circle, the girls interviewed our guests separately. The school employee went first because she was taking time off from work to be with us. Someone explained this to the mother, who seemed okay with waiting, and the girls began by asking the questions on their list. As the interview continued, questions began to elicit stories.

Here are some examples.

“Did you want to come to this country?”
“I felt I had to come. My husband had immigrated to the United States and I wanted my children to be with their father, so I decided to go and find him. My children and I left the house we owned, I left my good job, and we traveled together to a strange country. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to find my husband.”

“Did you have family here when you came?”
“My husband’s brother lived in Morristown. That’s why we moved here. You need family. Otherwise, there is no one to recommend you for jobs or housing. In Mexico, our town was very poor. We worked hard and made very little money. There was not even enough to buy food and clothing for the children. So we left the children with my mother and went to the U.S. We walked across the border. It took a long time and at night, we would hide in the bushes when we heard a helicopter overhead. But it wasn’t as hard as it is now. Once we were working in the U.S., we sent money to my mother for the children’s education. School in Mexico is very expensive and we wanted our children to have a good education.”

“How hard was it to learn English?”
“Very hard. When I first came here, I couldn’t understand anything. I was embarrassed to try to talk. My daughter learned very quickly so she became my translator.”

“I have had no time to learn English. I work from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m. the next morning”

Every question and answer was translated by one of the bilingual girls in the group which meant that, at every exchange, part of the group was in the dark for a few minutes. But it didn’t seem to matter. Once our guests began talking, story followed story. Everyone was engaged and connected to each other. When Guest A heard that Guest B had suffered hardship for the sake of her children, she nodded understanding. It was her story, too.
The girls also made connections.
“That reminds me of what happened to my mother,” said Carmen. “Her family was very poor when she lived in Ecuador and she had to start working when she was very young.”
“My parents work all of the time,” said another girl, the daughter of recent immigrants. “They do it so my brother and sister and I will have a better life.”

It is important for our girls to have an opportunity to speak and write about their own life experiences, and after watching them interact with the women in that workshop, I realized how important it is for them to also hear, talk, and write about the experiences of other women in the community: women of different generations and different cultures.

This first evening of interviews gave me confidence that our immigration/integration project will be successful. When the interview process was only theoretical, I worried that people would be reluctant to talk about their experiences, but last week’s interviews made it clear that people will talk. They seem to need to talk. And hearing their stories has already created understanding and opened channels of communication that didn’t exist before they were told.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Empathy Steers the Conversation

          We start with check-in, as we often do.  Each girl takes her turn to say something about her week.  Others jump in to ask her questions or make comments.  They’re not trying to be disruptive; they’re just eager to take part in the conversation.  Nevertheless, when we hear too many interruptions during check-in, we usually encourage the girls to listen quietly so that every girl has a chance to speak and be heard.

          This time, though, we don’t interfere. Tonight is different.

          Tonight is the first time since the start of the fall semester that everyone in the circle can engage in a free flowing conversation because it is the first time everyone in the circle can speak English well enough to do it.  As we’ve explained in previous blogposts, we welcome the participation of girls whose English is limited, but their involvement in the group also shapes the way we communicate with each other.  So far this year that has meant one or two sentence check-ins. 

          Tonight, in English, a range of topics - from grades and teachers to horror movies and books - mark the conversation. The girls are visibly relieved and happy to vent their frustrations, discover more about what they have in common, and laugh. They talk until they’re talked out.

          When the conversation finally sputters, we direct the group’s attention to our planned activities.  Because they’ve used so much time talking, we know they can’t check off everything on the list, but we also know that freeing their teen voices during check-in will prove beneficial, and it does.

          Relaxed and prolonged conversation allows the girls to grow closer together as a group and develop the kind of trust in each other – and in us - that enriches the work they do afterward on this year’s special project.  The project involves writing a play based on the personal experiences of girls and women in the community who have lived through one of the two times the Morris School District has undergone great change: the 1972 court mandated merger to integrate the schools and the recent (and current) influx of immigrants into the community. The troupe will conduct interviews with those who volunteer to tell their stories in order to create authentic characters and plot lines for their play.

          After the long check-in, the girls thoughtfully consider how best to prepare for their interviews with recent immigrants.  They’re scheduled to start the following week. They begin by reviewing the list of interview questions they’ve already developed.  After making a few changes to it, they scan the more substantive questions and nod their approval:

          -Is this country different from what you thought it was before you came?

          -How different is life here from what you knew before?

          -What was your job in your native country?

          -Is your work different here?

          -Did you speak English before you came?

          -If not, how hard is it to learn English? Do you speak now?

          -What was your life like before you came?

          -How did you come here?

          -Did you want to come?

          We approve the list too. These questions undoubtedly will elicit stories that accurately capture the immigrant experience.

