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.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learning to Weave

When Carolyn and I teach the techniques we’ve developed in Girls Surviving to teachers and students in other settings, we call our program ‘Tapestry’ because it involves the weaving of voices through collaborative writing and performance. I love this metaphor for the process we continue to refine through the Girls Surviving program because it provides for me an image of the collaboration between all of the people whose hearts, minds, and voices come together to make the program work. It is the intertwining of personalities and ideas that keeps Girls Surviving strong and vibrant. Each thread in the fabric represents the voice of someone in the troupe: a girl, a counselor, or a teaching artist. The ever-growing fabric is proof of the willingness on the part of each member to contribute to the troupe’s success.
However, when we begin a new season, as we did two weeks ago, the stuff on the loom doesn’t always look so great. There are gaps, loose threads, and knots. Even so, I can be reasonably sure that by the spring, the new material will be smooth and whole. How that happens is still a little mysterious to me. The thoughts that follow are an attempt to begin to understand and explain the phenomena.

Early into our first fall workshop, one of the new girls asked, “How is Girls Surviving different from (another) girls’ group?”
A veteran girl immediately answered, “It’s not so adversarial.”
Her remark was met by a barrage of protests from girls who had either had a good experience with or knew good things about other the group in question, a long running and excellent program.
 “Well,” said the veteran girl, “all’s I know is I didn’t last in there.”

This exchange started me thinking about how hard it is to predict which girls will find what they need in the Girls Surviving program. It’s really impossible to tell if it will fit without trying it on. On one hand, it seems like a no brainer that the girls we’re looking for are those who have, at least, an inkling that they would like to write and/or perform, but some of our most successful participants over the years came to us as non-writers or non-speakers. On the other hand, you would think that girls who don’t get along in other collaborative ventures, like sports and clubs, would also have a hard time fitting into the Girls Surviving troupe, but we are often surprised to learn that a girl who excels in our collaborative projects has been bounced from another program for her bad attitude. Of course, it’s just as surprising when a girl who sounds perfect for the program doesn’t succeed – isn’t interested or can’t adapt her behavior to meet the demands of our process. 

As I watched and listened to the girls at our second workshop last week, I wondered what the troupe will look like in February or March. Will the new girls stay? Will all of our veterans still be with us? As I said, the group dynamic changes with each new season. This month, twelve of the girls from the troupe that had grown so close this summer returned to discover that the group is not the same without our recent graduates. These girls are finding they must take on new roles and form new alliances. Then, there are the new girls, each of whom entered the program for her own reasons, each needing something that she hopes the program will provide, and each probably wondering if she’ll find it.

In the first years of the program, we worked with groups of girls who never completely meshed. These girls wrote, rehearsed, and performed successfully, and seemed to enjoy doing it, but they never found the courage or inspiration to form a cohesive troupe. At any break in workshop activities, they would wander back into their cliques or sit alone and talk with an adult. Neither the intense cooperation that goes into creating a group performance nor the various team-building exercises contrived by the counselors worked to break down whatever barriers existed between groups and individuals.
That dynamic changed in the summer of 2009. That summer we had a troupe. And we’ve had one ever since. I can’t point to one thing that made the difference, although I think the change was partly due to the natural growth of the program. It was the summer of our fourth year and word about Girls Surviving was finally beginning to spread on its own. Most of the girls who joined that summer came because they had been invited by a friend or because they had seen the troupe perform. The others were referred by our counselors who, by that time, had worked in the program, themselves.
That summer was also the year we began our ‘questions’ check in. I think this activity was the brainchild of our high school counselor, Karen. It’s a simple idea, and it has been a great first step in helping the girls get to know and trust one and other. On the first day of the summer program, girls are given small slips of paper and asked to write questions on them. The questions are used as discussion prompts for the first few workshops. They are anonymous and are usually about problems the girls are having or subjects they’re curious about but don’t feel comfortable introducing. The discussions that arise from the questions often give us material for our writing, but they also serve the important purpose of demonstrating to the girls that their problems, fears, and confusion are shared by others in the group. I think this quickly breaks down any barriers between girls that may be caused by stereotyping, hearsay, or first impressions. Also, because the subjects they introduce often lead to personal disclosures, the questions allow the introduction of the cardinal rule of group talk – What is said in Girls Surviving, stays in Girls Surviving. The veterans always explain this to the new girls, and make it clear that they take the responsibility implicit in the rule very seriously. As a result of these things, the conversations that come out of our opening questions begin to build the trust and consideration that is essential for our work and for the melding of the group.

