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, September 30, 2012

Learning to Lead: Bumps Along the Way

It is gratifying to see one of the girls take responsibility for the troupe, especially when she demonstrates, like the girl in Carolyn’s recent post, that she has absorbed and synthesized the lessons we try to teach. The situation Carolyn described was one we haven’t encountered before, that is, the opportunity for the girls to act independently of us in a public forum. However, we frequently see quieter examples of girls taking leadership roles in our day-to-day workshops: the experienced troupe member who takes a new girl under her wing, an older girl who firmly but calmly addresses the disruptive behavior of younger girls, a girl who responds compassionately to the sorrow or anger of a sister troupe member, or a girl who takes charge of a group exercise.
This hasn’t always been the case. When the program was young, there were times when the majority of girls would acquiesce to the strongest personality in the room, sometimes to the detriment of the troupe. This neither surprised nor discouraged us. It’s normal adolescent behavior to follow the crowd, and consequently, the ability to ignore negative peer pressure is one of the strengths we try to teach. When we see a problem in the group, it becomes ‘a teaching moment,’ and Carolyn and I take advantage of the opportunity to help the girls face the issue and figure out how they’re going to handle it by making it part of our work. We do this in several ways: by introducing literature that highlights the issue, by talking and writing about similar situations, and by re-enacting scenes, improvised or written by one of the girls, that focus on the problem at hand. That said, one girl who is determined to take control of a workshop can really cause problems for the program as a whole.

So far, this has happened only once, but it was traumatic. It also helped Carolyn and me re-evaluate our approach to setting limits. The girl in question (I’ll call her Lulu) had an expansive personality, but very few socialization skills. As long as she was the center of attention, she was okay, but when things didn’t go her way, she would throw a fit. One night she stomped out of a workshop because she didn’t get the role she wanted to play in a public reading. (Carolyn and I never assign roles for performances; we let the girls decide how to make those decisions. In this case, the parts were drawn from a hat.) Lulu came back the next week and was welcomed as if nothing had happened. Again, this is the kind of behavior we try to help girls control. We didn’t give in to her demands, but we also didn’t exclude her from the group for her inappropriate actions.
After that incident, though, it became clearer that Lulu could cause real trouble. She began doing things to erode the fragile trust that we had managed to establish among troupe members and staff. She took advantage of any time alone with me or Carolyn to complain or gossip about the other girls. We also heard that she spread rumors in school about some of the girls in the troupe. This, of course, would have been a profound betrayal, but because everything the adults in our group knew about it was hearsay, we didn’t feel justified in reprimanding Lulu on her out-of-workshop behavior.
In Lulu’s case, our usual approach of examining the problem through the work was unsuccessful. In fact, things got much worse when we began trying to write our new script. Because she didn’t want to write, Lulu began to co-opt workshops by talking. She tried to dominate every discussion and, if Carolyn and I had let her, she would have talked through each entire two-hour workshop. When we intervened to allow other girls to speak, or to get down to writing, Lulu would find a way to redirect the group’s attention to herself. Although she was among the youngest in the group and her behavior verged on bullying, the other girls didn’t protest. They seemed willing to let her keep manipulating the situation.

A few weeks went by with no improvement. Our work was at a standstill, and I was growing increasingly frustrated with my inability to get it started again. Partly as a result of this frustration, I became more intent on replacing discussion with writing. I hoped that if the other girls were given the opportunity to write, they would feel more empowered to take charge of the situation in the workshop. Also, I wasn’t ready to give up on Lulu. I think that adults who work with troubled children often feel they need to give them ‘one more chance’ to change their behavior, and I hoped that once the other girls began creating material for the play, Lulu would realize that the best way to get the attention she craved was by contributing meaningfully to the group project. Boy, was I was wrong.

One night, after a couple of workshops in which I had insistently re-directed the girls to write, Lulu exploded. She began to scream that I was inhibiting everyone’s creativity, that I should realize that no one wanted to write, that the program wasn’t fun, and that I was insensitive to the feelings of the girls. The tirade went on for some time. I was flabbergasted. In more than fifteen years of teaching, I had never been the butt of a student’s public anger. I had seen students break down or become violent in class, and when it happened, I had often felt that the classroom teacher had provoked the situation by his or her inability to give up some control. On reflection, I realize that was the case with Lulu. I had provoked her attack by trying to take control of the workshop activities, but I also realize that I was justified in wanting that control.
When Lulu started screaming, the other girls sat frozen. As I remember it, they watched the scene unfold without saying a word. The counselor in the workshop that night was Kim Campbell-Studer. Kim had worked in prisons and youth detention centers before becoming a school counselor, so she had experience dealing with violent outbursts from people who were much more dangerous than Lulu. But when Kim attempted to ease the tension by trying to coax the other girls into a discussion, she became the focus of Lulu’s verbal assault. Throughout Lulu's tirade, the adults in the room stayed outwardly calm. We let her continue to talk and, when we could get a word in edgewise, we kept our voices quiet and our statements neutral. When she realized her words weren’t having the desired effect, Lulu jumped up and ran from the room. And all the other girls ran after her! Carolyn, Kim, and I watched them go and wondered what we could possibly do to bring things back to order.

