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.”

Friday, December 14, 2012

Playwriting and the Bonding Process

She rearranged herself in the chair and faced her questioners. 
“Your name is…?”
“Jami,” she quickly replied.
 “And how old are you, Jami?”
 “I don’t have to answer that,” she laughed.  “Only kidding,” she added before the questioner could interrupt; then she started calculating out loud.  “Let’s see, I was…20, right, 20 when I had Angelina…that would make me…35.  Yes, I’m 35.” 

This was the beginning of a character interview, an improvisational acting technique used in Girls Surviving workshops to help the writers develop back-stories, or personal histories, for their characters. In the exercise one girl pretends to be a character in a scene the group is writing while the rest of the troupe asks her questions about her life.  As the actress improvises answers, in character, the girls develop a better understanding of this character’s motivations.

The girls who participated last week were familiar with the process; it flowed easily and the girls learned a lot about Jami.  The actress playing her was very concentrated.  She started the interview by sitting in the chair as her character might, and she stayed in character while she tried to figure out what age Jami should be. In this way, she made the character instantly believable.  The girls asking the questions stayed on task too.  As the interview proceeded, they increasingly challenged the actress to think more deeply about the woman she was playing.

The character’s story gradually unfolded.  Jami had served fourteen years of a 20-year prison sentence for manslaughter. “They say it was accessory to a murder,” said Jami, “but I’m innocent.” She didn’t blame her court-appointed lawyer for the guilty verdict, though, because, “What could he do?  They found a gun in my car.  I picked it up.”  When she entered prison, she left behind a one-year-old daughter, Angelina, and a loving, but troubled, husband.  She hadn’t seen them since, and she was pretty sure Angelina didn’t know anything about why she was gone. When asked if she thought she would get out of prison early for good behavior, she said she would have to admit her guilt for that to happen.  She said, “No, I don’t believe in stuff like Karma” when one girl asked, “Do you believe in coincidence…that you in some way deserved this?” Another girl wanted to know if she now believed she had committed the crime because she had been told “over and over” that she had.  Sadly, she answered, “I’m not sure any more.”

The character that emerged from the interview is powerless and isolated. Trapped by circumstances beyond her control, she is becoming confused and unsure of herself. While the writers may alter some details about her life as they develop the scene, these essential truths about her will not change because Jami embodies an archetype that resonates so deeply for these adolescent girls. 

Powerless, trapped characters like Jami return in one guise or another often in the plays produced by Girls Surviving. These characters sometimes hide behind the secrets they keep. Sometimes they feel silenced by their troubled personal lives or isolated because of their race, class or age.  In a play written years ago, Alone I Cry, the character Taylor, a wealthy but affection-starved rich girl, sums up those feelings this way: 

“I’m trapped in a box, wrapped like a package with the glitter of my race, clothes, my parents’ jobs.  Everyone’s so sure they know what I am; no one bothers to take off the wrapping and look inside.  And from here inside, it’s hard to breathe.  I’m suffocating.”

Circumstances force a few uneasy alliances between characters throughout Alone I Cry but no fast friendships develop. When all the characters come together in the last scene for mandatory group counseling, they struggle to break out of the symbolic prisons that isolate them.  The plays ends with each character standing alone, each reciting a single line of the poem from which the play title was taken:

“Alone I Cry.  Someone hear this voice that’s deep inside.  Though tears go away, can’t anyone notice I’m broken.  Cold and heartless.  That’s all I ever encounter.  I’m screaming for help.  Can’t you see.  Why can’t everything for once be all about me?”

The teenage characters in this play may not be in prison, like Jami, but they are, nevertheless, walled in by their loneliness and their fear of reaching out to others.

The subject matter of Girls Surviving plays is often tough, but the process of writing it helps the girls in the troupe acknowledge, confront, and talk about those issues that prevent them and those they know in real life from reaching out to others.  The year that Alone I Cry was written, the girls had a particularly difficult time bonding, and the play reflects their problems getting to know and trust each other. By speaking through their characters, they found the courage to explore the personality traits in their group that threatened to stonewall the bonding process that year. Moreover, creating the characters together, as a group, helped them break out of their own shells. It distanced them from their personal real-life problems in a way that allowed them to see each other more objectively. As a result, they learned to appreciate each other’s differences and unique contributions to the process. While the play itself provided only a glimmer of hope that the characters would find a way out of their isolated lives, the actual Girls Surviving group writing experience helped our real girls reach hands across the stage and take a bow together at the end of the school year.  Like the characters they create, the girls in Girls Surviving are trying to step out of their silence, discover their voices, and practice ways to connect.  Joining forces to write their play helps with this struggle.

