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.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Finding Our Way

Last week we began the workshop by looking back at some dialogues the girls began writing a couple of weeks ago. Carolyn had developed the dialogue writing exercise in an attempt to deepen the stereotyped characters the girls had been enacting and discussing. To prompt the writing, we asked them to put two different stereotypes in a situation in which at least one of them is in trouble. Some of the scenes that resulted included

-           a privileged white girl comes to the aid of a middle-aged Latino whom she saw being mugged
-           a white jock and an smart Asian boy get stuck in an elevator.
-            a ghetto girl and a smart Asian boy are kidnapped and put in the back of a van
-           a Latino dishwasher on his way home from work meets an hysterical white girl who has lost her phone

Part of this assignment was to create a situation in which at least one of the characters reacts in a way that is contrary to the stereotype. So, for example, in the elevator scene, it’s the jock who knows how to fix the elevator.

On the day the girls began the dialogues, they were very excited about them. They had begun writing after improvising some scenes to model the exercise and, because the writing began late in the workshop, some of the girls were so excited about what they were writing that they wanted to extend the workshop time so they could continue working. However, when they re-read the dialogues last week, they weren’t happy with them. It was easy to see why. Although most of the girls seemed to be making headway developing more realistic characters, many of the characters were still flat. Here’s a short exchange from the kidnapping scene:

Asian Boy
… I can’t believe this is happening to me. This doesn’t happen to smart people; this happens to idiotic, brainless people.

Ghetto Girl
(patting her weave and fixing her make-up) Who are you calling idiotic and brainless?

Asian Boy
Well, we are the only two people in this van…

Ghetto Girl
You know what? I don’t have time for you, Jackie Chan. I have five kids to attend and I got homework. Tenth grade is rough!

Some of these lines got laughs and, as in every dialogue we heard, there were possibilities for further development as the scene progressed. In spite of that, most of the girls didn’t want to expand on their scenes.
Serena was intent on developing the character she had created the week before (see Carolyn’s recent post) and, I think, because that character was more complex than the stereotypes we had been discussing, the other girls wanted to go in another direction, too.

One problem with stereotype characters is that they are exaggerations of real life. That exaggeration can make the situation funny because the character is immediately recognizable as the type of person it’s meant to parody, but it can also make it insulting to the group of people who are victims the stereotype. Hitting the right comic note is difficult and the writer’s success often depends upon factors outside the text, things like audience, the political climate, and in the case of theater, of the actor’s and director’s interpretation of the character and the text. In addition, it’s a challenge to make any fictional character believable and the narrow dimensions of stereotype increase the challenge.
I pointed this out to Hannah, the writer who created the ghetto girl / Asian boy scene from which I quoted. She put her ghetto girl character in the tenth grade, thereby making her fifteen or sixteen years old, and she gave her five children. This is an exaggeration of the stereotypical “welfare queen” motif – an exaggeration of an exaggeration.
“How is her situation possible?” I asked. “And if there were a sixteen year old who had been having children since she was nine or ten, it would be a tragedy. Are you up to dealing with that?”
“Are you telling me not to write about her?” Hannah asked.
“No,” I assured her, “just saying that developing the character will be taking a risk.”

It was shortly after this interchange that the girls began writing using one of the prompts Carolyn mentioned in her recent post: “I don’t want to go home” or “I don’t want to go to school.” The writing that came out of it was good. Characters’ voices were vital and energetic. Hannah decided to take the risk of developing her ghetto girl and she proved up to the task. Here is some of what she wrote:

I don’t want to go to school. No wait. I don’t want to go home. No, no, no. Can I be completely honest with y’all? I just don’t want to go to hell. Yeah, people see this façade of Demonicaishe Sheré Jones, but to be honest, I just wish I can be Monica Sherry Johnwell and, yes, that is what it says on my birth certificate. And don’t not one of y’all laugh. I swear to – No, stop, Monica. Gosh, this is the way your life is the way it is. I’m seventeen and in the tenth grade and I have four kids. Yes, four kids. And if you guys are trying to do the math, here it is…