As Carolyn said, we always have a plan for workshop activities, but we’re  willing to change directions when circumstances demand it. It frequently happens that our opening discussions introduce a subject that seems more pressing than the lesson we had planned, and it’s usually easy to change the focus of our activities to address it. However, sometimes a question or comment may give rise to information that, because of its personal nature is inappropriate for more intense examination. At these times Carolyn and I need to be able to refocus the group to avoid a disclosure that may be regretted later, or to prevent unnecessary discomfort to one of the girls. It is the kind of readjustment that Carolyn described in her recent post.
These moments occur at times of change, the times when we’re all figuring out how to mend the holes and untangle knots in the tapestry. The changes this fall have been great. The girls who graduated at the end of the summer were the core of the troupe that formed in the summer of 2009. They were the first girls who asked, “why can’t we meet more than once a week?” They were also the girls who pulled us through our rough spot last winter. Over the past four years, those girls were joined by others who are just as strong and committed to the troupe, so I have no worries that the weaving won’t progress smoothly once the girls figure out what they want the material to look like.

Every season, Carolyn and I watch for signs that the group is starting to mesh, to become a sisterhood. The term, sisterhood, has no bad connotations for me and I embrace it as a description of the Girls Surviving troupe. In my vocabulary a sisterhood is a group of girls and women who work together and support each other, stepping up when a gap appears in the fabric of their work, or stepping aside when they see that a sister needs or wants something more than they do. Last week our current group opened their lives to each other with little reserve, and listened to each other with respect and compassion. They took the first steps toward the creation of their new tapestry.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Day 2: Making Choices

As our last posts reveal, Paula and I had different reactions and responses to the girls’ buzzing chatter on the first day of Girls Surviving this fall.  As Paula explained, what she observed made her nervous because she worried that it signaled future discipline problems. Her response was to look to enforce rules.

I wasn’t particularly worried.  As I said in my post, I saw first day excitement, although I was aware that both newcomers and veterans projected worry and tension about how they would get along. I focused on watching the girls’ body language and attending to their conversations to find out as much as I could about who they were, why they had come and what motivated their behavior.  I was getting a sense of the group so that I could better judge how to bring them together as a united troupe. When the chatter began to interfere with making progress with the night’s agenda, I turned the girls’ attention to writing answers to our survey questions.  In general, my response when I sense restlessness in a classroom is to find ways to refocus attention on the work.

That is what I thought we should plan to do the following week. What I observed in the first workshop convinced me that a structured writing activity would help unite the girls by rallying them around a goal.  I also thought it would cut down on the chatter that worried Paula.

Paula and I are constantly making these choices, individually and together, about how best to lead the troupe and interact with the personalities in it. After discussing our reactions to the events of Day 1, we agreed about how to move forward on Day 2.  It was clear to both of us that the girls were ready to start the writing process, and we knew the best way to do that was to use literature as a writing prompt. We looked at some writing samples and settled on a scene from a play I thought captured the essence of the personal stories the girls had shared at our first workshop and the issues they said they wanted to write about.  We went into Day 2 with a plan to read, discuss and write.

Experience has taught us, though, that our planning needs flexibility. A full week passes between our workshops, and a lot can change in the lives of teenagers in a week.  We often alter our plans if a girl has had a bad day or if so few come that the lesson no longer seems relevant. Some good plans have ended up in the trash because we felt we had to respond to a change in circumstances.  We know we need to make choices in advance, but we’re always ready to make other choices on the spot.

As is sometimes our custom, especially when a new group is coming together, we began the second session with a check-in. As we went around the room sharing bits of news about the past week, the girls interrupted each other and joked as they had Day 1.  Although it was noisy, the girls seemed to be strengthening their ties by talking about people or places they all knew in the community. It looked like a healthy exchange.  Paula and I responded in a patient, congenial manner, taking turns gently nudging the discussion along from one girl to another to make sure everyone had a chance to participate.  