As the current troupe members develop the scene between Jami and her 15 year-old daughter, Angelina, they, too, will engage in the struggle.  Using the characters of mother and daughter to speak for them, they will grapple with the feelings of isolation and distrust that dominate their landscape.  They already have decided that communication is essential between Jami and Angelina, but that it must be through letters. With each letter exchange, Jami and Angelina may inch closer together or grow further apart, depending on what they reveal and how they reveal it.

            After the character interview last week, each girl in the room wrote a letter from one character to the other. One, from Angelina to Jami, captures the daughter’s contradictory feelings about connecting with her mother.  The letter starts by rejecting Jami’s attempt to reach out:  “I’m glad you went to jail.  I hope you rot and die…I never want to see you.  Stay away from me.  Never talk to me again or send any of those pitiful excuses for a letter.”  It ends, however, with a heartfelt plea for a mother’s love:  “…Mama…I want you to hold me so dear and close, to kiss my puffy cheeks when I’m sad.  Snuggle me in love in a heartbreaking moment.  Whisper in my fire hot ears when I’m stressed and tell me everything will be okay….”  The little girl still living in the 15 year-old body of Angelina wants to trust while the older, experienced adolescent Angelina is angry and confused.

Will Angelina and Jami ever meet?  Will they embrace?  Or, will something happen that forces them even farther apart?  The girls have much work to do.  But they, as others have, will come away from the experience understanding each other better, united by the work they have done and, nurturing a voice that is all their own.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Teaching Moments

A few summers ago, the troupe was working on a script about a character who had been hurt by bullying, a girl whose physical disability made her an easy target. One morning, as we began to write, one of the girls picked up a note that had been tossed onto her desk. She opened it, looked at the tosser, and sort of smiled. The girl sitting next to her grabbed the note, read it, laughed and passed it along. In a few seconds, all the girls on one side of the circle were laughing about something that the girls on the other side knew nothing about. 
Carolyn, Karen, and I looked at each other.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You know,” Carolyn said to the girls, “the rest of us aren’t in on the joke.”
“It's making me uncomfortable,” I added.
One of girls laughed. “Would everyone feel better if we shared it?”
“That depends on what it is,” Karen said.
The girl who had spoken was already up and heading for the front of the room.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Right, Elaina?” She looked at the girl who had originally received the message.
Elaina* shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” said Carolyn.
“Is this really alright with you, Elaina?” I asked.
But by that time, the girl at the front of the room was reading the note aloud. It said something about a boy on whom Elaina had a crush, nothing nasty, but the comment cast some dispersion on Elaina's taste in men. When the note was read aloud, the girls who had been snickering roared with laughter. Elaina was smiling broadly, but neither Carolyn nor I believed her.
“Why is this okay?” I asked.
“Because we’re all friends,” one of the girls answered.
“Because Cheryl and Elaina have been, like, inseparable b.f.f.’s since they were in diapers,” said another. “Elaina knows she didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Is that right, Elaina?” Carolyn asked.
“Yeah,” said Elaina, blushing.
Now, all of the adults in the room knew that it wasn’t right. We also knew, as did the girls, that Elaina might be sensitive about her crushes. We knew it because during one of our earlier workshops, she had shared a story about being teased and bullied about a crush. I looked around the circle. Some of the girls were still smiling, seemingly oblivious to the breach of trust and lack of sensitivity they had just witnessed or participated in. Others looked uncomfortable. It was a critical moment in the workshop, a time when it might be possible to make the girls aware that some of the behaviors in which they and their peers thoughtlessly engage are cruel. In this case, regardless of what Elaina said, she must have been mortified by her friends’ actions. Girls whom she trusted were exposing her to the same kind of ridicule that she had suffered in one of her most excruciating moments. However, we also knew that we, the adult mentors, couldn’t teach that lesson. A lecture from one of us would embarrass the girls involved, but they would most likely deal with their embarrassment by telling themselves that we didn’t understand the dynamic in acts between friends. Also, our further intervention would just make Elaina more uncomfortable. We had expressed our disapproval. More talk from us wouldn’t make it stronger.