At this point in the story, I have to set the scene a bit more clearly. It was about 7:00 on a dark autumn evening. We were meeting in a classroom in the mostly empty high school. There may have been a few other student activities taking place, but the most prominent people on the scene were janitors and security guards. 
We decided that Kim was the best person to go in pursuit of the girls. Someone had to make sure they were safe and try to coax them back into the room. This took some doing. When Kim found them, they were all outside in the dark. Lulu was crying hysterically and several of the other girls were also crying. Kim let them cry it out, before suggesting that they come back in to talk things over. When they got back inside, most of them didn’t seem upset. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Here was high drama of the kind that young teens love best – a young victim reduced to tears and crying out against her adult persecutors. When Kim suggested that each girl express her own feelings about what had happened, the two or three girls who wanted to talk said nothing to contradict Lulu’s accusations. Yet, I knew that most of the girls liked me, and that some of them liked me a lot. So what was going on? I think that Lulu had dared to do something they had all wanted to do at some time or another –  loudly vent their anger at authority. At the moment it didn’t matter to them whether or not her accusations were true or her behavior was justified. She have become their advocate and it was a thrilling situation.

So what did we do? Our actions for the rest of the workshop mostly amounted to crowd control. We kept the girls in one place until it was time for them to get picked up by parents or taken home by one of us. Afterwards, however, we reflected on the evening and the events leading up to it and tried to figure out how to prevent another such episode. One thing we learned from Lulu is that Girls Surviving isn’t for everyone. Although we believe it  improves the girls’ social skills, it is not simply a group for socializing. It is also not a program that can afford to focus on the needs of one child at the expense of the others. It is a troupe of writers and performers, and behavior that betrays the trust or weakens the collaborative abilities of the troupe can’t be tolerated. 
Lulu also taught us something about our own leadership roles in the troupe. Carolyn and I do not see ourselves as the supreme rulers of the Girls Surviving troupe. We are happiest when the girls take charge. In workshops, we honor their ideas above our own and we encourage them to guide the development of each play. We also do not want to be disciplinarians. Although it is our job to teach the girls to control their own behavior, we don’t want to do it with lectures or admonishments. We prefer to lead by example. That said, I don’t think we, or at least I don’t think I, set the right example in the Lulu situation. By tolerating her negative behavior, well after we saw how destructive it could be, we caused confusion in the group about the boundaries of acceptable behavior. The other girls weren’t sure how we expected them to behave. I also think we weren’t sure, ourselves, about the limits and responsibilities of our role as adult leaders. We needed to clarify, in our own minds, what the girls should be able to expect of us. 
In the days and years since Lulu's explosion, Carolyn and I have continued to refine our ideas about how best to lead the troupe. Learning to lead is, like all the work we do, a process. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


One of the joys of Girls Surviving is watching teenage girls discover new strengths and talents, take responsibility for their contributions to the work of the program, assume leadership positions within the group and make choices in their lives that help them grow.

In my last post, I described a girl from our first troupe who felt insecure about her playwriting ability when she first joined us but who became a group leader by performance time.  She attributed the personal growth she experienced to the safe, inclusive environment provided by the Girls Surviving program.

Sometimes, however, specific opportunities come along that allow the girls to grow in unexpected ways.  One such opportunity presented itself just a couple of weeks ago.  The organizer of a community wide back-to-school rally approached us about showcasing the girls’ work at the event.  She told us the girls could perform a scene from their latest play and hand out fliers about the upcoming fall semester program.  We thought this would be a great way to reach a wider community audience, recruit new girls and give troupe members another outlet to perform.  The only problem was that both Paula and I had plans to be out of town the day of the rally, so there would be no adult leader present to supervise.

We knew the current troupe had matured a lot during the summer program and wondered if one of the girls could organize a 10-minute presentation without us.  Our recent high school graduates, most of them long-time troupe members, were starting college or full-time jobs; their energies were directed elsewhere.  The next most experienced girl was only a sophomore.