Hannah toned down some of her character’s statistics – made her older and gave her one less child – which makes the girl more believable, but what’s really wonderful about this new incarnation of the character is that, in the transformation of Demonicaishe into Monica, the writer found the character’s soul. It is amazing to me that Hannah, an open-hearted, well-adjusted fourteen year old high school freshman could create the voice of a character so unlike herself, but she did. Monica’s monologue, which takes up four filled notebook pages of script and recounts all of the misfortunes, mistakes, and humiliations of her lost childhood, ends with these lines:

But don’t give me pity. They always say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. So, yeah, I pray to  Him every night in hope that he can hear me… I don’t want to go to hell. It’s not my fault I got pregnant three times. It’s not my fault Mommy doesn’t love me. It’s not my fault Daddy won’t come home. It’s… it’s… uhh, it’s… uhh… Anyway, I gotta go these tracks, it’s falling out and I gotta go see my man. Duces.

From the beginning of the program, there have been many times that the girls have shown us the way. Their talent, insight, and understanding often surprise us, and they have guided us, by example, with wisdom beyond their years. In this case, just as I was beginning to wonder if they would settle on anything worth writing about, they began to really write. In retrospect, I know it’s just how the creative process works. The weeks that we have spent tossing ideas back and forth have finally begun to pay off. And, once again, I’m reminded that we just have to trust the girls.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What a Wonderful Mess

Writing a play is a messy process. There are guidelines, but there is no single formula to follow.  Like any creative endeavor, it can feel a lot like being lost in the woods. You circle round and round looking for a path.  When you find one, it can dead-end and force you to strike out again.  You stumble around, using whatever tools you have in your toolkit, to help you navigate a way forward. And, whatever route you choose may take unpredictable and frustrating twists and turns before you reach clarity. When there is not one writer, but 10-15 young writers all trying to find their way out of the woods simultaneously, the journey can get really confusing.

A couple of weeks ago, the girls finally seemed to find a way into their play by focusing on character. They spent the better part of our two hours developing two  teenage characters who present themselves differently when they’re in school than they do when they are alone or at home. They were created from the discussions and writing we had previously done on stereotypes. One started out quite simply as “the pothead,” and a couple of funny monologues had been written in his voice in an earlier workshop. During this character development workshop, the girls discovered the secrets that hid behind his laid-back, fun-loving persona and he became more interesting and complicated.  The girls named him Ricky “Scooter” Jones and decided that this high-achieving junior had turned to drugs in order to cope with the pressure he was feeling to succeed in school.

The second character emerged from a monologue that one of the girls, Serena, was busily writing while the rest of us talked about Ricky.  Whenever we see a girl frantically filling her notebook, we do not stop her unless the conversation involves her personally.  In these situations, we realize that something that was said in discussion inspired the girl to write, and we have seen some of the girls’ best writing come out of these spontaneous writing frenzies.  We know the girl is not being rude.  She is following her own path through the tangle of thoughts that are being presented in discussion about the play.

The character she created is the stereotypical “nice girl,” who hides a terrible truth from her teachers and classmates with her sweet smile.  During the day she presents herself as the “typical/normal high-schooler,” and at night she suffers abuse at the hands of her alcoholic mother.

As a result of creating these two characters, the girls discovered that they were narrowing in on a possible theme for their play: school as escape for some and pressure cooker for others.  I say “possible” theme, because there is no guarantee at this point in the process that the play will continue along that road.  At the beginning of the year, the girls said they wanted to write a comedy, but after this workshop, we saw drama emerging. And, at the following workshop, the girls completely surprised us when they couldn’t seem to focus on Ricky “Scooter” Jones at all.  The character they had invested so much time in the week before seemed entirely irrelevant to them the very next week.  When we suggested writing a monologue in his voice, they expressed no interest.
           In fact, everything we suggested at that workshop, seemed to fall on deaf ears. They seemed more lost than ever.  A few weeks before, they had said they wanted to use a future workshop to finish dialogues they had begun to write but hadn’t had time to complete.  When we asked if they wanted to tackle that project, the responses were varied and mostly lukewarm. Running out of suggestions, we decided to allow them to follow whatever path they wanted.  If they wanted to finish the dialogues, we encouraged it.  Serena wanted to continue to develop the character she had created the week before, so we asked her to write a dialogue between the girl and her alcoholic mother.