One of the lessons that Carolyn and I have learned from our work with girls in the troupe is that they don’t expect adults to understand them, and they don’t respect adult judgments in matters of moral responsibility when they differ from their own and those of their peers. A conversation we had with the girls just this past summer illustrates this point. The summer play, Selective Truths, presented four scenes in which the teen characters kept serious secrets from their friends, parents, and teachers. At least one of the character’s secrets could have had deadly consequences.
During a discussion about how to end the play, we asked, “Shouldn’t one of the characters say or do something to invite adult intervention?”
All of the girls were adamant. “No,” they said, “because it’s not realistic.”
“That’s like what might happen in a TV drama about teens,” said one of them, “but it’s not how teenagers really act.”
 “Right,” said another girl, “we might talk to friends, but not to an adult. That just complicates the problem.”
The adults in the room, of course, knew that this wasn’t strictly true. The serious problems of teenage girls: drugs, pregnancy, sexual abuse, eating disorders, are frequently complicated because teens don’t seek adult intervention. But we knew that it would do no good to point that out in the discussion. We also feel strongly that the girls should have artistic control over the material they write and perform, so we acquiesced to their decision about the play’s ending.

The situation I described above was different because it wasn’t theoretical. We weren’t talking about how fictional characters would act, we were faced with the question of how real people should act. At stake were, not only Elaina’s feelings, but also the trust we are trying establish between all of the members of the troupe, teens and adults. This did not change the fact that more talking by adults wouldn’t change anything and, in fact, might make the matter worse, but it did make us feel that it was urgent to address the problem before it got swept under the rug by other workshop activities.
We were saved, as we often are, by one of the girls. In this case, it was Ebony who put the situation into its proper perspective. Ebony was a high spirited sophomore whose jovial chatter during workshops kept us all laughing. She was not among the group who was in on the joke at the beginning of the discussion, and when she first heard it, she laughed out loud. As the discussion progressed, however, she grew silent, listening and observing. At last she said,
“I don’t know. If this was happening to me, my feelings would be hurt.” She pursed her lips and shook her head.  “I’m just sayin’.”
The other girls grew silent. Cheryl, again, protested that it was all in fun, but she seemed less confident. Some of the other girls acknowledged that the joke was not “alright.” Now, Carolyn, Karen, and I could agree that it would have hurt our feelings, too. That, in fact, similar jokes had hurt our feelings when we were teens. The talk didn’t last long. No one wanted to linger over the issue, but we could move on knowing that it had not been allowed to slip by unmentioned.

It sometimes happens in our workshops that we see the girls behaving contrary to the subject of their writing. Once, when we were writing a play about exclusion, a group of girls were systematically leaving one of their troupe mates out of their lunch time chatter. Another time, when we were writing about racism, the girls caught themselves referring to certain ethnic groups in the community as “them.” This behavior isn’t confined to teenagers. If we are honest, we will acknowledge that we all occasionally fall short of our own moral expectations. The questions remains, what to do when we see it happening. These are ‘teaching moments,’ times when an incident demands diversion from the agenda to focus on the topic at hand. What Carolyn and I have discovered is that we are learners as well as teachers at these moments, and that part of the trust we should be building is our own trust that one or more of the girls will rise to the occasion and address the issue.

*girls' names are pseudonyms 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Creating a Bond: the Carolyn and Paula Partnership

Like many others, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen during the Thanksgiving break.  One night when I was chopping broccoli my thoughts turned to Girls Surviving.  As I fell into the rhythm of the work, I realized how much I missed the group.  Sandy had disrupted the flow of the fall workshops; now, with Thanksgiving, we were separated again.  What a coincidence, I thought, that the girls chose to explore the issue of separation in their play at a time when interruptions in our schedule made it difficult for us to meet, let alone bond or develop play ideas.  Luckily chopping vegetables relaxes me, so I was not inclined to panic about how little time we had to write a play and get it on its feet for an audience.  I did, however, immediately start planning for our next workshop!

Writing individually about what separates people and what unites them sounded like a good way for us to reconnect as well as re-focus attention on the play.  Recent experiences had prompted me to think a lot about the issue. I had heard the stories, of course, about the ways in which the storm had turned lives upside down. My own life changed for a time too.  Friends of ours who were displaced from their home stayed with us for a week. We knew it must be awful to feel homeless, even temporarily, so we wanted our friends to feel as comfortable as possible.  With our children grown and out of the house, though, my husband and I were used to being alone and had to change a few of our living patterns to make our guests feel welcomed. They had to adapt to some of our ways of doing things too. Our time together served as a reminder of how much is required to bring people together under the same roof.  Because all of us were willing to give and take, listen and respond to each others’ needs, allow for privacy one moment and share a meal together the next, our appreciation for each other deepened and our friendship was enriched. What had torn their family from their home had brought us closer together as friends.