While young to take on the responsibility, this girl had participated in many different ways. She had watched several performances and peaked in on workshops and rehearsals long before she joined three years ago.  A terrific poet, she often wrote pieces the other girls could develop into prologues or epilogues for our plays.  When she was cast in a small role one year, she assisted with direction and stage lighting.  She also seemed comfortable broaching difficult subjects that opened doors to frank group discussions and interesting play topics.

Because of the breadth of her experience with the program and her self-confidence, we were sure “Z” could bring together a small cast and rehearse a scene for the rally.  Our concern was that the venue could present daunting challenges for a novice teenage troupe leader and young actresses.  Our experience as traveling performers had taught us that conditions at some sights can be so unpleasant and unpredictable that they completely derail the performance.  We didn’t want our mini-troupe to come away feeling like they failed when the problems were created by others.

As we hammered away at the pros and cons, it finally dawned on us that the girls already had successfully dealt with challenging performance circumstances, including one of the most scary:  replacing actresses who, for one reason or another, didn’t show up at show time.  Within the last year, in fact, three girls had to step into new roles at the last minute during a single performance. 

We agreed, then, that the girls probably knew how to rescue a performance if they ran into problems, so we asked “Z” to get the project up and running.  We were not disappointed in the decision.  “Z” threw herself into finding a cast, adapting a scene for the particular venue and scheduling a rehearsal.  In a matter of days, she asked me to watch them practice at her house.  As I parked my car, I saw her and her mini-troupe of younger, less experienced girls sitting on a wall next to the driveway talking and writing.  They were working out who would do what when.  The least experienced girl was writing a play summary in monologue form so that the audience would understand the context of the scene. When she was finished, they ran through their script on the sidewalk, as “Z” and I watched from the bottom of the driveway. With commuters zooming past on the busy street, with runners and dog walkers scooting around them on the sidewalk, the three actresses belted out their words like pros, oblivious to the commotion.  A big smile spread across “Z’s” face as she watched and when our applause died down at the end, she called out the praise every actor wants to hear from a director:  “I’m so proud of you guys.”  “Yeah,” one girl laughed, and turning to me, added “she told us she’d kill us if we didn’t speak really loud and pronounce our words.”  Everyone laughed.  The girls were relaxed, confident and energized by what they were doing on their own.   I told them then, when they looked at me expectantly for my reaction, “You are awesome!”  I meant it, and I drove away infected by their enthusiasm.

The inevitable unpredictable challenges that awaited the girls at the rally did not diminish that enthusiasm or their confidence.  They came away from the event laughing it off as a good learning experience. Lots went wrong and many last minute changes had to be made.  The organizer had double booked their performance slot, so the girls had to wait an extra half hour to perform.  When they realized that the performance preceding theirs really was a church organized prayer meeting, they edited their script on the spot so that the audience wouldn’t be offended by any of their teenage slang.  When it was time to perform, there were kids running around screaming, kids playing basketball and others dancing to sax music.  There was so much noise they couldn’t shout over it, so they abandoned all stage movement and hovered around a single microphone in order to be heard. 

Some professional performers would not have been flexible enough to adapt to the situation the way our girls did.  Others might have been too insecure to admit afterward what our girls did:  sometimes it’s better not to accept an offer if the circumstances aren’t right for you.  When I had a chance to talk to “Z” about what happened, she was still relaxed and proud of her cast. 

I’m really glad chance intervened to prevent Paula or me from being involved that day.  It gave us an opportunity to step back and let our girls discover for themselves their unique leadership capabilities.  We learned that even our youngest, least experienced girls can rise to the occasion if they feel fully supported and invested in the program.  As a result of entrusting them with the project, they learned how to summon their knowledge, experience, common sense, talent and strength to work together toward a goal with purpose, conviction and pride.  They are, indeed, awesome.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Early Days - Moving Forward With The Work

We have written a lot about the importance of building and maintaining trust to the success of our program.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the techniques and exercises we used with the first group of girls we worked with to actively involve them in the process that would culminate in the performance of their original play. As Paula explained in her last post, there were challenges engaging this at-risk population from the group home in our work, but we did not give up.  Sometimes the objective of writing and performing a play had to simmer on the back burner while we attended to what was sizzling before our eyes, but it wasn’t forgotten.  Patience, persistence and flexibility helped us gradually enter the girls’ lives and involve them in activities that transformed their personal issues into opportunities for learning how to write and perform a play.