And, we offered one last possibility:  start with the line “I don’t want to go home” or “I don’t want to go to school” and write in the voice of a character feels one way or the other. The idea for this writing prompt was not our own.  It had been suggested by one of our veterans, Ana, the week before as a way to begin this workshop. Ana’s idea took hold immediately.  The girls who weren’t going off in their own writing trajectory latched onto it, and the writing that came out of the exercise was insightful, honest, and deeply moving.  The prompt struck a cord that resonated personally for them.

Ana’s suggestion gave the girls a clear path – at least for this workshop. Searching seems to be essential to the process. It is as much an element of playwriting as character, setting, or conflict.  We’ve learned to be patient with the search and appreciate its complexity. We often go into workshops like the one just described armed with multiple suggestions to help the girls move forward, but we also rely on their ideas for finding paths out of the woods.  Experienced troupe members like Ana who have grown up in the program, understand how we work and what resonates for the girls. As a result, they come up with brilliant strategies.  Other troupe members, like Serena, contribute to the process by following a path that works for them, but may not work for others.  Having guided the girls through this messy process so many times, we know that all the paths will converge in the end to form a rich, deep, colorful collaboration.

Relax with it and being lost in the creative process is a rewarding place to be. It's an adventure. Standing back from it a bit, watching the girls go off in myriad directions, fills me with wonder and excitement.  I can’t wait to see what the New Year brings to our Girls Surviving workshops and how the girls will pick and choose the strands of writing that will merge into their next original play.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


As Carolyn wrote in her most recent post, the girls have decided to write about stereotypes. Again. Although it seems to me that we revisit this subject at some point in every play, it makes sense that it’s an important issue for teenage girls. Most teens are actively trying on new roles in an attempt to define themselves and to discover their own ‘best fit’ in the high school social scene. They are also acutely aware when they are judged by appearance, race, or ethnicity instead of for their own strengths or shortcomings.
“Stereotypes are true,” is what one of our girls said on the first night we began discussing the topic.
“They don’t come from nowhere,” she added. “People don’t just make them up.”
And there is definitely truth in those statements. But it’s also true that not every person in a given racial or socio-economic or ethnic group fits the stereotype.

I think that it is possible for some people to go through life without encountering the kind of prejudice that is identifiable as stereotypic judgment. This is definitely not true of most of our girls, but a person who belongs to the dominate culture in a place that has a fairly homogenous population, for example, may never see themselves in a racial or ethnic or social stereotype because they’ve never encountered anyone who has made assumptions about them based on race, culture, or social position. However, in most of the coastal parts of this country, such a person must be unusual. I have found myself the target of prejudicial assumptions at several stages of life. When I was in my teens and twenties, I worked at a series of service jobs: gardener, waitress, receptionist, cashier where I encountered people who seemed to assume that, because my job didn’t require an academic degree, I was somehow deficient. I think that everyone who has held such jobs has been subject to a kind of rudeness that, say, doctors and lawyers probably never experience in their professional lives.
I have also been subject to prejudice because I’m Jewish. Most of these incidents have been inadvertent. I think every Jew hears anti-Semitic remarks from people who thought they were speaking safely among “their own.”  My sons have been subjected to blatant anti-Semitic words and acts as they walked to synagogue on Saturday mornings. Although my family and I have never been materially harmed by anti-Semitism, my face-on experience of it has made me sensitive to ethnic prejudice. When the girls enacted the sound and movement collages that Carolyn described, there were times that I had to bite my tongue to keep from calling them out on what seemed to me like crossing a line.

