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, January 24, 2013

Patience with our Emerging Playwrights

 In our workshops we encourage our girls to think like playwrights. In other words, we ask them to examine the motivations of human behavior and delve deeply into the issues they’ve brought to the table in their writing or discussions. We also challenge them to thoughtfully consider what they want to say in their play and how best to say it. This approach frees the girls to speak about pressing issues they face in their every day lives and examine them in a larger context.  It helps them understand themselves and the world around them.  Additionally, it helps them recognize the power they have as playwrights to communicate important messages to their audience about what it’s like to be a teenage girl living in our times.

The choices they eventually make as playwrights are theirs alone to make, and their choices sometimes surprise us. Topics that we, as adults, think a particular group of girls might choose to write about often don’t resonate with them.  For example, for several years conversations about racism and discrimination barely got started in a workshop before they went limp.  We didn’t understand why.  Every day in our community we saw evidence that this issue impacted the girls’ lives in important ways.  We saw self-segregated cliques clustered in various corners of the high school; we saw color lines drawn as girls brought chairs into the Girls Surviving workshop circle or took them out of the circle to form smaller lunch groups; we saw ethnicity dominate certain neighborhoods in our town. What we saw and wanted to talk about, however, seemed of little interest to our girls. One year we thought we might inspire a scene on the topic when the girls broached the subject themselves.

“It’s not fair!  We’re not allowed to sit with our friends at lunch this week.  They’re making us sit with people we don’t know,” lamented the first girl to speak.

“Why would they do that?” we asked.

“It’s because all the black kids sit at one table, the Spanish kids sit together, and the white people sit together,” complained the second.

“For a whole week, we have to mix with other people.  It’s not like we don’t like them.  It’s only that we want to be with our friends.  That’s my free time.  I want to be with who I want to be with,” reasoned the third.

“There was a time in Morristown, you know, way back in the 1970’s, when a lot of people wanted to keep the schools just like that, with everybody separated,” we replied, in an effort to encourage them to think about the issue from another angle. 

“Did you know that?” we asked, after a pause indicated that they hadn’t learned anything about this tumultuous chapter in our town’s history in school or at home.

The blank expressions on their faces confirmed our assumptions that they knew nothing about it, so we told them how the court eventually mandated integration of the schools.  We explained, too, that the court battle was long, bitter, and sometimes even scary.  Despite the powerful impact the story seemed to have on them, they weren’t invested enough in it to include anything about racism in their play that year.

We had taken that particular conversation as far as it could go with that particular group at that particular time. Most of the girls didn’t seem ready to make connections between what they had learned from us with what they were experiencing in the school cafeteria.  If they did have opinions about the subject, they showed no interest in writing about them in their play.  People learn and act on their learning incrementally, when they’re emotionally and intellectually ready for it and when the environment is ripe for it.   Learning can’t be forced.

The situation that occurred with that group of girls seems to be repeating itself again this year, but regarding the issue of gender bias and inequality, not racism and discrimination.  As with the past group, the subject came up because the girls brought it up.  This time, though, the seeds for discussion appeared in the girls’ writing.  When characters who are best friends labeled each other “ho,” “slut,” and “whore” in dialogues, it seemed like the time had come for the girls to consider the implications of their choice of words.  We did not want them to censor themselves.  We wanted them to use the dialogues as stepping-stones toward other writing that would directly and deeply examine the issue of gender bias and inequality.  Writing monologues, for example, that explored the characters’ inner thoughts about labeling each other was one way we knew would allow them to dig deeper into the subject.

We tried hard to guide them in that direction by telling them about recent incidents in which girls were victimized by labeling.  We hoped that that the stories would inspire additional reflection and conversation.  We also hoped it would give them ideas for writing new scenes that explored gender bias and inequality. 

Paula told them about an article she had read in the newspaper that recounted the ordeal of a cheerleader who was raped by several members of the high school football team. The girl was accused by some of the teenage boys who raped her of asking for it because she had passed out drunk. In other words, the very people who had abused her were labeling her a slut. 

I told a story, too, that I hoped would challenge the girls’ thinking.  I spoke about an interview I had heard on the radio with a teenage girl who worked as a reporter investigating the language teenage boys use in emails, texts and tweets about girls.  In doing her research, she discovered that generally boys are insensitive to the damage they do to girls’ reputations as a result of labeling them whores.  Many girls, she pointed out in the interview, find themselves completely isolated throughout four years of high school as a result of the boys’ verbal abuse. When confronted about their actions, the boys still didn’t think they had done anything wrong. 