We knew from experience that we needed as much maneuverability as possible to get the work done, so we started by calling ourselves mentors, not teachers. We told the girls that everyone, including the counselors and ourselves, would participate in all of the activities.  When we planned the workshops together, we overstuffed our agendas with exercises, knowing we might need to shift gears.  We loosely structured each workshop to include a preliminary theater or writing warm-up, a literary experience, a discussion, an improvisation and a focused writing and oral reading activity. We knew that we might not do everything on that list, but the list was there, in the back of our minds, to call on if needed.

We started many sessions with what we call “free writing,” journaling about whatever comes to mind, in any order in which it appears in the brain, without attention to spelling or grammar, without fear that it will be read.  During the exercise we ask the writers to share aloud what they have written but show respect if they pass.   We also ask permission to take the journals home, read the entries and write comments about them, but we do not touch pages that have been folded over and marked “private.” If permission is granted, we read and provide positive feedback. Free writing worked particularly well in this setting because it respectfully invited the girls to write and share.  In a House full of rules and regulations, it placed no demands and offered complete freedom. 

The girls in the home loved choosing their own spiral writing notebook from the array of colorful ones laid out for them and couldn’t wait to read our comments every week. The responses soothed their fragile egos and encouraged them to try the program again. One girl journaled about feeling, not like a survivor, but a “girl surviving,” and was surprised and honored when we suggested “Girls Surviving” as the name of the group.  She came back as often as she could.  Another wrote that she might leave the group because she felt inadequate writing plays but was convinced to stay when I commented that her dialogue writing was pitch perfect and Paula assured her that our final script could include any form of writing, including her favorite, poetry.  She became a leader within the group and, later, a summer intern.  I established instant trust with yet another when I read aloud an entry of mine that included some slang I’d learned in one of my other classes.  She burst out laughing when she heard me say, as only an older white female can, “mad jealous.”  She joked that I might become a very different person if I continued to use slang like that, to which I replied, “You don’t know where I been girl.”  More laughter erupted.  Later, as we packed up to leave, she started to say politely, “See you next week,” but stopped midway through and changed it to, “See you in a mad minute.”  We all walked away from the evening laughing.  Without opening a textbook, a lesson had been imparted about the power of words to move an audience to tears or laughter. The relaxed, accepting workshop environment gave the girls permission to experience it.  And the girl I connected with that night?  She stayed on board and developed into one of our most fiery actresses.

Many nights, however, the mood was far from jovial.  Those were nights when the work of Girls Surviving continued only because we recognized, accepted and worked with the girls’ negativity.  One night, energy was so low the girls just stared at their journals when we suggested they free write. “Z” (I’ll use letters in place of real names) hadn’t slept; “A” and “L” were ready to run away from the House. In response, we suggested they list their complaints. They opened their journals but continued to stare at the empty pages.  Then I said they could begin each entry with the phrase like: “I hate it when…” or “I get annoyed by…” to jump-start their brains. That did the trick. But, when it was time to read what they wrote, “L,” obviously the most depressed, still slouched in her chair and growled that she hated everything. Luckily, all of the other girls had written something we could work with: they all resented having to wake up early.  They had provided a crumb of an idea that could be used to engage them a collaborative acting activity.

That little complaint allowed us to move forward with the evening’s work. We followed the journal sharing with an improvisation exercise I learned working in Playback Theater.  In Playback, after an audience member tells a personal story, the actors spontaneously recreate it on the stage.  One of the performance techniques used in the reenactments is called “Pairs.”  In the “Pairs” exercise, an audience member describes an issue he feels two ways about, then actors, standing in pairs, one behind the other, engage in an inner conflict dialogue, with each actor taking one side of the argument.  Paula and I demonstrated the technique by improvising the dueling reactions of a teenage girl who feels two ways about waking up.  Paula lobbied for waking up and going to school to see friends and participate in sports, etc.; I argued that sports practice had deprived me of much needed sleep and rendered my muscles incapable of lifting so much as a finger.  After the demonstration, the girls enthusiastically brainstormed inner conflicts and broke into pairs to perform them. One of the most powerful came from  “A” and “L,” who enacted the pros and cons of the topic that almost derailed the evening: running away from the House. “L” made the case for having the freedom to do whatever she wanted without being constricted by House rules, while “A” argued for staying in the House and abiding by the rules to prove to the other girls and the House staff that she could make it.  This exercise helped transform a potentially disastrous situation into an opportunity to create theater.  It also got “L” out of her chair and onto her feet and planted the idea that running away might not be a good choice.