What happened next, though, changed the plan as well as the group dynamic.  After everyone had checked in, I was about to hand out scripts when we realized that we hadn’t asked if the girls wanted to read their writing from the week before. Like checking in, reading the previous week’s work has become part of our process.  Because their Day 1 writing was so personal, however, we didn’t think they would want to do it.  We were surprised when they said they did, but we changed course to allow that to happen. We realized that the rituals we’ve developed over the years - like sitting in a circle, checking-in and sharing writing – help create the comforting, safe environment that fosters trust.

As we went around the room again, some of the girls started telling about their writing rather than reading what they had written.  While that sometimes happens, we didn’t expect that a few would extemporaneously elaborate on the personal stories they had shared week before or say so much more about their lives. Soon personal stories tumbled out from many corners of the room, while noticeable silences fell from others.  We all knew this was a significant moment in the life of the troupe. These emotional stories obviously had been simmering below the surface and needed to be told. Everyone in the group was respectful and supportive of those who spoke.   Some, however, seemed quietly ill at ease.

Discussion of personal experiences is a very important component of the Girls Surviving program, and sometimes allowing personal storytelling to dominate is a necessary step toward bonding the group, as it was that night.  Not every person in the group, however, feels comfortable talking about their lives.
We have observed that eventually they all do unite, though, around the goal of writing and performing a play.

In an effort to hear all voices equally, I am more convinced than ever that we should turn to art for help next week.  What’s comforting about theater is that every writer and performer can speak out freely because each voice is camouflaged in a character and every experience is woven into the fabric of a plot. By introducing literature and writing next week, the girls will begin to focus their energies on transforming their personal experiences into stories for the stage and, in so doing, strengthen their personal ties through artistic collaboration.  We have seen this happen repeatedly in the last seven years.

Paula and I agree about how to move forward and are very determined to stick to the plan.  We’ve already decided to skip check-in and immediately plunge into the literature. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep with the plan, and Paula and I are united in our decision to refocus attention on the work.  Unless, of course….

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Passing the Baton

As Carolyn has written, our Girls Surviving workshop was buzzing on our first night back together since the end of the summer program. Veteran girls came in with hugs and ‘hi’s for everyone, and the three new girls expressed their nervousness in jokes and giggles. In fact, most of the girls seemed a bit nervous in the new mix, and I was nervous, as well. If you read my earlier post, you know there have been times when the mix of girls hasn’t worked together perfectly, and as I watched and listened to the girls on Thursday, I worried that we might be heading for trouble. For one thing, the girls weren’t listening to each other. They were fooling with cell phones, talking about school, laughing, and shouting. When a question arose, or when someone’s remark drew comments, the girls would all start talking at once. Some engaged in side conversations, others shouted responses to someone across the room, and still others just talked at everyone.
Carolyn and I have never consciously played “good cop; bad cop” with the girls, but if we did, I would definitely be the bad cop. I’m louder that she is, and I’m usually the first one to jump in the fray when things get out of hand. In situations like the one I describe above, I react by shouting over the ruckus and reminding the girls that we’re trying to have a conversation. In this case, I told the new girls (and reminded the veterans) about our cell phone rule (phones OFF and out of sight during  workshop activities) and I told them that they had to be aware that some of the things we would be talking about were serious, emotional topics for some people in the room. I reminded them that they had to listen carefully to what was said and watch people’s reactions to ensure that their own responses were thoughtful and sensitive to everyone’s feelings. I was happy when Kim, the counselor in the room on Thursday night, picked up that thread. For one thing, the new girls who had never met me or Carolyn knew her from school. Also, her role as the expert on emotional issues adds a different kind of weight to her comments on anything that touches the affective aspects of our work.  But even Kim’s remarks didn’t keep the volume down or focus the conversation for more than a few minutes.