          The introductory questions on the list, however,  – seemingly simple questions like “What is your name?” and “How are you?” - raise concerns for the girls about how to establish rapport with those being interviewed.

          Noelle starts the conversation. “Which of those two questions, ‘What is your name?’ and ‘How are you?’ do we ask first?”

          “Yeah, it’s kind of awkward,” says Sabrina.

          “We want to make people feel comfortable,” adds Gabriella.

          “Yes, that’s why we cut the question ‘How old are you?’ and substituted ‘How old were you when you came here?’ and ‘How long have you been here?’  Because some older people don’t like to say their age,” says someone else in the group.

          The concerns the girls raise in this brief conversation reflect the empathy they’re feeling for the volunteer storytellers. 

          They are the daughters of first generation immigrants.  They have first hand knowledge of the hardships immigrants experience before, during, and after coming to this country. They’ve already heard stories.  They know the risks involved in telling them to strangers. They also understand how difficult it is communicate deep thoughts and feelings in a foreign language.  While most of their peers haven’t traveled much outside of the United States, had to speak a language other than English on a daily basis, and almost certainly haven’t lived for an extended period of time in another country, these girls have been straddling two entirely different countries, cultures, and languages their whole lives.   They’re clearly concerned for the safety and overall wellbeing of those who are brave enough to speak candidly with them and us.

          Their sensitivity to the needs of the guest speakers prompts more talk. This time, though, their talk has nothing to do with their day-to-day lives.  It focuses instead on the feelings of others.

          “How are we going to conduct the interviews?” they wonder out loud.

          “How are we going to make people feel comfortable?” 

          They turn to us for answers.

          “We should sit in a circle,” suggests Paula.

          I agree. “When we first talked about these questions, we thought you could interview people in pairs or groups,” I explain, “but sitting all together makes more sense.”

          What had worked when we envisioned the project on paper wasn’t working now that the interview process had been made more real to us by the girls’ observations.  Our conversation with the girls had changed everything.  As it continues, we realize that what might work instead is the model we have been following all night and we come up with a plan:

          Before asking any questions of our guests we will form a Girls Surviving circle, introduce ourselves, share snacks, and talk for a while.  We will connect through extended conversation.  We might even vent frustrations, find out what we have in common, and laugh as we did during this workshop. We will establish trust. 

          The challenge, however, will be to do it in both Spanish and English because it is entirely likely that at least one of our guests will not speak English.

          Since Paula and I don’t speak Spanish, it will be up to the girls to guide the conversation.  We’ve always given girls leadership opportunities in Girls Surviving.  We’ve encouraged them to help direct the plays, mentor inexperienced troupe members, direct workshop activities, develop workshop curricula, and lead workshops without our assistance.  Still, necessity has never motivated our actions until now.  We’ve not had to completely rely on the girls to take charge.

          Next week, however, we will turn over the workshop to them, and we’ll do it with complete confidence in their ability. We’ve watched the way they bonded through conversation tonight.  We’ve observed their concern for the welfare of our guests being translated into a solid strategy for conducting the interviews.  We know that they are bilingual and capable of carrying on relaxed, prolonged, and deep conversations in both Spanish and English. We know that we can proudly pass the reins of the program into their capable hands.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Small but Mighty Adult Troupe

          “Good morning, and welcome,” I begin.  As I scan the faces of the six women sitting in our circle, I add with a chuckle, “We are a small group, but mighty.” As it turns out, that offhand comment proves prophetic.

          This is the first of a two-day intensive training workshop for teachers, counselors, teaching artists, and other professionals who are interested in starting programs similar to Girls Surviving (GS) or incorporating elements of it into existing programs. Of the many who expressed interest in the workshop, these six teachers were able to clear their calendars enough to attend.

          Light laughter follows my remark.

          We’re used to working with small groups. The numbers in our GS workshops can fluctuate from 14 to two because, like most adults, our teens have too much on the plates. That doesn’t stop the work of the program, and it won’t stop us today. We know from experience that we can work well with six. 

          What we don’t know at the start is that we will be training an exceptional group of women. Our workshop goal is to recreate the yearlong GS writing, rehearsal, and performance process in two days.  It’s a daunting task, but it doesn’t take long for us to realize that these women will make our job easy. They’re all accomplished teachers. Two are professionally trained theater artists and two are musicians.

          Because two in the group trained with us in last year’s two-day intensive, we know they will be able to help us mentor the newcomers.  It is, in fact, their enthusiasm for the work that paves the way for the collaboration that ensues. They take the lead during introductions, speaking at length about their positive experience last year.  Newcomers who were wondering whether it was worth it to travel so far or get up so early for this workshop begin to relax and look forward to it. By mid-morning the conversation has opened up and the participants seem comfortable with each other and the process.