Because we were willing to let go of the first part of that night’s agenda, the rest of the workshop unfolded, more or less, as planned.  Paula told the story she had prepared, then each girl wrote a monologue of inner conflict for one of the characters in it.  By evening’s end we had circled back to the objective and the girls had accomplished a lot.  They had learned about monologue writing, improvisational acting and inner conflict – a basic element in playwriting. They had been engaged intellectually, physically and intuitively and some enjoyed themselves so much they returned to write and perform the play.  When they wrote the first scene of their play, they grounded it in the little idea that emerged that tumultuous night. The play, called Torch, opens with a sleeping teenage girl on a darkened stage. She desperately wants to sleep but is woken and kept awake by her girlfriend, who wants, instead, to talk all night about which of her multiple boyfriends she should ditch.  The scene is funny, well crafted and heartfelt.

Many plays have been written by many different groups of girls since then, but the process, techniques and exercises that helped that first group create theirs remain essentially the same.  Changes have been made to the program, of course, and lots more exercises added to the repertoire, but the bones that support today’s program developed during the work we did with the girls in the group home. Those girls made so much progress.  Immediately following their performance of Torch, I wrote this about what I saw:

“…I marveled at the way they maneuvered around a new performance space, improvised around forgotten lines or mistaken blocking.  I cried when “T” read the poem and was keenly aware of the silences, titters and laughter from the audience.  The moment “C” ripped up “R’s” paper – the audience gasped, whispered, and then fell silent.  Perfect.  It was perfect.  Perfect in it’s imperfection.”

I am thankful for all that I learned about working with teenage girls from the ones I worked with in the group home, and I hope they feel they benefited from their experience as “girls surviving.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More History -- Learning to Trust

As it turned out, our next challenge was figuring out how to establish the trust Carolyn talks about in her most recent post. We had a place to meet, but although there were girls on the premises, we weren’t assured of their presence or participation in our workshops. When we showed up at the House the following week, there were only five girls in attendance. A staff member told us that some of the girls in the house had other obligations that day, which was a little disconcerting because we had scheduled a day and time when everyone said they were free. Also, once the workshop began, it was clear that two of the girls didn’t want to be there at all. They didn’t want to talk, listen, play theater games, or write. This lack of interest made everyone else uncomfortable. After an agonizing hour or so, we dismissed the girls, saying that we would be back the following week and that, although we hoped they all would join us, we understood that no group is a perfect fit for everyone, so girls who didn’t want to participate shouldn’t feel obligated to attend. When the girls left, we reiterated this point to the staff. If a girl committed to the group, we expected her regular attendance, but a girl who didn’t want to come shouldn’t have to.

Revising a scene -- Summer 2009
Attracting a core of regular participants turned out to be a big and long-term challenge. Initially, the reasons for this may have had something to do with the setting. Even in a nurturing and well run group home like our workshop site, the chemistry between residents is volatile. The girls form alliances that are continuously shifting. Every girl in the house has experienced or is going through some kind of private hell and, as a consequence, many of them are emotionally unstable or profoundly depressed. In an attempt to mix up the population of the group, I invited some students from my JJC storytelling program to attend workshops. This helped at first because having new girls in the house once a week made the workshops more interesting for the girls who lived there. In addition, since my students knew and trusted me, they quickly became comfortable with Carolyn. With luck, their attitude would reassure the girls who were still getting to know us. 
Weeks went by and nothing seemed to gel. Some weeks we’d have a great workshop and leave feeling like we had finally hit our stride. Then the following week, we’d return to a group of only three girls, none of whom felt like talking. We were frustrated, but we were still hopeful that the program would get on its feet. We had both been in similar situations more than once.

Like all adults who work successfully with children who are in physical and/or emotional turmoil,  Carolyn and I knew we needed to be patient. In our work as teaching artists, we had learned that program objectives in “at risk” situations are never accomplished as quickly as they are in traditional schools and classrooms. Children who find themselves in group homes, detention centers, and other court mandated living or learning environments have learned that adults who come into their lives with an agenda, frequently walk out or lose interest as soon as they see their objectives aren’t being met. Sometimes, the most productive thing a teacher or counselor can do it this situation is simply show up week after week, ready to begin anew as if everything is on a familiar, positive footing. I have walked out of a classroom because student behavior was unacceptable, and returned the following day or week to find the students so surprised (and, perhaps, relieved) to see me that it moved our relationship a step or two forward. I think that when adults give up too easily on a recalcitrant teen, they are confirming the child’s fear that she isn’t worth the effort. Conversely, students gain confidence in their own abilities when the behavior of the adults in their lives indicates that they believe in the child’s potential to achieve.
So Carolyn and I kept coming back to those workshops, teaching whoever showed up. Girls came and went. There were some nights when only one girl showed up, and others when every girl in the room was new to us. Finally, around the end of October, we had a committed core group of four girls and few others who attended sporadically. This group wrote and performed the first Girls Surviving play.

