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.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Back Story: Growing Support

Phyllis Hassard and Dr. Gallagher  at NJ PAC
with senior Girls Surviving  troupe members
A week before Thanksgiving, a dozen teen age girls sat in a circle of desks and listened intently as a woman of their grandmothers’ generation talked to them about love. As Carolyn said in her last post, the woman, Phyllis Hassard, has become a mentor and role model to our girls. When she announced that night that she would talk about the difference between love and infatuation, one of the girls said, “Wait, I need to write this down,”  and they all went in search of pens and notebooks. As Phyllis spoke, the girls scribbled away like students taking notes for a final exam, careful to record every word that might help them better navigate waters in which some of them are already foundering.

Giving teen girls the opportunity to meet people like Phyllis Hassard is one of the strengths of the Girls Surviving  program. The story of how Phyllis ended up at one of our workshops is an important part of the program’s history.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, the Girls Surviving program began with an idea spun out by Carolyn and me during a long car ride. When we got the program up and running, we were pretty much on our own. We worked for free and paid for workshop supplies out of our own pockets. My first funding requests, to organizations with which I was working at the time, were unsuccessful. A stream of public funding was unavailable because our location didn’t meet its requirements; another nonprofit organization felt that we weren’t serving enough girls to justify its help.
Unwilling to give up the dream, we turned to others among our professional connections who might have ideas that would help. Among these were the staff of the Arts Council of the Morris Area.  One autumn morning, about three months after our first House workshop, Carolyn and I met with Carolyn Ward, at that time the Arts Council’s executive director. Also at the meeting were Barbara Reuther, director of education, and Anne Dodd, finance director. We described the work we were doing with the girls at the House, and brought samples of the girls’ writing for them to read. These three women immediately saw the program’s potential and promised to do what they could to support it. Since that day, the Morris Arts Council has been one of Girls Surviving’s strongest advocates. They not only help us find funding and administer program finances, they attend performances, visit workshops, and help us keep a video and photographic record of  the program’s history.
Another place we looked for help was the Morris County Community Foundation. Through the Foundation, Carolyn was put in touch with Dr. James Gallagher. Jim was interested in helping a program that served teen girls for much the same reason that Carolyn and I had decided to create one. Like us, he had daughters of his own and he, too, had seen the lack of resources available to young women during their critical teenage years. He said he would like to attend a workshop to see, first hand, the kind of work we were doing.
I have to admit that I didn’t have much hope for the outcome of that site visit. Chances were that very few girls would attend and, since at that time in the program’s development, our turnover rate was high, it was likely that at least one of those girls would be a first-timer, too insecure to participate in activities. The person who would be able to see the program’s potential at one of our early workshop would need to be wise and insightful, and to have experience working with teens at risk. It was a tall order to fill.
On the night of the site visit, three girls showed up. Jim Gallagher was accompanied by the director of one of our non-profit partners, and a House staff member was also in attendance. With all of those adults in the room, the girls were outnumbered, two to one. It was a little like teaching in a fishbowl. I told the Grimms’ tale of Rapunzel and Carolyn led the girls in a drama exercise related to the story. The girls discussed and wrote about the metaphors in the story: the tower and its prisoner – a girl connected to the world by only a single braid of her long, long hair.  When we talked with Jim after the workshop, he was enthusiastic. As luck would have it, wisdom, insight, and experience are three qualities that Jim Gallagher has in abundance. He understood what we were trying to do, and agreed that with time, patience, and financial support, we could create a program that would help a generation of girls find their voices and gain the confidence to make themselves heard. So, after that night, he agreed to help fund Girls Surviving.