          Discussions flow easily after that. The conversation following the Grimm Fairy Tale that Paula tells goes deep in a matter of minutes. The story raises questions for the group about gender; family dynamics; and the reasons why people bully, make assumptions about others, or feel entitled to be complacent. Subsequent improvisatory explorations of those questions inspire an even deeper discussion of personal experiences with these issues.

          The writing that emerges from these activities amazingly includes aspects of the fairy tale, the improvisations and the discussions.  Each piece is written in a style that reflects the writer’s unique point of view. There are poems, dialogues and stories.  Remarkably, too, all of the writing focuses on the same theme, and by the end of the day, the group has revised their initial writing to create the guts of a richly textured scene about gender identity.  It’s a mighty impressive accomplishment for a six-hour session.

          After a couple of warm-ups the next day, the group gets right to work reading, staging, improvising revision possibilities, and finalizing their script for a staged reading.  They seem to let go of their real-life roles as teachers, wives, or mothers and embrace that of theater artist. They’re so completely immersed in the playmaking process that time loses relevance.  Ideas for scene expansion and refinement bounce from one to the other.  We join the creative fray, adding comments and suggestions until we see that progress has stalled. 

          We realize then that it’s time for us to disengage a bit as collaborators and secure our mentor hats. As artists, we’ve been through what our participants are experiencing. They’re stuck and they don’t know it. It happens in creative bursts all the time.  We get so caught up in our art making that we lose perspective.  Our super group is too close to their work. In these instances it takes an outside observer to help move the process forward.

          I step outside the conversation to assess why our creative team is stuck. I look at my watch.  We’ve been at this for a while. Then I look around the room and see that three of our six have been simultaneously acting, directing, and trying to revise for a very long time without a break.  At the same time the other three have joined in from their seats as audience members and directors, but they haven’t had a chance to perform. That’s the problem.  We’re not the only ones who need to change hats. It’s time to switch things up.

          I invite the three who have been watching to take roles and play the scene. The change in perspective makes the path forward clearer to everyone.  The three new actresses embody the characters differently and in ways that deepen our understanding of the transformation that occurs in the story. Their performances allow the three actresses who initially played the characters to discover possibilities for scene revision that they couldn’t have imagined when they were so deeply engrossed in acting out the parts.

          Everyone now is a full participant. Each person is an audience member and actress, a writer and a director, an observer and an active player.  Now that everyone has had a chance to act, casting the staged reading seems obvious. Roles are selected or assigned without fanfare – something that doesn’t always happen when we work with teenagers. The scene requires five actresses.  That means that one of our six women doesn’t have a part. She’s okay with it. One of our veteran workshop participants, she has developed into a skilled director and seems content taking on that role. 

          As co-directors of GS, however, we’ve learned how important it is for every group member to be involved in every aspect of the process, from developing play ideas and observing rehearsals to acting in the final production. Only then will everyone’s voice be heard. We’ve seen over and over again the way that full participation validates each person’s contribution and unites the group into a cohesive troupe.

          Still, as we do in GS, we allow the group to take the lead, and we abide by their casting decisions.  They’re good ones.  One of the musicians has brought her guitar and is primed to play the guitarist in the scene.  The other musician really wants to be the drummer, and one of the lead authors of the scene takes on a role she largely created. The two women with theater backgrounds perform the other parts.  The five actresses perform beautifully while our director watches intently and provides great feedback afterward.

          Before everyone takes their places for another run through, though, Paula says, “I’d like to see how the scene works if we add an actress to play Jason’s feminine self, Layla.  She could be his shadow.”  Jason is the central character.  The scene traces his transformation from male high school football star to sexy female lead singer in a band. Only one cast member – let’s call her Sara – played the part of Jason in the first run through.  The transformation worked well, but the idea of one actress playing the male version of Jason while another plays Layla, the female version, intrigues our group.

          “When Jason’s transformation is complete, the actress playing Layla could take Sara’s place at the end of the scene,” adds someone else from the group. 

          We agree.  Switching actresses to dramatize what is a physical as well as an emotional transformation might make a powerful statement about the significance of Jason’s journey.  It’s worth a try, the group decides. Another benefit of adding a character, of course, is that all six women will have parts. While our director was not unhappy sitting on the sidelines, she clearly is thrilled to join the other actresses on the stage.

          All six take their places and for a second time that day the actresses discover possibilities for revising and playing the scene that they couldn’t have imagined without switching things up. And again, it took an outside voice to guide the group in a direction that allowed everyone’s participation in the production.

          The final performance is as powerful as we thought it would be.  In fact, it’s mighty powerful.  While Paula and I watch Jason’s transformation into Layla unfold on our makeshift stage, I marvel at another transformation that is occurring and that has been evolving over the past two days: in just 12 hours a group of strangers has morphed into a bonded troupe.