When we brainstormed characters and ideas for our first play, the group was still in a transitional phase – girls coming and going with little continuity between workshops. The script being developed was about girls living in a group home. Although Carolyn and I had misgivings about creating something so close to the girls’ actual lives, we wanted them to feel they had generated the ideas and, therefore, owned the writing. However, as the script moved forward, and as the group began to coalesce, we sensed some discomfort or reluctance whenever we talked about performance. One night, after weeks of writing, Anna (all girls’ names are pseudonyms) asked,
“Are we really going to perform this? Like, in front of an audience?”
Carolyn and I assured her that we were.
“Not just for the other residents?”
No, we said, we want to take it to the community.
“Well, I’m not going to be in it,” said Jenny.
“Me either,” said Anna.
We were surprised and asked why. There was silence. The girls all exchanged glances. Finally Jenny explained,
“Because I don’t want everyone to know I live in a group home.”
This remark opened a window. All the girls began to talk at once. No one had wanted to say anything; they didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But no one was comfortable with the idea of putting their lives on display. We told the girls they could change anything they wanted, and they got to work brainstorming a new setting and adjusting the back stories of characters to fit it.

That conversation, which took place abut five months after our initial workshop, marked what I think of as the true beginning of the Girls Surviving program because it laid the foundation for the trust that is essential to the work we do with the troupe. After that evening, conversations with the girls were spontaneous and comfortable. We often spent the first part of a workshop talking about things that had happened since we last saw each other: boyfriend problems, peer pressures or family phone calls. Carolyn and I began to feel that we were establishing relationships with the girls in the troupe. For them, we were new ears and voices from outside the House, and the girls’ conversation gave us insights which helped us plan future workshop activities. For example, at a time when one of the girls was having difficulty managing her anger, we all did a free write about anger. After sharing the writing, the group decided to give serious “anger issues” to one of the characters in the play. They created a back story to explain why she was so angry and how her anger affected her relationships. In this way, each girl was able to view her own problems through the medium of another, invented, person. And, as Carolyn points out in connection with our most recent play, this is how we’ve continued to work.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


In my last blog post I talked about the beginnings of Girls Surviving.  Today, I fast-forward seven years to the Girls Surviving summer program, 2012, to focus on what the troupe looks like now. I see 17 teenage girls standing across the stage of a high school auditorium, hands joined, poised to take a bow after the final performance of their latest play, “Selective Truths.”  The poetess in the last scene has just invited the audience to take part in a post performance discussion with these words:  “Tell me what’s on your mind.  Open your heart and I’ll do the same.”  After the curtain call, these young women sit on the edge of the stage and talk about their experiences writing and performing their play.  They call the bond they have formed a “sisterhood.”   They kindly assure a teary-eyed parent in the audience that whatever struggles her daughter is facing, she, the parent, is not to blame. In fact, they say, it’s easier for teenage girls to talk openly with their parents if they know their parents don’t feel guilty.

Who are these poised, self-confident young actresses, I ask myself?  How is it that they are parenting their parents?  How is it that they have created such a cohesive group during only 19, three-hour workshops?  When we envisioned a program open to all teenage girls, we knew only some would come to stay. The program clearly worked for the girls on the stage.  The girls I see in my memory’s lens are united and outspoken. I marvel at how that happened.

When I look at them more closely, I observe many differences. They certainly do not look alike: they are African American, Latina, Caucasian and Asian. They range in age from 13-18: some are going into the 8th grade this fall; others have graduated from high school and entered the workforce or are packed off to college. Their differences extend below the surface as well. Some of them live in traditional, middle class families with their fathers and mothers, like Paula’s and mine; others do not. Some have lived in this community their entire lives; others shuttle back and forth to visit relatives in other countries.  Some of their caregivers struggle financially; others live more comfortably. Some don’t thrive academically; others feel more successful.  Some girls work after school; others are cheerleaders, athletes or musicians. Some are new to the troupe, to acting or playwriting; others have worked with us for as many as five years.

As I question how this diverse group came to create a sisterhood, I realize that part of the answer lies in the process Girls Surviving has developed to help the girls talk about their personal experiences.  The school guidance counselors who have led workshops with us have introduced invaluable exercises and facilitation techniques into that process over the years.  As a result, group members today become open with each other after just a few workshops. That early bonding provides the foundation for the group’s creative collaboration writing and rehearsing the play.

By the end of the second week of this summer’s program, there was so much congenial chatter during breaks, it was difficult some days to settle the girls into our circle of folding chairs for issue-oriented conversations. When they did, though, their discussions about the conflicts in their lives were focused, respectful, illuminating and deeply personal. In Girls Surviving they had found a circle of friends they could trust with their deepest secrets. They knew that what they said in the circle would not leave the circle. Confidentiality is the backbone of their sisterhood.