Financial resources are essential to the existence of a program like Girls Surviving. A program needs money to hire and keep a skilled and dedicated staff, to subsidize its administration, and to purchase the supplies necessary for program activities. However, we have learned that funding is not the only thing a program gets from its funders. Carolyn and I have been fortunate in finding partners who understand and share our vision. The support of the Morris Arts Council and of Jim Gallagher made our Girls’  Group idea a reality, not only because they offered us financial support, but also because their belief in us gave us confidence that we could make the program a success.
Carolyn and I are teachers and artists. Both occupations are hard to assess from the inside because they are all about process. Even an artist’s end product – a story, a painting, a play – is part of the process of honing the craft. In addition, most of an artist’s work is done in seclusion – in a studio or at a desk, where there is little opportunity for getting feedback on progress. You are so close to the work that you lose perspective, and sometimes it is hard to tell if what you are doing has any value.
Teaching is also all process. Children are works in progress, so the day-to-day effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to assess. There is hardly ever a time when you can sit back and admire an accomplishment because every success (and every failure) is just a step along the journey. We often never know how, or if, we have helped our students.
One gift that our financial supporters give us is the encouragement that what we’re doing is worthwhile. As outside observers, they see the work in way we cannot, and their willingness to subsidize it is an affirmation that they see its value. In addition, these particular supporters, the Arts Council and Dr. Gallagher, have become hands-on partners in the development of the program. Through the years, we have relied on them for advice and support beyond program financing. They have developed personal relationships with Carolyn and me, as well as with some of our girls.

Last spring, Jim invited our senior girls to attend a dinner and performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The event was a fundraiser for Covenant House, another charity supported by the Gallagher family. It was an elegant evening and a wonderful experience for our girls. At this event, we were introduced to Jim’s friend, Phyllis, the Phyllis who has had such a powerful influence on our girls!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pre-Thanksgiving Treat: A Guest at the GS Table

Silence can be a lonely place.  A baby enters the world with a lusty cry for a reason.  Giving voice to her need is essential to her “surviving.”  The more effective her communication, the more gratifying the response she elicits.  Voicing need gives her power.  Learning how to use her power wisely over time leads to a better understanding of herself and others.  With that wisdom, she goes off into the world to gather experiences and form relationships that will help her grow.  Adolescence throws her off course, as Paula mentions in her last post.  She stumbles around in the chaos of hormonal fluctuations and mixed signals, loses sight of who she is and falls silent. She is no longer sure of what she needs, so her ability to express herself is compromised.  As a result, her stable foundation of relationships, interests and pursuits begins to feel unsteady.

Girls Surviving offers experiences that nudge her out of her silence. It can help reunite her with her fledgling selfhood and guide her into a future of possibilities that includes strong, healthy relationships. In previous posts, we’ve discussed the ways in which literature, discussion and writing have called forth the girls’ voices and allowed them to rediscover the power they have to bring about positive changes in themselves and their community.  The program encourages girls to see the world through many different lenses, to hear and understand different points of view so that they will speak with greater wisdom. 

Inviting a variety of talented, caring role models into Girls Surviving workshops is one way the program works to broaden the girls’ understanding of the world. Professionals in dance, theater and storytelling have led workshops, for example. High school and college students of theater have stopped by to lead exercises.  As a result of their exposure to different voices, the girls were well prepared to listen intently when we told them a guest speaker was coming.  Phyllis first came to speak to them last summer, and she was supposed to come again the week that Sandy decided to upstage her.  Let me say that only a storm as powerful as Sandy could possibly steal the limelight away from Phyllis.  She has left a lasting impression on our girls and they were very excited when they heard that she had rescheduled her visit for Nov. 15.

On both of her visits, Phyllis captivated the girls’ attention with her personal story.  It is a story that traces her confrontation with and victory over life’s harsh realities. She described in detail her struggle to find a path beyond adversity, her triumphs as well the compromises she had to make along the way, and her eventual success and happiness.  She offered the girls hope that they, too, could confront and overcome obstacles to their success and happiness, and when she finished speaking they rushed to share their own stories of personal struggle.  Phyllis’s authenticity had won them over.

Phyllis’ message about meeting life’s challenges with courage, confidence and persistence inspired many of the girls to make positive choices about how to move forward with their lives. After her first talk, some made commitments to work for better grades; others decided to go on to college after high school, and still others made career choices that would assure their economic freedom. One of our girls had an interview for a prestigious leadership program open to teens in the tri-state area the day after Phyllis first spoke to the group.  When asked who her role model was by the interviewers, she told them without hesitation that it was Phyllis.  “I told them she is my hero,” the girl said simply to us later.  A couple of days later, she bid us good-by, left the safety of the Girls Surviving circle, rode the train to New York City by herself and began a journey of her own as a participant in that program. We were thrilled to watch her set out on her own, proud, determined and fearles.