Talking and writing about stereotypes with our girls has always made me a little uncomfortable because many of the girls, while recognizing the theoretical problem associated with stereotyping, seem to buy into the truth of the labels. I think when Carolyn wrote that the girls didn’t “see the edginess of their humor” she was reacting to this aspect of their understanding. Stereotypes can provide great material for humor, but often the jokes that they engender perpetuate the stereotype. This will almost certainly happen if the joker doesn’t have a concept of what’s at stake in his or her performance.
Some of the stereotypes the girls have identified are clearly viewed as open targets for ridicule: the white girls who meet at Starbucks in their Uggs and yoga pants, the Southern farm boy who smokes pot and loves his tractor. Others have been defined by a combination of fear and mistrust: the adult Latino who hangs on the corner ogling teen girls, the Asian kid whose study and practice leads to excellence in art and academia. And still others seem to be objects of a strange kind of pride, like the ghetto girl whose ignorant, but steel-clad, self assurance allows her to fling insults to the judging world.
I think that many groups who are objects of prejudice find solace in some version of this last character. Richard Wright, in his 1940 essay entitled “How Bigger Was Born,” describes the “flash of pride” that a people oppressed by the tyranny of Jim Crow felt at the resistance of the men who dared to flaunt those laws, even though experience had taught them the price that would eventually be paid for revolt. And, although I doubt that any Jew feels pride at being associated with Shakespeare’s Shylock, all of the persecuted races must identify with his outrage and, in weaker moments, feel his desire for revenge. Thus stereotyping begets stereotypes.

My reaction to the stereotypes the girls portray is also a form of prejudging. It includes a dab of self-righteousness and, carried to extreme, could lead me to the dishonesty of political correctness.
As the girls seem to instinctively understand, humor is one of the things that can prevent a concern for social justice from becoming self-righteous cant. When we see the absurdity inherent in our own assumptions about the other, and in their assumptions about us, the stereotypes become, simply, types. Another thing that breaks us out of stereotypical thinking is familiarity with the other. I think this is why, in previous years, our girls’ exploration of stereotypes has led to plays about people, not labels. The process through which they develop characters gives body to one- or two-dimensional ideas.
I don’t expect our girls to have the sophistication to parse what many older and more experienced people cannot. I think that giving them a safe place to play around with stereotypical characters is probably the best way to move them toward recognition of the aspects of human experience that are common to us all.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

This Year's Play Idea

At our last workshop, the girls started to develop their play through monologue writing.  The idea had been simmering for a few weeks, but no writing had been done because the girls needed time to settle into the school year and reconnect as a troupe after the summer break.  We had talked about the idea, though, and experimented with it in acting exercises. They want to write a comedy about the stereotypical high school students they see in their school every day.

We weren’t exactly sure what they had in mind and don’t think they were either. Girls in earlier troupes have explored stereotypes in other Girls Surviving plays and some of the scenes they’ve written have been pretty funny.  What did seem clear was that these girls were expressing a desire to do something entirely different.  Despite the humor in the previous plays, the themes were serious. Our current troupe seems to want an escape from seriousness.

We want to encourage their interest in comedy.  We already know something, though, that they don’t: that by satirizing stereotypes, they would come face to face with important and controversial issues.  We decided to use their curiosity about the genre to help them understand the seriousness that lies at the heart of comedy writing and performing.

We soon realized that the process would take time and present challenges. One of the first improv exercises they did involved creating sound and motion collages.  Five players worked together to create each collage. In it, each girl assumed the role of a stereotype and represented that character with a single gesture and word or phrase. One at a time, the girls stepped forward, as if to create a picture within a frame, arranging themselves so that each could be heard and seen by their audience. Working as a team, they moved and spoke, repeating their gestures and phrases over and over again until all of the characters were moving and speaking, their voices and gestures overlapping. The effect was powerful. By exaggerating, even distorting, the behaviors of others, the girls communicated to their audience how mean it is to stereotype.  Even after watching each other perform these collages, though, they didn’t see the edginess in their humor. They were having too much fun impersonating others. They will need our guidance to understand the implications of what they were doing and craft a play that appeals to an audience that isn’t just made up of adolescents.