What the girls wanted to write about was complicated, I realized.  Sometimes separation is necessary to bring people together.  When we’re angry, time apart allows for reflection that can lead to healing.  Too much togetherness can foster co-dependence that threatens to undermine the unique gifts each person brings to a relationship.  Thinking about this, I was reminded of my last post about Phyllis and her words of wisdom regarding lasting relationships: they need patience, time, effort and attention to grow.  I was excited about hearing what the girls would contribute to a discussion of these issues. What they said might help create the bond that was essential to our collaborative work. 

As all of these thoughts converged on my brain, the telephone rang.  It was Paula.  I had been wondering how she was doing.  She had been so busy with family and work that she finally had succumbed to a cold, so we hadn’t talked in a while.  “Hey,” she said, when I picked up the phone, “what are we going to do at our next workshop?”  “Well,” I laughed, “funny you should ask….”  We settled into a comfortable conversation.  Afterward, while I put my broccoli into the steamer, I began to think about my relationship with Paula and how we had learned to partner.  That, too, is a story about bonding.

When we first envisioned the Girls Surviving program, we knew it could not become a reality without strengthening our own relationship and developing strong connections with others who were interested in our work. One reason we’ve overcome the challenges we’ve faced along the way is that we’ve confronted them together, not alone, and welcomed help beyond our two-person collaboration.  As a result, the “we” of Girls Surviving today is an ever-expanding circle of people who share the same dream.

It all started, though, with our partnership, and that has taken time to develop. I knew a lot about collaborating when we started out but not much about partnering.  Collaboration becomes part of the bloodstream for theater people like me. Theater collaborations, though, generally last only as long as the run of the play, and we wanted our partnership to endure into the future. The only really long-lasting collaboration I could compare the partnership to was my marriage and, while it was still vital after 43 years, it took a lot of time to keep it that way. Paula and I began to joke that maybe our relationship would be like our marriages. What exactly were we getting into? We weren’t really sure.

As we’ve mentioned, we didn’t know each other very well when we started this journey and there were times when the road ahead looked so rocky we thought we might be heading straight for a dead end.  Only a committed, trusting, respectful partnership can push through rough terrain for the long haul, and we knew that the instant bond that was formed when we first talked about our daughters was only a first step in that direction.  As a next step we simply needed to spend more time together.

Over the years we have spent endless hours talking, eating lentil soup in Paula’s kitchen in the winter and salads on Carolyn’s porch in the summer.  We’ve talked of birds, books, and where to get the best Indian food in the county.  We’ve laughed and cried and argued about politics. Recognizing our similarities has given us great pleasure.  Of course, it is always rewarding to find people who share so many of the same interests. It has been exciting, too though, to discover our differences and the ways in which they compliment each other and combine to enrich the work we do with the girls. The unique interests, backgrounds and skills we each bring to the program keep it feeling fresh.  Our free floating conversations have helped us learn these things and given us insights into how to communicate so that when we turn to the business of Girls Surviving, we know how and when to speak about pressing issues.  Most important, knowing each other well has helped us develop trust, which, I believe, forms the foundation of lasting relationships.

As happens when any two people are getting to know each other, however, we’ve had misunderstandings and come away from unsettling conversations feeling frustrated or upset.  We’ve worked through the tough times, though, because we’ve believed that we would find ways to get beyond our disagreements and been patient with our efforts. Patience and mutual respect have helped us listen more carefully and learn to speak openly about what’s bothering us.  Over time, too, we’ve learned to be more sensitive to each other’s feelings and appreciate each other’s individuality.

Is the relationship perfect? Obviously not.  No relationship is perfect. Is it like a marriage?  Sort of.  The knowledge we’ve gained from being married most likely has helped us understand the importance of trust and loyalty to our partnership.  Built on trust, the personal bond that unites us as we pursue our dream celebrates that which we have in common and embraces the unique qualities that make us separate people. Is our bond a work in progress?  Always.  Every day we discover something new about the other. It may be something that instantly brings us closer or it may be something that requires us to step back, reflect, and listen more carefully to what the other has to say.