The girls’ responded candidly and perceptively in the discussions that followed the storytelling.  Thoughtful rewriting of the dialogues between the best friends emerged from the “lesson.”  There was no evidence, though, that the girls had any great desire to grapple further with the issue of gender bias and inequality in their play.  When we urged them to consider it, they said nothing.  Listening to their silence, we realized that we had challenged them enough.  We, too, had absorbed a "lesson."

We will continue to challenge the girls to discuss important problems in our society that we think impact their lives.  In the end, though, the play must come from their hearts and minds.  One thing we learned the very first time we taught the Girls Surviving program is that we need to accept and respect the group as it is, not as it should be.  Balancing the urgency we sometimes feel about addressing important social problems in the play with our commitment to respectfully defer to the girls choices can be difficult, especially when we see or read about examples of how an issue like gender inequality affects girls every day.

That balancing act has been particularly difficult this past year.   Myriad acts of violence against women have been reported in the press in recent months. First came the news, in the early fall, about the attempted assassination of a 15-year old Pakistani girl because she wanted to go to school.  Since then one story after the other has appeared in press reports coming from all corners of the map, each describing some horrific act of violence against a woman or girl – acts too gruesome to recount. In light of these stories and the relevance they have for the future of all girls and women, it’s hard not to rally the girls around the cause of women’s rights and direct them to write a play about it right now.

Patience, as the cliché goes, is a virtue, however; and we have seen the truth of that statement born out before in the Girls Surviving program. For example, the troupe that did not want to develop racism as the theme of their play eventually focused on another, equally relevant issue: teenage pregnancy.  Eventually, too, a play about racism and discrimination, Covered by Color, made it to the stage. Patience interspersed with a few challenging stories and questions helped make those plays possible, but the girls took the lead in deciding what would be communicated to the audience in their plays.  We put our trust in their good judgment then, and we’ll do that again this year.  This group may not be ready to write about gender inequality, but they will come through in the end with a play of their own making that is surprising, enlightening, and powerful.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Notes from the field; workshop reflections

Traditionally, January is the month we accept new 8th graders (our youngest members) into the troupe. It’s a good time to invite younger girls to join because playwriting is in progress and the troupe that came together in October has begun to form bonds. It also gives 8th graders some time to become familiar with the high school and to make friends with older girls before their freshman year. So, in keeping with tradition, we welcomed four new girls to the troupe last week.
We were interested to discover that three of the four new girls are related to current troupe members: two cousins and one sister. Although we’ve had family members together in the troupe in past years, we’ve never had so many together at one time. Currently, we have three pairs of sisters and two cousins among our twenty participants. The program has become a family affair! Carolyn and I are proud and grateful that our girls perceive Girls Surviving as a worthwhile project for their younger sisters and cousins, and we welcome their addition to the troupe. However, adding the family connections to the mix will almost certainly change the group dynamic. Sisters and cousins have perceptions of each other and habits of interaction that may affect each girl’s behavior in the group. For example, if an older sister is in the habit of protecting the younger, it may make it harder for the younger girl to take the risks necessary to find her own voice. Or, if there is an element of sibling rivalry in the relationship, it may hamper the sisters’ ability to act independently of each other. Of course, similar dynamics can exist between girls who are not in the same family, but I think the habit of living together exaggerates the behavior and its effects.
The other side of the family dynamic is that our younger siblings and cousins have the comfort and security of coming to a program where they already have a friend and mentor to help them acclimate – someone who can explain the process and with whom they can comfortably debrief after the workshops. At this point, all we can do is watch these interactions play out in the coming weeks and trust our experience that the Girls Surviving process will work, as it has in the past, to help all of the girls gain the confidence they need to discover their own talents and to collaborate successfully with their troupe mates.

One issue that surfaced as soon as the younger girls entered the workshop was how to ease them into the material that the older girls were developing. As we have stated earlier in this blog, this material was very raw, in more ways than one. The girls who had been working on it for several weeks were just beginning to feel that they understood the characters well enough to develop the plot. In addition, several of the girls are new to playwriting, which necessarily makes the process slower. How then, could we bring these new, very young, girls to the table when the meal hasn’t even gone into the oven? Obviously, we had to start them in the kitchen, but we also had to make sure they had some idea of what was on the menu.
We could have just let the girls read aloud the scenes they had already written, but we worried that the language in some of the first drafts might either shock the newcomers or give them license to write recklessly. So, after a quick consultation during the girls’ snack break, Carolyn and I decided to begin from the beginning. That is, let the older girls introduce the characters and their back stories, then work from the writing that had originally inspired the “Bianca and Melissa” scenes. Before the writing began, however, we addressed one of the language issues.