Not all people respond to comedy in the same way. Reactions to comedic plays and performances are extremely personal. Saturday Night Live skits, for example, please some and offend others. We wondered how we can allow the girls to unleash their comedic inclinations and, simultaneously, write something funny for a community audience.  First, we decided, we need to know more about what they think is funny.  Without that knowledge, how can we guide the playwriting later on?  Some of them clearly have a sense of humor that occasionally surfaces in our discussions and writing, but we don’t know much about their comic side. At our last workshop, we devised a two-pronged approach to find out. First, we gave them free reign to explore stereotypes through writing and improvisation during our time together.  And, second, for the first time ever, we gave them homework: we asked them to bring in writing that they think is funny to share with the group. They’ll do that, we hope, when we meet again.

The writing they did the last time we met revealed the discomfort some of them feel about satirizing their classmates. We had asked them to write monologues in the voices of the stereotypes they’re interested in exploring.  That assignment, we thought, would allow the comedians in the troupe to express their talents without pressuring anyone who doesn’t possess those particular gifts.  They reacted hesitantly when they heard our request, seemingly uncertain about how to get started. They seemed blocked.  To put them at ease, we suggested they list the stereotypes on the blackboard, adding brief descriptions to further clarify for themselves which stereotypes they wanted to depict. Putting the descriptions in writing for all to see both amused them and made them uncomfortable.  Reacting to the words “ghetto black girls,” “dumb blonds,” “Asian geeks,” and others with fidgets and giggles, they seemed to acknowledge the controversy inherent in what they were doing. They understood they were being rude.  At the same time, they enjoyed the idea of exposing the folly of lumping people together according to their outward appearance and mannerisms.

Eventually they settled down and began to write.  What they wrote was complex and brimming with vitality, but was it comedy?  Speaking in the voices of the characters they wanted to satirize brought them face to face with some of the serious issues that lie beneath the surface of all human beings.  Some of the writers were more successful than others at transforming those issues into comedy. Conflicted themselves about making fun of people, some could not follow through with the satire. Or so it seemed to me.  Maybe the writing was funnier to them.  We’ll find out more about what makes them laugh at our next meeting.  For now, we’ve accomplished part of our goal.  We’ve helped them become more aware of the seriousness that drives comedy.

If they embrace that concept, they may, in time, develop a comic voice that has both the raw power and sensitivity to resonate with a larger audience. It’s a hard job that requires unique skills and talents. We’ll continue to guide them as they strive to find the balance that gives audiences permission to laugh at foibles and pretensions as well as worries and concerns. No matter how their play turns out, I give the girls a lot of credit for wanting to tackle something new and difficult.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Seeking Balance

About a week and a half ago, Girls Surviving had a bake sale at Morristown High. This was the second fundraising project that the girls have organized and carried out on their own. One of our amazing summer interns, Jessica, served as liaison to the school administration to schedule and make other arrangements for the event. Four or five of the younger girls posted signs around school to advertise the sale. These girls also stayed up late the night before making cookies, cupcakes, and brownies. Karen helped Jessica coordinate passes for girls who needed to leave class early to set things up. All Carolyn and I had to do was bake something and bring it to school.