This scenario made me nervous because it was familiar. As recently as last year, we had a problem so frustrating that Carolyn and I were tempted to shut down for a few weeks and resume with all new recruits. I’m not sure how the problems began last year. The group was larger than usual and I think that a few of the girls were coming to workshops simply to socialize. Although creating a safe and positive social environment is part of our mission, it’s not our only goal, and the socializing that was going on in those workshops was inappropriate. Girls talked through workshop activities, checked phones under the table when they thought we weren’t watching, and generally disregarded any attempt on the part of adults to refocus conversation or create silent writing time. We weren’t getting any closer to creating a script for the new play we hoped to perform at the end of the school year, and worst of all, Carolyn and I were beginning to dread going to workshops.
Almost every aspect of the Girls Surviving program has been fun for us. We enjoy planning together, spending time with the girls, and watching them grow as writers, actresses, and well-adjusted young women. We expect that some of them will, on occasion, fall into obnoxious teenage behavior, and we’re usually able to ignore it or redirect it as the case demands. Last year, however, it was too much. We were at our wits’ ends. We don’t want to spend our Thursday evenings setting down rules and constantly reminding the girls to follow them. And, for a few weeks, almost every girl was breaking contract for at least part of every workshop.
Once again, the counselors saved the day. Carolyn and I expressed our frustration to all three of the women who work with us in the program – Kim, Karen, and Renee. They put their heads together and came up with a strategy. They suggested that we invite only our high school seniors to attend the next workshop, that we tell them how we were feeling, get feedback on their perceptions of what was going on, and try to come up with a solution that would keep the current troupe together and get it back on track. I must admit that I was skeptical. The senior girls hadn’t been behaving differently from their younger troupe mates, and I didn’t see how talking to them would change that. But, I figured it was worth a try.
On the night we met, Carolyn was out of town, so four senior girls sat down with me and the three counselors. One of the counselors started the conversation by asking me to express my frustration to the girls. They listened intently and when I was finished, one of them shook her head and said, “That’s a shame.” After that, we had a remarkably productive discussion. The seniors acknowledged their part in the problem and resolved to be better models for the younger girls. They also told me that they thought I needed to take a stronger stand against any behavior that even hinted at disrespect. Then, with the help of the counselors, we came up with a plan to change the workshop dynamic. And it worked.
Seniors began taking an active role in planning and executing workshop activities, and they took it upon themselves to stop disruptive behavior among the younger girls. They became stern, but patient mentors for the youngers, talking to them in school between meetings and reminding them if they slipped during the workshops. It was a pure pleasure to watch them take control of themselves and their younger “sisters.”  A couple of girls did drop out of the troupe after that, but it was by their own choice. The script was written and the play, “Covered by Color," was rehearsed and performed with great success.

But last Thursday night, as I watched the chaos in the room, I realized that the senior girls who had been so effective keeping us on task last year had graduated, and I wasn’t sure that there was anyone to take their place. Then I saw one of our veteran troupe members, a sophomore, shake her head and frown at a girl who was talking out of turn. A few minutes later, another veteran whispered to one of the new girls, “this isn’t the time for that,” and in another few minutes the workshop was under control. Last year’s seniors had left a legacy. The girls whom they mentored have become mentors, themselves. I sat back in my chair and relaxed.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The First Day: Connection

When I walked into the classroom where we meet, I could feel the good energy bouncing off the walls.  The dirt-embedded linoleum floor, the cold fluorescent lighting and the colorless walls disappeared from view as the room filled with glowing young faces, sequin-studded shirts and soccer sweats, giggles and outbursts of female laughter, excited hugs and “hi’s…how are you’s.”  It was our first night back together since the summer semester, and our excitement obliterated the impersonal surroundings.  The moment I said I was eagerly awaiting in my last post was, finally, a reality.

Three new girls joined us.  Their chatter was persistent, loud and nervous. They obviously were excited and happy to be there, but they also showed signs of tension.  New girls often worry that they won’t like the program or won’t fit in, so the first workshop is an orientation.

Because these new girls weren’t shy about speaking up, the orientation process flowed easily.  In fact, they got it started by asking questions about the group.  They immediately wanted to know, for example, how Girls Surviving is different from a typical girls support group and how we handle the issue of cell phones.  Their assertiveness paved the way for us to discuss the program’s goals and our expectations.

Our “veteran” girls, as we affectionately call those who have participated previously, also jumped into the conversation, warmly welcoming the newcomers into the troupe.  They described the summer program as “awesome;” they talked about the “sisterhood” they had created; they spoke of the deep commitment they’ve made to the program.  With that, they turned to us to ask why we couldn’t meet more than one time a week. We were touched by the sweet sincerity of their enthusiasm. 

While the new girls seemed drawn to the promise of being included in the “sisterhood,” I was a little nervous with that description of the program.  Sororities were the sisterhoods of my era and they were just as exclusionary as they were inclusive.  I knew the girls in our program meant their words to be welcoming, but I wondered about the impact they were having on the newcomers.