All of these girls have faced personal struggles.  One of their greatest fears, though, is that what they say about themselves one day, will end up as gossip in the school’s hallways the next or on Facebook that night. During the summer program’s playwriting phase, their fear found it’s way into “Selective Truths.” In the closing poem of the play, they acknowledge that meaningful relationships cannot be built without communication, but they ask “Is communication even possible?” “Truth is…held captive.  Locked away.”  It took a lot of courage to write the play and let the audience know just how much about their lives they keep to themselves.  It took equal amounts of courage to invite the audience to participate in a candid conversation about that very issue. Through the play they create as sisters, they find a way to speak out.

As I write about the girls now, I’m aware of the trust they have placed in me as well.  My role as their mentor prohibits me, as a writer, from revealing what I’ve learned about the girls’ lives in our confidential group discussions.  In my struggle to balance dueling roles of mentor and writer, I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary to tell their real stories here in order to understand who they are. After all, the play that emerged from those discussions beautifully dramatizes the kinds of experiences that have shaped their lives. The girls find the courage to speak out by transforming personal experiences into universal experiences and trusting in their characters to speak with their voices.

The Girls Surviving program worked for the girls I see in my memory’s lens because it shelters them for a time in a protective, secure oasis where, first, they learn to trust in themselves and each other and, finally, to trust in the power of creative writing to safely carry their reflections about growing up to the world.  At the end of “Selective Truths,” the character, Laura, says this to a friend who suffers terribly from years of bullying:  “Girl, you’re rich even without nothing and you know that love comes from harsh pain.  It’s amazing how you love so much.  God put you on this earth for a reason, Katrina.  From now on, don’t ask why, ask why not.”  As I focus on what the troupe looks like today, I see teenage girls ready to risk stepping out of the shadows into the world and ask, “why not?”  In that single act, they demonstrate what it is to be a girl surviving.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


The idea for the Girls Surviving program for teen girls was born about eight years ago when Paula and I discovered we had far more in common than we ever imagined.  We had known each other casually for several years.  We lived less than a half mile from each other.  Two of our kids were about the same age and attended the same schools for a time.  We were professionally connected as teaching artists; Paula is a storyteller and I am a playwright/director. 

We led parallel lives that intersected occasionally at arts education training meetings or in the produce isle of the local supermarket we both frequented.  It was in that store, in dairy this time, that our relationship changed and the seeds for Girls Surviving were planted.

It began with a question:  “You okay?” Paula asked, as I turned toward condiments, our usual pleasantries completed.  I fumbled around for a satisfactory but vague reply because, in fact, I was not okay and was embarrassed that my troubles with my daughter were bleeding through my protective smile. I managed to scoot off, but when I got home I found an email from Paula saying that if I ever needed to talk about anything, she would listen.  I invited her to take a walk.

After that, we took a couple of long walks together and carpooled many miles to many more meetings.  While we moved through New Jersey’s varied landscapes, we talked, then, talked some more. We found we both were worried about our daughters.  Paula’s was still struggling through adolescence, while mine was having trouble finding her way beyond her unhappy teen experiences.  We also discovered that in our professional lives we both had observed a lack of programming that sufficiently addressed the needs and concerns of young women.

As teaching artists, we had worked in schools all over the state, in juvenile detention centers, residential group homes for juvenile offenders and special schools for those students who were a hair’s breath away from quitting school altogether or getting kicked out. We had seen that adolescent girls often fell silent in traditional classrooms.  Boys dominated the “alternative” classes we found ourselves in; sometimes only one girl was present and never as many as five.  Most of those girls were too intimidated by the acting out of their male classmates to participate.

Our discussions about the challenges faced by adolescent girls and our concerns as parents and teaching artists inspired us to envision a program that might provide girls with a social, cultural and educational opportunity that could fill an apparent void and empower young women to find their voices.  After all, to most people, our own daughters appeared “just fine.” Under the surface, however, lived a different truth.  Our thinking was that perhaps it was time to lift the veil of silence; encourage girls to express themselves through writing and performing original plays; and begin a dialogue with a community audience about the issues that mattered to teenage girls.