At the bake sale

When I arrived with my brownies on the afternoon of the sale, I was surprised to see several girls who hadn’t attended workshops since the spring. In fact, one of the girls behind the table was a veteran who had left the troupe nearly a year ago. Although I was glad to see these girls, I was puzzled by their presence. As far as I knew, they were no longer in the program and, consequently, should have been in class at that time of day.
My confusion must have been apparent because Carolyn, who had gotten to school before me, said, “Oh, they say they’re coming back.”
The girl who quit last year smiled and nodded. “But I probably won’t be at tonight’s workshop,” she said.
By this time, the freshman girls who had planned and baked for the sale arrived. As they laid out the treats they were offering for sale and discussed how to price them, Carolyn and I backed away. This was their sale and we were proud of the ownership they were taking of it. In time, Jessica, who had been held in class by a teacher, arrived with a video camera and the money box. The dismissal bell rang, and students began to crowd around the table. Carolyn volunteered be the video recorder so Jessica would be free to run the sale.
During the most frenetic part of the sale, I was distracted. I had brought my two-year-old grandson, for whom I was babysitting that afternoon, and he was overwhelmed by the high school scene. When I made the decision to bring him along, I didn’t think it would be a problem because when I attended the girls’ first bake sale last spring, my presence was completely extraneous. The girls in charge had everything under control. However, when most of the goodies had been sold and the crowd was dispersing, I saw a couple of things that bothered me. At one point, a student I didn’t know walked up to the table and took a soda. When I realized that she wasn’t going to pay for it, I called to her, but she continued to walk away.
“Did that girl just steal a soda?” I asked.
The only GS girls remaining behind the table were the freshmen who been working the sale. They were huddled in conversation, distracted from what was going on around them and clearly upset by something. They looked up when I spoke and began talking at once.
“Someone said everything that was left should be free,” said one girl.
“No, I didn’t,” said another, “I said it should be half price.”
“Did you see how X just took those brownies from Molly?” asked a third. “It wasn’t fair. She didn’t help with anything.”
Just then, Jessica, who had been counting the take walked up. “We made just over $100.00,” she said, handing me an envelope.
A security guard came over to ask the girls to clean up and move along, some old students of mine came over to say hello, and before I could follow up with the girls, everything was over. I did manage to catch a couple of the ninth grade troupe members long enough to say, “Don’t worry about anything, You did a great job. If we made mistakes, think of them as lessons for the next time do this.”
But as I walked my grandson back home, I was troubled. I was sorry that the younger girls may have had a bad experience, and I felt responsible. Because, based on my experience with last year’s bake sale, I assumed that everything would run smoothly, I hadn’t reflected on the difference between the two events. Last year’s sale was held in the spring when even the youngest troupe members felt comfortable in the high school environment. In addition, there were more upper classmen involved in last year’s sale. The majority of girls in this year’s troupe are freshman and, at this time of year, they are still new to the school. They don’t feel comfortable confronting older students or confident in their right to take command of an event, even if, as in this case, they owned it. They needed a stronger adult presence and I wasn’t there for them.

That evening at our workshop, one of the freshman girls, Hannah, introduced the topic of the sale.
“I don’t mean to cause trouble,” she said, “but I don’t feel right about what happened.”
The other freshmen who had been at the sale chimed in.
“Right, it was so wrong.”
“It wasn’t fair.”
“But what were we supposed to do?”
When Carolyn and I asked them to be specific, they said that they resented the presence of girls who hadn’t been active in the work of the troupe, but that they had been reluctant to stand up on the spot and criticize the behavior of older girls.
“They only want to be part of the troupe when there’s something fun going on. They don’t want to do the real work,” said one.
“They don’t care about the group,” said another.
“How did they even get passes to come?” asked Hannah
As the girls talked, it became even clearer to me that we adults should have taken a larger supervisory role in the bake sale. We should have planned for it in workshops. We should have helped the girls set a protocol for who could participate and how to handle potential problems at the site. In our enthusiasm to give the girls independent ownership of the project, we forgot that teenagers still need the scaffold of adult support and protection.

We all learned lessons from the bake sale. The girls gained experiential knowledge of some of the problems that may arise at a school fundraiser: problems caused by last minute planning or by underestimating issues of crowd control. We adults were reminded that even the most independent teens still need our presence and guidance. However, we also learned a little more about the strength and resilience of the girls in our present troupe. Hannah’s willingness to revisit her discomfort was courageous, and the other girls’ ability to talk things out reaffirmed their trust that troupe mates won’t betray confidences.

Also, the problems at the end of the process don’t diminish the girls’ success in planning and carrying out the sale. A colleague of mine who directs a very different after-school program, a program that tends to draw a more privileged group of students, has had to cancel two scheduled bake sales because the kids didn’t show up to help or bring things to sell. The Girls Surviving staff members know that we can rely on our girls to take responsibility and carry out the things they plan. In fact, they do this so well, that sometimes I need to be reminded that they still need my help.