When Phyllis spoke to the girls again last Thursday, she included remarks about the subject of love.  She drew important distinctions between infatuation and real love, and after her talk, the girls wrote their reflections about what they had learned.  They seemed to agree that Phyllis’ words had changed their perspective about what it means to love.

Real love is not a destination, Phyllis said; it is a journey.  It requires time, attention and effort to help it grow.  It will not flourish unless each person in the relationship learns to speak out in a calm, thoughtful manner.  Clear, respectful communication is essential to its ongoing vibrancy.  While the focus of Phyllis’s remarks was romantic love, the same things could be said about sustaining all of the important relationships in our lives. 

As the Girls Surviving program moves forward this year, I believe the girls will come to realize that their sisterhood will need the same nourishing.  As they develop their ideas for a play about what separates people from one another, I think they’ll recognize the connections between Phyllis’s words of wisdom and the chosen theme of their play. As they make new friends, as they interact with old friends and family, as they explore their interests and work toward their goals, I believe they’ll remember to speak out clearly, calmly and respectfully.  One reason they’ll remember is because Phyllis changed their perspective about what it means to love.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Beyond the Looking Glass

It has been said that trying to live without literature is like trying to apply makeup without a mirror. Literature reflects life and provides us with images that guide our actions and help us understand the actions of others. By allowing us to live vicariously through the lives of characters, literature offers new experiences and fresh insights that can help guide us through our own life journeys. It’s hard for a life-long and (slightly) obsessive reader like myself to understand how anyone survives without stories and poems. Yet, as Carolyn said in her recent post, many of the young people we teach, girls in our troupe as well as teens we meet in other settings, do not have a background in literature. Not only do they not read plays, they don’t read much of any literature outside of school requirements. I don’t expect to meet many teenagers who are familiar with, or have even heard of, Jean Anouilh, but I am surprised that most kids don’t know the story of Oedipus and his children which, of course, form the background and subject of the play to which Carolyn referred.
The stories that form the foundation of any literature, the myths and folktales of the culture from which it arises, are generally unknown to many of the teens and young adults I meet. When I began teaching many years ago, I took it for granted that public school students in New Jersey would have heard Bible stories, fairy tales, Greek myths, and Mother Goose, but with the exception of the tales that had been popularized (and usually bowdlerized) in movies and television, I found that these stories were unfamiliar to my students. They missed allusions to them in the novels and poems they did read and, as a result, their understanding of assigned reading was deficient. Consequently, they thought reading was boring and books were irrelevant.
Everyone needs a foundation for their learning. A person with little or no knowledge on which to tack new information can’t make meaning of  new experiences. Imagine trying to understand an article about the illegal trade of ivory if you have no knowledge of elephants! It would be hard to understand what was at stake. In a similar way, knowing the foundational stories of a culture is an essential part of understanding its people and customs. And some stories, like myths and folktales, transcend cultural differences to become metaphors for every human experience. These are the stories that help us truly understand who we are.

So, as Carolyn said, we introduce literature into our workshops to help the girls understand themselves and the circumstances of their lives. Thinking and talking about literary characters like Hansel and Gretel or Ismene and Antigone, characters who are struggling through conflicts similar to those experienced by our girls, also allows the girls to see their own struggles more objectively. After all, they’re not talking about themselves any more, but about two children lost in a magical forest, or about two sisters in ancient Thebes. 

Because we felt that the girls needed some distance from their personal stories, we began the third workshop by skipping the “check in” and moving right to literature. The literary prompt we used was an Irish folktale called The Wild Geese. We presented the tale orally, telling it dramatically with gesture and character voices. This way of presenting a story makes it immediately accessible to every girl in the group, regardless of her reading fluency, thereby creating an even playing field for follow-up discussion and writing.
The story itself is a variant of a tale that appears in many cultures. In it, a group of brothers, cursed by the thoughtless remark of one of their parents, is transformed to a group of animals, in this case, the eponymous wild geese. To break the curse, their sister must forego speech and outward signs of emotion for a long period of time. The story details the sister’s suffering during the time she is unable to speak for herself or show how she feels,  and its resolution comes when she regains her voice.
We chose this story, in part, because the heroine’s plight is a metaphor for the social constraints that are often imposed on adolescent girls. Our girls – our daughters, our troupe members, and, I believe, most girls in our society begin school on an equal footing with the boys in their peer group. As little girls they are self-confident, enthusiastic, curious, and adventurous. However, by the time they reach middle school, girls begin to realize that society has different expectations of them than of their male classmates. As they enter their teens, girls begin to be judged more for their appearance than for their abilities. They are portrayed as sexual objects in popular media, and manipulated by the fashion industry to conform to an artificial and unrealistic ideal of femininity. Girls suddenly become unsure of their own worth. Like the sister in The Wild Geese, they become mute. As they lose their ability to communicate their real feelings about what they see and hear, their risk of falling under the power of destructive social forces increases. Some of them survive by conforming to social pressures to drink, use drugs, engage in sexual activity, and adopt the thoughtless behaviors necessary to maintain social status. Others find themselves alone – ostracized because they are too smart, not pretty enough, or from an unpopular family, race, or culture.