Since then, Girls Surviving has evolved into an established program. It has grown up a lot. The girls who participate today, however, come together to tell their stories in a manner that resembles the way Paula and I first came together as friends and collaborators years ago. Paula and I invite them into an environment that is safe enough for them to talk and write openly about their experiences.  Over time, meeting regularly, they develop a bond that allows for meaningful collaboration with an artistic and civic purpose.  And when the curtain closes on a Girls Surviving performance of the troupes’ play, Paula and I are as proud to be their guides as they are of themselves. Our voices have been heard.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Next Steps

from "Covered By Color"

Collaboration is at the center of the Girls Surviving program. Not only do the girls collaborate when they write, rehearse, and perform, but a number of people and organizations in our community collaborate to make the program possible. The obstacles we envisioned when we started planning the program were real. We knew we had a good idea and that we had the experience to plan and implement program activities, but we had no money, no venue for workshops and performances, and no easy access to the girls we hoped the program would serve. How these things came together is part of the Girls Surviving story.

Finding a Place
Since 1999, I  have directed a storytelling and literacy program funded by the Morris County Juvenile Justice Commission. Because of my JJC connection I have become acquainted with other people who work with at-risk youth in our community. One of these people is the principal probation officer in Morris County. From our first meeting, I was impressed by this man's knowledge and common sense. Later, when I got to know him a little better, I was inspired by his approach to his work. He seems to have devoted his life to keeping other people’s kids safe. After that car ride with Carolyn, I told him about our idea for starting a girls’ group and he encouraged me to make it work.
“But how?” I asked. “Even if we could find girls, I don’t even know where we could meet with them.”
“Why not contact _____?” he suggested, and told me about a residence in our town that housed girls who were unable to live safely at home, an institution he had helped build. “You could meet there,” he added. “The girls who live there are the girls you want to work with, the girls who need you. They’ll be part of your group.”
Amazing! Just like that, one problem solved! With my friend’s help, Carolyn and I contacted the director of the House and, after several more phone calls and a meeting, we held our first workshop for girls in a meeting room at the back of the residence. The House provided a social worker and Carolyn and I worked for free. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a beginning.
Our first workshop was in July. It was a sticky summer morning and there were too many people in the room. Carolyn and I had arranged a circle of chairs. Some girls sat in them and others sat on the floor. The residence staff had decided that all the girls at the house should attend the initial meeting, and the majority of them were clearly uncomfortable with the situation. They slumped, fidgeted, or rolled their eyes. I couldn’t blame them. Here were two women, a generation older than most of their parents, who had brought them together this hot morning to do them some good. 
We had worked enough with kids deemed ‘at risk’ to know that having good intentions doesn’t guarantee a successful interaction. Like most people who see their lives falling apart around them, troubled teens aren’t much interested in lectures or advice. Many of them have sat through countless group therapy sessions and have been harangued by parents, teachers, judges, and counselors who frequently walk out of their life the minute it’s obvious that they aren’t listening to the speech or taking the advice. We had to show them right away that this program could be different. We were willing to try again if this meeting wasn’t successful, but the girls might not give us a second chance.

We began the meeting by introducing ourselves and our ideas, but I’m sure we didn’t get anyone’s attention until we began to tell a story. Although I’m the one called a ‘storyteller,’ both Carolyn and I are story artists. I tell traditional stories and she helps people tell and hear their own stories. The story I told that morning was “The Goosegirl,” one of the tales from the Grimm Brothers’ collection. It’s about a princess who leaves her home with the hope of finding love and happiness and, instead, learns a sad lesson about the treachery of other people. Before the middle of the tale, she is removed from those who love her, living in difficult circumstances, and unable to judge which of her companions are worthy of her trust. In other words, she was in the same situation as most of the girls in the room.
Literature helps us reflect on our own life while describing the lives of others. When a story is presented orally, it offers every listener deep and immediate access to the text. As the storyteller performs, her listeners almost forget her presence because, guided by her voice, facial expressions, and gestures, they visualize the story as it unfolds before them. At the end of the story, listeners are often eager to talk – about the story and the experience of hearing it. The discussion that follows a storytelling experience is about the characters and events of the story, but it is also about the lives of the listeners. The story allows an impersonal and objective way to talk about our own problems.

When our discussion of “The Goosegirl” began to turn to the girls’ personal experiences, Carolyn took charge of the workshop by introducing a Playback Theater activity. Playback is a theater form in which a narrator, directed by an experienced Playback guide, selects people to re-enact a story from her life. I don’t remember the story that was played back that morning (maybe Carolyn does), but I do remember ending that first workshop with a feeling of accomplishment. A number of the girls had lost their initial reserve as they became engaged in the workshop activities. Some seemed to have enjoyed themselves. And the House staff had a glimpse of the program’s potential. When we scheduled a workshop for the following week, we were optimistic that our “girls’ troupe” vision would become a reality.

Next obstacle: financing.