The excitement in the room continued unabated, however.  So many girls had so much to say that when we turned to a writing task, they had trouble focusing.  The room felt restless as the girls struggled against their impulse to talk and concentrate instead on answering a few questions about themselves on a survey we had prepared.  They all managed to write something despite their side conversations, their questions about the survey, the interruptions of getting up and going to the bathroom, and the entrance of latecomers.

When they shared their writing, we discovered that all of them, newcomers and veterans alike, were thinking about a single issue they wanted to discuss in future workshops and write about in their play.  The theme that resonated for all of them was separation – separation from family and friends for a host of reasons; separation because of ethnicity and color; separation because of misunderstandings and prejudice.  They spoke of feeling different, lonely, isolated.  As they talked, I couldn’t help wondering if our veterans had picked up on the new girls’ feelings of discomfort sitting among members of a sisterhood or if they were recognizing their own vulnerability outside the walls of the Girls Surviving classroom.  While I can't know for sure what they were thinking, I felt encouraged by the sensitivity of their remarks and the positive effects they were having on the newcomers. Everyone in the group was speaking candidly.

As usual in Girls Surviving, the details of that conversation will be kept confidential. The theme of isolation that generated it, however, is universal and has been the issue most frequently discussed and written about in the program.  Even if different play ideas emerge in the next workshops, I imagine this one will survive and weave its way into the final production. Feeling isolated is so much of a daily reality for the girls that it permeated the air we breathed Thursday night and became the focus of our wide-ranging, deep and personal conversation. 

I hope that giving voice to their shared feeling of separation brings all of the girls closer together.  Giving voice to it in a play that they create together, in a program that encourages connection through collaboration, may help all of them feel less different and alone.  That’s the hope that Girls Surviving held out to the new girls who tried the program for the first time.  And it’s the same hope that inspired our veterans to return to the classroom and brighten it with their enthusiasm and camaraderie.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Building a Team

The day after the incident I described in my previous post, Carolyn, Kim, and I began to plan for the next workshop. We assumed that most of the girls would return the following week and we realized that we had to take steps to dismiss Lulu from the troupe. Her continued participation would be confusing to the other girls and harmful to the program. However, we wanted her dismissal be in keeping with our objective to give the girls a say in how the program develops, and we didn’t want cast her off in a way the would either confirm her notion that we were bullies or further erode her self confidence. Carolyn and I needed advice from an expert, someone who knew how to defuse the type of confrontation the group had witnessed the night before. Happily, that person was already part of the conversation – Kim, our counselor-in-residence. Which brings me to a crucial part of the Girls Surviving program that has, so far, only been alluded to in this blog, namely, the participation of a counselor in each Girls Surviving workshop.

Carolyn and I wear a lot of hats in our professional lives. We are artists, teachers, curriculum developers, and program directors. However, although we have a lot of experience working with adolescents and young adults who are engaged in antisocial and/or self-destructive behaviors, we are not psychologists. So, when we began planning the program that became Girls Surviving, we knew that we would need experts in that field on hand at every workshop. Arts education provides a wonderful outlet for children who are having trouble negotiating the obstacles they confront in their day-to-day lives. The process of making art creates a space for introspection that opens us to insights we often don’t have in other activities. This can be helpful, but it can also be frightening or threatening.
I think that one of the things that made some students so uncomfortable in the ‘Ms. Rose’ improvisations Carolyn recently wrote about was the vision the improvised scenes provided of bullying behavior that many of them habitually engaged in without any reflection on how it affects its object. When a child is suddenly confronted with an unpleasant insight into some aspect of her life, she may display her discomfort in silence or disengagement, like the girls Carolyn described, but she might also behave more destructively. Sometimes, as with Lulu, the behavior is directed out to an individual or to the group, but it can also be directed inward. I am sure that every teaching artist who works with teenagers has uncovered at least one example of suicidal ideation in a student’s art work. When this happens, it can represent an opportunity for positive intervention, but it is not something that most teachers or artists are equipped to handle. School counselors – social workers and psychologists – are a crucial part of any activity that may uncover a student’s emotional distress, because they have the knowledge and training necessary to defuse the immediate tension and provide ongoing treatment for its causes.