Analyzing the trials of the heroine in The Wild Geese offered our girls an opportunity to think and talk about the social pressures of modern girlhood without talking directly about themselves. As they wrote about what it was like for the sister to have so little control over her life, or about what motivated the characters who helped and harmed her, I hope that they also began to see that to have a voice is to have power. Because literature doesn’t just describe life, it can change life, and if our girls learn that they can speak up for themselves and their sisters, it will give them more strength to stand up to the pressures of their teen years.
I believe that the voice a girl discovers through her Girls Surviving experience will give her the confidence to speak up for what she believes and to disclaim the injustices she sees around her.  I also believe that the literature the Girls Surviving troupe writes and performs for their community make it a better place.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Adding Literature to the Mix

Sandy was whirling its way out of New Jersey when I started writing. I didn’t get very far with it.  Now, a couple of days later, with my power restored and yard clean up under way, I’m still finding it difficult to settle into old routines.  I see too much destruction too close to home to believe that because I have electricity now, my life will simply pick up where it left off.  Nature, once again, has humbled us, and we’ll need time to recover from the effects of the storm she sent barreling into our lives.

Girls Surviving won’t meet this week or, as of today at least, next week.  The schools are closed now because so many neighborhoods are still dark. Next week they’re supposed to be closed for the NJ Teachers Convention, but that could change because the convention is held in Atlantic City, the site of the eye of the storm. 

Whatever happens, it’s clear that we will be meeting again after a long, chaotic break.  Inevitably, we’ll need to shift agendas once more in order to process what has happened to us since our third session. I have no idea what that workshop will look like right now.  Perhaps we’ll simply need to talk and write in our journals.  Then again, we may need to turn to literature to help us understand how to cope with circumstances that seem beyond our control.

We devoted the summer of 2009 to an exploration of the same theme.  There was no storm that year to remind us of our fragility, but we knew we would be welcoming teenage girls into the program that summer who might be feeling fragile just because they were teenage girls trying out something new.  To help put them at ease with their decision to take a risk with this program, we decided to start the first day by introducing literature that spoke to the choices we make when we’re feeling confused, lost or powerless. 

That summer, as Paula explained in her last post, the program fully blossomed because so many dedicated voices united in an effort to make it a success.  Literature added its voice, too, to the chorus of girls, counselors and teaching artists that worked together to bring about this positive change. The literature that was introduced, the order in which it was presented and the manner in which it was used to prompt writing helped unite the girls around a theme that resonated for them personally and brought them together as a group.  It also inspired the writing of the play that gave them the freedom to safely articulate their thoughts and feelings. 

The play that summer was called “Lost,” and it was the story of Hansel and Gretel, told on the first day, that planted the idea for it. The story immediately propelled the girls into the playwriting process because it focused on the decisions we grapple with when our survival is at stake and we feel powerless in the face of imminent danger.  Plays are about conflicts and the decisions the characters make to escalate them or resolve them, so the story was a perfect fit for our process.

After the telling of the story and a discussion about its central themes, the girls wrote monologues for the characters that they thought faced difficult choices. In order to consider the reactions of characters in times of crisis, they most likely had to consider how they would react under similar circumstances.  Working as writers, they were consciously or unconsciously making connections between their feelings and those of their characters.  Character exploration gave them the means to get to know themselves a little better; sharing their monologues with the rest of the group allowed them to get to know each other better as well.  This process also helped them learn more about playwriting.  It prepared the girls for the monologue writing they would do later for the characters in their play. By exposing the girls to literature, then giving them a variety of opportunities to express their thoughts and feelings about what they heard, we helped the girls get to know each other and learn something about the playwriting process.

