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, March 25, 2018

Slammed with Snow

We’re getting slammed with snow. It’s been coming down hardest on workshop Wednesdays, forcing us to cancel several times during the last two months. Snow days have stalled progress on all fronts, especially the bonding process that is essential to our collaborative approach to writing, rehearsing and performance. 

Until nature interrupted, we were seeing signs that the girls were coming together as a cohesive troupe. With every workshop the recent immigrants in the program, who speak mostly Spanish, and the English-speaking girls, who are troupe veterans, were discovering ways to bridge the language barrier that separates them. The first breakthrough in communication occurred earlier in the year when we were conducting interviews of adults who are recent immigrants and can’t yet speak English.  At that time, we turned for help to Serena and Michele, two veteran troupe members who are bi-lingual. Serena and Michelle worked together like professional translators during the interviews, one of them posing all of the questions to our guests in Spanish while the other translated everything for those of us who don’t speak Spanish. Our non-English speaking girls visibly relaxed as they watched Serena and Michelle working seamlessly as a translating team.  After that, they knew they could trust at least two members of the troupe to help them out if they didn’t understand something or wanted to express their thoughts in English. They began to speak up and ask questions.

During subsequent workshops the pace of the girls’ conversations slowed, allowing for greater understanding. Slowing down helped the girls grow more attuned to each other and deepened their conversations as well as their trust.  It also paved the way for everyone to open themselves to new experiences.  It inspired our English-only speakers, for example, to learn a little Spanish and try acting out the parts of Spanish speaking characters in the play. Watching the English-only speakers struggle to pronounce words in Spanish encouraged our Spanish-only speakers to do the same in English. It lightened the mood, too.  Our girls began to laugh off mistakes.  

As we watched our new Spanish speaking immigrant troupe members grow more confident and outspoken, we also noticed that their reluctance to speak and write in English doesn’t mean they don’t understand English on a very deep level.  As we went around the GS circle one night reading aloud girls’ writing, our Spanish-only speakers read many pages of dialogue written in English.  They made few mistakes and understood almost every word.  When they finished reading, they praised the authors, indicating that they had recognized excellent writing in a language not their own.  Since that workshop, our recent immigrant troupe members have been listening carefully when the staff and veteran English speaking troupe members read their writing aloud so that when it’s time put pen to paper, they can model their writing on that of more experienced writers. 

By the time of our last workshop the Spanish speakers and English speakers - the veterans and the recent immigrants were talking a lot and writing a lot.  They were working collaboratively on their first scene. They were writing bits and pieces of dialogue in their non-native language. They also were taking risks on the stage by exploring ways to expand their dialogues through improvisation – in both Spanish and English. The language barrier that had separated them at the beginning of the year had grown blurry. Workshops flew by.  They ran late. When we last saw each other it was clear to us then that our girls had grown into a bonded troupe and were committed to the collaborative process and the goals of program. 

Thoughtful, deep verbal and written communication is the bedrock of the GS program.  It inspires the trust that is essential to our collaborative playwriting, rehearsal and performance process. Now that all of the girls feel comfortable enough with each other to speak and write from the heart – in whatever language they choose – we’re hopeful that they will bring another beautiful play to the stage this spring.

What we need now is for the snow to melt so that we can help the girls refresh their bonds and resume their work on the play uninterrupted.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Writing Helps Pave the Way toward a More Welcoming Tomorrow

The personal stories told to us by today’s immigrant women and girls are complicated and heart wrenching. All of our guests have told us about their struggles immigrating and adjusting to life in the U.S. with a candor that amazes us.  Hearing their stories has taught us that there is nothing easy about immigrating to this country. We hand out tissues to dry wet eyes during every story.

Then we write.

I don’t think any of us – troupe members or program directors – were fully prepared for the emotional impact these stories would have on us.  Writing is helping us gain perspective on what we’re hearing from those who have shared their stories of immigration with us during our fall workshops.

Some of us are writing personal reflections to help us process our thoughts and feelings. I’m using this blog post, for example, as a way to sort out what I’ve witnessed.  Our girls are writing to reflect too. A couple of weeks ago Serena wrote this reflection about the immigrant experience:

People seek financial security, education, and other benefits to live in this country.  They believe that everyone gets the opportunity to these fairly.  America is shown to be an economic successful country with “equality” and freedom.  Nice towns, houses, great entertainment and food.  This country can be very uninclusive with outsiders.  Some Americans who’ve been here for generations don’t receive fair treatment.  I think this is why so many immigrants still suffer.

Personal reflection is one means that we have open to us as writers and actresses to summarize or synthesize the dizzying details of the immigrants’ stories. Creating fictional characters is another. Since playwriting is a major focus of the GS program, some of us are getting started now to transform what we’ve heard into fiction.  While Serena was writing her reflection, Marianna was writing a monologue for a fictional character named Amy.  Below is most of it:

My Mom’s life was really difficult in Guatemala.  Her name is Maria.  She started working when she was nine!  Her Dad died and she had four other siblings to take care of.  They (my parents) left me over there with my grandmother when I was five.  My parents needed money to help me and my older sister, Angie (eight at the time) have a good education.  My school in Guatemala was really expensive and all the books and supplies cost a lot of money.  Little by little I felt like my Mom wasn’t part of my life.  I started to call my Grandma “Mom” because to me she was my Mom, the one that was always there for me.  As I grew up, I guess it was nice to have everything I wanted, but I didn’t have a Mom that I could talk to or have that connection with.  Same with my Dad.  Although I knew they didn’t forget about me, I missed them.  I saw how my friends’ parents always went to pick them up from school and they always went to every school play but mine didn’t.  This was specially hard when I was younger because I would think they left me because they didn’t love me.  As I grew up I understood why they left me, but I was changing and there were certain things I wish I could have told my Mom but I couldn’t.  Also as I grew up I realized how all my girlfriends were daddy’s little girl and how they would always spoil them but I never even got to hug my Dad.  Sometimes I just wish they would have never left me.  I wish my life could have been like everyone else’s.  But I guess everything happens for a reason.  Although now I talk to them on the phone almost every night, it’s not the same as having them with me.  I just hope one day I will be able to see them and hug them and never have to leave their side ever again.