The day after Lulu’s disruption, Kim suggested that we define our expectations for student behavior in a contract that girls must sign to participate in the program. With our input, Kim wrote a contract that stated, in part,

Troupe activities are divided into three phases that sometimes overlap:

   *Development Phase – involves building writing and acting skills during regular scheduled workshop sessions that lead to the crafting of a play and preparation for the demands of the rehearsal phase.

   *Rehearsal Phase – involves adhering to casting decisions, taking direction, working collaboratively on stage, reviewing scripts and/or memorizing lines outside of scheduled rehearsals.

   *Performance Phase – involves adjusting personal schedules to participate in performances and flexibility in the face of unforeseen changes.

Girls who signed the contract acknowledged that participation in the program was voluntary and they agreed to participate in all three phases of program activities. Contracts were co-signed by a parent or guardian. Kim pointed out that, not only would the contract clarify our expectations for all of the girls, and it would also help Lulu save face. Since she had made it clear that she didn’t intend to collaborate in the development of a play, by not signing the contract she would be making her own choice to leave the program, as opposed to being ‘kicked out’ by adult authorities.
At our next workshop, the majority of the remaining girls signed the contract and continued to participate in the program. However, there were a couple of girls who, seeing the program’s mission and requirements stated so clearly, realized that they weren’t willing to commit to it. They didn’t sign and, as a consequence, left the troupe. All of these decisions – to sign the contract or not –  helped unify the group. The contract also helped Carolyn and me further refine our role as mentors by outlining, in black and white, what acceptable participation in the troupe should look like.
In the years since we developed that contract, we have hardly ever asked a troupe to sign it. New girls who join the program are often initially unsure of themselves as writers and performers, and we don’t want to overwhelm them with paperwork before they begin to feel comfortable. Once they become involved in the process and begin to gain confidence, they usually don’t need a contract as to remind them of their responsibility to the troupe. Collaboration with sister troupe members and pride in their own work is all the impetus they need to keep them on task. There are times, however, when we need to remind the girls of our expectations and because we defined them so clearly in that contract, it’s easier for us to make them clear to the girls.

This is just one example of how the experience and knowledge of our counselors helps make the program work. They also recruit girls who will benefit from participation in the troupe, counsel individuals, form relationships with caretakers, make referrals when girls need extra help, and guide Carolyn and me through the rocky spots we’re bound to encounter from time to time. They are our colleagues, part of the Girls Surviving team, and their collaboration in the program is one of the things that makes it work. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Mentoring and the Playwriting Process

The Fall semester of Girls Surviving begins next week. I’m eager to see who comes to the first workshop and what ideas they will bring to the table for their next play.

Paula and I decided to start differently this semester.  Usually we get together in advance to discuss an agenda for the first day that focuses on a theme we think the girls might like to develop into a play.  The girls often express interest in other topics though, and because this summer’s troupe was so enthusiastic and mature, we’ve decided to let them suggest their ideas first.  Just in case the girls don’t follow through as we think they will, we will come prepared to jump-start the conversation.

Understanding how to mentor the girls is, as Paula and I discussed in our last posts, an ongoing process.  It requires balancing our responsibility to provide structure, guidance and new learning experiences with our desire to encourage the girls to make their own decisions and become troupe leaders.  In my post, I described a recent performance that involved girls mature enough to take on the responsibilities  of directing and acting with minimal adult side-coaching.  Paula told of another, different time when we had to set very firm limits.  We’re constantly assessing how to respond to situations as they arise in order to maintain a respectful forum for everyone to express their ideas or opinions and learn something new through our sharing.

During the playwriting phase of the program, we encourage the girls to create characters who speak for them.  At the same time we know that as their role models, we need to help them avoid the stereotyping that teenagers often succumb to in their writing and personal relationships.  As writers we know that fully developed, complex characters are more interesting and believable.  As adults, we’ve learned how easy and dangerous it is to make assumptions about people.  We consequently view it as part of our job to share our knowledge, experience and perspective during the play development process.