We built upon the work we did the first day by introducing a poem by William Stafford, called “The Day Millicent Found the World” on the second day. The poem is about a girl who finds herself lost and feels confused about what to do about it.  After reading the poem, we talked about how we lose our way, what it feels like to be lost and how we respond to those feelings.  Afterward, the girls transformed the personal reflections they shared in conversation into poems of their own, many of which they included later in the play.  The one below shows how the author’s feelings were impacted by elements in the poem and in the story of Hansel and Gretel.  The activities offered on day one carried over into the writing on day two:

Being lost is feeling scared
But it also feels like a challenge,
Whether you’re up to it or not,
Whether you’d sit and cry
Or stand up and find your way
Back from where you came.

After delving deeper into the theme of feeling lost through poetry, it was time to pursue it in the context of plays and playwriting.  My experience teaching playwriting outside of Girls Surviving has shown me that few kids this age know much about it because, sad to say, they rarely see or read plays.  Because of their lack of experience, teaching them how to write dialogue that moves the conflict forward can be challenging.  Reading literature, this time a scene from a play, gave the girls insights they needed to begin inventing characters and conflict dialogues that would carry their feelings to the stage. 

The choice was a scene between Antigone and her sister, Ismene, from the play Antigone, by 20th century French playwright, Jean Anouilh. In it, the sisters grapple with their different reactions to a life-altering experience and conflicting views about how to handle it.  Their encounter raises questions about who talks us through times of crisis - who helps us or challenges us or opposes us when we feel vulnerable.  Our discussion with the girls about the characters’ strained relationship took place the same day that our counselor had led them in a discussion about their own, sometimes strained, parent/child relationships. As a result of that coincidence, the scenes that were written that day contained elements of both discussions.  They reflected a marvelous intermingling of the personal and universal and they became centerpieces of the play.

Just as the barrier between the personal and the universal began to blur that day so did the barriers that separated the girls by age, race and economic status.  We had noticed that the girls were segregating themselves when they chose their seats in our circle, and we had been experimenting with ways to change that pattern.  We decided that one way to do it was to ask the girls to write in pairs, rather than individually.  Writing a dialogue in which two characters champion opposing views seemed like a perfect opportunity to try the plan, so we asked our student intern to pair the girls in ways that would break up any obvious cliques. In the end, girls who didn’t know each other very well at the time not only wrote together, but also rehearsed and performed their scenes together.

A mysterious interweaving of ‘voices’ that Paula recently described took place that day and a united troupe of writers and actresses was born.  Alongside teaching artists, girls and counselors, literature lent its voice to the mix.  It was a voice that had been growing stronger with each day and each successive literary addition.  It was a voice that spoke first with a story, got stronger with a poem and worked magic with a dramatic scene. Exposure to literature helped pave the way for the discussions, writing and sharing that eventually brought the troupe together. Will literature help us come together again this year?

Paula and I agree that we have no idea what the current troupe will look like in February or March, let alone, who will be able to join us when we finally come back together.  I see potential in each girl and the optimist in me continues to hope that they will connect and learn to work together over the next few months.  Kim, Karen, Paula and I will pool our skills and experiences to explore as many ways as possible to keep the group together, moving it forward with the work.  We’ll look to our troupe veterans for advice, too, and we’ll look to literature for words of wisdom and inspiration. 

The last time the group met we followed through with our plan to introduce literature.  Once again, a story created a stir of excitement, prompted thought provoking questions and inspired writing that surprises the reader with it’s depth of feeling and insights into human nature.  Literature has the power to stimulate the imagination, connect our little lives to forces in the world that are greater than ourselves, and bring us together in our common humanity.

For that reason we might need to read a poem, an article, a scene from a novel or a play the next time we meet.  There’s a lot that can happen between now and then. Who could have predicted that our group would be broken apart by a storm so soon after our first workshop?  Life seems a lot more unpredictable now than it did a couple of weeks ago. Turning to literature as well as to each other on Day 4 may help us reconnect, heal and find the strength to move forward one day at a time.