          As we debrief afterward, we discuss the transformation that has occurred both on and off the stage.  We talk about how unified we feel as a group and how remarkable it is that we learned so much about each other at the same time that we were developing complex characters for the scene.  We acknowledge that the collaborative playmaking process demands a lot of it’s participants – to work in ways that sometimes don’t suit our style or make us feel uncomfortable; to take risks doing something we think we can’t possibly do; to be alert to the sensitivities of others; to develop a sixth sense about when to speak and when to listen, when to observe the action and when to jump into it; and, something that is especially important for group leaders of this process - when to allow the creative process to unfold unimpeded and when to intercede, give feedback, provide guidance, or simply switch things up.

          What’s most clear to us, though, during the discussion is that we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working and learning together. We feel lucky to have met each other, and we take a few minutes before saying our goodbyes to celebrate our good fortune with a few personal reflections and songs performed by our musicians. We may be a small group, but we part with a wonderful feeling – a mighty feeling – about what’s possible when everyone has a voice.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Getting Back in the Groove

Just before last week’s workshop, Carolyn and I got together to refine our plans for the two-day intensive professional development training we would be leading at the end of the week. However, before we got to the training, we began to talk about our recent GS workshops. We had both been thinking about the problems we, as mono-lingual teachers, would have if we attempted to implement bilingual workshops for the new troupe.
“You know,” said Carolyn, “I was watching the girls while you were telling the story last week, and I think they comprehended a lot of it without translation.”
I had noticed the same thing.

To back up a bit, in the previous week’s workshop we had used oral storytelling as a writing prompt. I told a folktale in English, stopping frequently so that Julia, one of our bilingual troupe members, could translate for the newest English language learners. However, as I told the story, using gesture and changing voice and facial expression to represent character speech, movement, and emotion, I was watching the faces of the girls. I could see from their expressions that they were “in” the story through much of my telling. I think that, in many cases, Julia’s translation simply affirmed their interpretation of my performance.

“So,” Carolyn continued, “I’ve been thinking that we could conduct the workshops in English. After all, I think that one reason the new Latinas have joined is to have a safe space to practice English.”
We talked more about the idea and came to the conclusion that Carolyn’s idea was the best strategy we have for moving forward. In the first two workshops of the season, we asked the girls who are bilingual to translate every word spoken in English into Spanish, and vice versa. Although we had come up with activities to break the monotony of constant translation, we were both concerned that all of the girls, those who speak only English or only Spanish, as well as the translators, would get bogged down in the language problem and, as a consequence, lose their enthusiasm for the work of writing and performing. We were also concerned that the indirect communication would limit the possibilities in discussion and, ultimately, in the play the girls will write this year. So, we planned a workshop that we hoped would encourage the new girls in the troupe to practice their English language skills.

When the girls arrived, even before our check-in, we asked the new girls if they wanted the program to help improve their English. They all said yes. Once we had established that we had consensus, we laid out a plan for future workshops:
·      Check-ins and discussions will be spoken in English,
·      Writing will be in English unless it is more appropriate to write in Spanish, for example, if characters are Spanish speakers,
·      It’s always okay to ask for clarification, including translation, when you don’t understand something,
·      It’s always okay to make mistakes.

Then, we had an English-only check-in in which every girl spoke! After check-in, we played a crazy game, the object of which was saying the alphabet in English as we tried to keep a beach ball in the air. Girls laughed, jumped around, groaned when we dropped the ball and had to begin again from “A”, and then laughed some more. I think anyone who had a shred of self-consciousness at the beginning of the workshop lost it during that game. At least, the work the girls did in the follow-up activity supported that impression.
After the game, we did something that I don’t think we’ve ever done with a new troupe – we asked them to read a scene from a Girls Surviving play. The scene we had selected was from So One Day I Got Lost, the play performed in June. We chose the scene because we thought it would be a good introduction to the interview work we’re planning for the coming weeks. In the scene, Sandra, an immigrant from Honduras, tells a story about the communication problems she had when she first moved to the U.S. About a quarter of the dialogue in the scene is in Spanish. Both new and veteran girls agreed to read. The Spanish speakers did a great job reading in English which gave all of the new girls more confidence to take parts and read again.

After the second reading, Julia asked, “Can we act it?”
We could! Julia, who had played the part of Sandra in the June performances, directed the staged reading. Carolyn and I sat back and let it happen. It was terrific. The girls changed roles and did it a second time before we sat down to discuss our main workshop objective: deciding what kinds of questions we should ask the recent immigrant girls and women we hope to interview for our Immigration/Integration project.

We talked a little about questions, but mostly, the girls told stories about their own experiences or the immigration experiences of other girls in their classes. I don’t remember how much translation was needed in this discussion because the talk was comfortable and deep. Everyone listened, most of the girls spoke. We had, somehow, managed to slip back into Girls Surviving mode.