Sometimes the girls respectfully hear what we have to say, then convince us that their view should prevail. For example, we believed this summer’s play, “Selective Truths,” would be more true to life if at least one character in one scene talked to a friend or parent about her problems.  Viewed from where we stand, these young female characters needed help navigating the serious situations depicted in the play.  In one scene, a girl drinks excessively at a party to forget the reality that her mother is sick with cancer and, as a result, she must act as mother to her brother.  In another, the character reveals in a monologue that she was raped (probably by someone she knows) and is now pregnant.  In neither scene does the character tell anyone about her problem. The play ends with several characters feeling isolated, and it offers only a glimmer of hope that their situations will get any better.  Despite our concerns about leaving the audience with such a bleak message, the girls really wanted to communicate their belief that teenagers generally don’t talk to anyone about serious problems.  The girls discussed these issues very thoughtfully with us and, as a result, they persuaded us that their message was closer to their reality and should be heard.

Often, however, the group is not as unified or mature.  That was the situation couple of years ago when we were writing a play about a high school teacher and her students. The girls started the writing process by improvising scenes about a character named Ms. Rose, an experienced but mean teacher. Next, they individually recreated those scenes on paper.  During the improvs, the girls playing students had so much fun ganging up on Ms. Rose that the girl playing her seemed too humiliated and confused by the chaos around her to say anything, let alone something that would have stopped them. Because the girls often feel shy doing improvisations, we didn’t want to inhibit their spontaneity or make them feel embarrassed about revealing the harsh side of bullying behavior in a way that made us laugh.  Unfortunately, they were showing us a sad truth about human nature.  We were surprised and concerned, however, by the actresses’ choices and the impact the improvs seemed to have on some girls who were watching.  We understood why onlookers turned away or doodled in their notebooks.

Paula and I knew we had to find ways to make everyone feel comfortable, create more balanced characters in the play and help the girls appreciate the complexities of human interactions. We considered sharing a poem with them about how our misconceptions about people interfere with our ability to understand underlying motives.  We also thought about doing an improv together, based on the character of Ms. Rose, to provide a model for better understanding her behavior.  Finally, we talked about simply generating a discussion about the obvious cause of the central problem between teacher and student, namely a lack of communication. The improvs clearly revealed that while teachers and students share the same space every day, they know very little about each other.

Prepared with several options to guide the girls, we typed their scripts as they drafted them and started the next class with a reading.  Their scenes depicted one-dimensional characters: Ms. Rose, who had absolutely no control over her classroom, and the students, who were thoroughly disrespectful. Also predictably, those girls playing students again gleefully bullied Ms. Rose, while some watching fell silent.  I realized that the silent girls must be feeling embarrassed by what was now documented on paper, and I wondered if the girls acting out on the stage were too.  After the reading, I decided to find out more by telling them that I never would have felt comfortable saying those things to a teacher, no matter how incompetent I thought she was.  There seemed to be a sigh of relief in the room, and a couple of the girls spoke out in agreement.  Others, however, maintained that students have a right to stand up to teachers who are ineffective.

The girls’ opposing views about student behavior provided the opening we had hoped for to broaden and deepen the discussion.  We understood the frustration young people feel being trapped in bad situations controlled by adults, but we also knew from experience there was more than one way to handle those situations.   Our job as mentors required us to help the girls understand that many different perspectives needed to be incorporated into their play.  To further the conversation, we suggested that, since all the girls seemed really familiar and angry with bad teachers, they make a list of what makes a good teacher. They had been so focused on the negative that they were a little startled and confused by that idea. We eased them into the process by providing prompts like, “if Ms. Rose ignores you, a good teacher would….” As they became more engaged in the list making, they began to see the value of looking at both teacher and student as complex human beings.  We were ready, then, to revisit the idea that some students would not verbally attack the teacher and to discuss alternative reactions.   One girl moved the work forward with her suggestion that we make lists of both the positive and negative characteristics of students. At that moment, Paula and I knew the girls were beginning to take charge of their project and feel more united as a group.  We also hoped that something valuable had been learned.

From then on the girls continued to develop the characters in the play using the same process we developed in that class and, as a result, the play revealed the deep inner lives of many of the characters, including Ms. Rose.  It did not, however, shirk away from classroom realities.  The tone was both serious and harshly funny.  

Paula and I never did read the poem we selected, but it still lives in our file folder, ready to be plucked at a moment’s notice.  While we embrace the times when the girls lead the way, unified and confident, we know we always need to be ready to step in when inexperience and creative enthusiasm steer them off course.