By creating Amy and imagining her story, Marianna respectfully validated the real life experiences of some of our storytellers without jeopardizing the trust they have placed in us to conceal their true identities.  Writing also provided Marianna with an opportunity to reflect on story details that particularly resonated for her.

The same is true for Teri, who wrote the following monologue for a different fictional character, as yet unnamed:

People say time helps you forget, but the truth is it doesn’t.  How could you forget such traumatic incidents.  Coming to America is like everyone’s dream in El Salvador, and five years ago I got the privilege to come and honestly it’s amazing here.  Everything is a lot better but the trip here was traumatic.  How are you suppose to forget when a guy you don’t even know comes into your bed and touches you and your not allowed to make noise because it can get everyone caught.  Having to eat the same gross food every day I was happy to see my Mom I hadn’t seen in ten years but how could I go to her and tell her all these tragic events it will break her heart.  I couldn’t do it so I kept it to myself but little by little it was and it is killing me I know I need to tell her but I don’t know how and I don’t know when.  How could I tell my Mom and Dad that their little girl was no longer a little girl and that that was taken from her in such a harsh and violent way.

These examples of the girls’ first writing responses to the stories they’ve heard so far are raw and unedited, honest and brave.  Some of this writing will be re-worked and woven into the fabric of the final play the girls write about immigration and integration. Some of it will not.

What is most important right now, though, is that by writing the girls gain insight into the lives of people who live among us in our very own town and who, for the most part, live under the radar. Their writing makes visible and visceral the stories of those who have suffered unimaginable hardships to travel across countries or continents to find a better life in Morristown, NJ.  By confronting through their writing the feelings evoked by listening to the stories of struggle, the girls are gaining a greater understanding of-- and empathy for—people who are their neighbors, and ours. 

Through their writing, and through their play, our girls may be paving the way for a more welcoming tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Listening to Stories of Immigration

For the past few weeks, I have been participating in an historical fiction writing project at a local middle school. Before they began writing their own stories, students read The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli, a YA novel about the experiences of European immigrants to the United States at the turn of the last century. The hero of the book is a nine year old Italian Jewish boy whose mother sent him alone, a stowaway on a cargo ship, from Naples to New York.
At first glance, the tale of a child traveling alone to a foreign country without money or means to make a living seems Dickensian, a story created to evoke the tears of sentimental readers. That is, until we remember that the children in Dickens’s stories were based in truth.
It’s easy to file away stories of child labor, of overcrowded tenement rooms and American orphanages as remnants of our historical past until we hear the stories of children who made treacherous journeys to the U.S. alone last week or last year in hopes of a better life in a new land. Then we realize that the stories we associate with “back in the day” are happening here and now – in the house around the corner, or in the apartments over a storefront three blocks away.

In Girls Surviving, we are hearing stories from women who immigrated to the United States in search of more opportunity for themselves and better lives for their children. At this point, the girls have done formal interviews with five women. However, since we began this project in October, we have heard other stories: personal anecdotes from those of our girls who are, themselves, recent immigrants as well as the stories of friends and family retold by others in the troupe.

Ana left El Salvador when she was eighteen years old because students were being snatched off the street and killed. In fear for Ana’s life, her parents entrusted her to a “coyote,” a man whom they paid to bring her over the border to the United States. She traveled with a group, including many women from her village. The coyote packed his charges into a truck, so crowded that they could barely breathe.

Lisa and her fellow travelers were locked in a house while a coyote waited for payment from their families. Some of the women were raped during this ordeal.

Eliza and her mother made the crossing on foot. They had to travel by night. Eliza was afraid to let go of her mother’s hand through the entire journey.

Olga lives with her family in a crowded apartment they share with other families. The family sleeps and stores their belongings in one room, and for as long as she can remember, the only space Olga can call her own is the bed she sleeps in. 

Gina’s father died when she was seven years old. It was then she began working in the cane fields of Honduras to help supplement her family’s meager income.

Seventeen year old Maria cleans houses in the evening, even on school days. She does her homework before she goes to work.

Although she has been in the U.S. for seven years, Amy has not learned to speak English because she has no time to go to classes. She works two jobs, day and night, seven days a week.

It seems trite to say that hearing these stories has opened a world to me, but it has. The stories celebrate the indomitable spirit of of their narrators, but they also contain scenes that show the extent to which some people perpetuate the suffering of others - either actively, or in ignorance, or because it’s just easier not to notice.               
What we are doing now in Girls Surviving is giving ourselves an opportunity to notice and, for me, it is changing the way I see my community. I have always believed that the U.S. should have an open door immigration policy, but as I listen to the stories being told in our workshops, I realize that, in spite of my ideals, I had formed opinions based on ignorance of the actual circumstances of my neighbors’ lives.

When Carolyn and I imagined the Immigration and Integration project, we knew instinctively that hearing about the experiences of older women in the community, women of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, would enrich the lives of the girls in our troupe. I’m not sure that I realized how much it would enrich mine.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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.