In the drafts we were working on, as well as in discussions, people were using the terms “slut,” “slutty,” “ho” (whore), and “bitch” to describe characters. Carolyn and I have both noticed that these words are used casually by many of our students, both boys and girls, to describe girls and women. Not only are the words demeaning, they are indicative of a double standard in society’s view of male and female sexuality that objectifies women and can lead to their victimization.
That said, it’s okay for the characters in the play to call each other those names.  However, if the playwrights decide to put those words in their characters’ mouths, they must have a good reason for it. In planning workshop activities for the evening, we decided that the girls’ use of these words in their scripts represented a teaching opportunity, so we introduced the topic before the girls began to write. When we broached the subject, the girls agreed that there is a double standard with regard to the sexual activity of men and women.
One girl, Andee, said, “If a boy brags he has five or six girls, he gets high-fives from his friends, but if a girl dates more than one guy, everyone says she’s a ho’.”
“And if a girl doesn’t do what people want her to,” I added, “they say she’s a bitch.”
However, later in the conversation, Andee admitted, “I find myself making those judgments about people. I know it’s not right, but I do.”
Andee, a thoughtful girl who is mature beyond her years, precisely articulated the profound influence social stereotypes have on, even, the most open-minded among us. Other girls who participated in the discussion seemed less convinced that misogynistic labels are unacceptable.
“What should we call them?” Bev asked about girls who “play the field.”
This is a legitimate question, because the language we use influences our world view and, consequently, our behavior. For example, that we tend to label people based on their sexual activity is, I think, a function of the fact that we believe the activity has moral implications. Teens of either gender who treat sex carelessly are developing a habit of thoughtlessly using other people for their own ends, and Bev, realizing that this behavior is destructive, naturally applies a bad name to the person who engages in it.
There is no simple answer to Bev’s question. We want to teach our children not to stigmatize people with pejorative labels. We also want to develop their ability to differentiate between destructive and beneficial behaviors. I have no problem asking the girls not to call their peers ‘sluts’ and ‘ho’s’ because these labels offend and, possibly, harm the people to whom they’re applied. I won’t tell them not to pass judgment on the behaviors that lead to the application of these terms, but I can’t tell them how to judge anymore than I can tell them how to act. I try to encourage emotional empathy and intellectual flexibility, and I think that teaching the girls to think about the meaning and impact of their words is one of the best ways to do that.

Last night the girls read aloud the dialogues they had written the week before. It was the second workshop for the new 8th graders and the older girls encouraged them to take part in the readings. When they finished reading, we re-introduced the first ‘Bianca and Melissa’ scenes, the ones we had hesitated to use on the new girls’ first night. Andee suggested that the girls work in pairs to evaluate those pieces, so the older girls partnered with younger ones and they went to work. This time, neither Carolyn nor I had the least worry about how the new girls would react to the questionable language. We knew they were in the hands of capable mentors.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Scene One. Not Again!

Creating the first scene of the play is the most time consuming, painstaking part of the playwriting process.  The steps taken to craft that scene, though, provide the model for the work that follows.  The quality of it sets the standard for all of the other scenes.  Carefully attending to its development is essential even though Paula and I worry when we find ourselves every January, half way through the program, with the first scene still in progress and a group of teenage girls itching to move on.

Adolescent restlessness manifested itself halfway through last week’s workshop while the girls were engaged in a lesson that we thought would help them make progress with Scene 1.

            “Is this the only scene we’re going to write?” we heard from one part of the circle. 

Before we could finish our reply, another voice chimed in.  “Can we take a break?” 

We looked at the clock.  We didn’t have much workshop time left to write.  The high school was abuzz with activities.  If we let the girls out of the room, we might never retrieve them. We waffled, and in those few seconds of hesitation, chairs scraped the floor, cell phones flipped on, girls fled to the bathroom or hungrily ripped open bags of Cheez-its.  It was break time, whether we said so or not.

The girls’ reactions were understandable.  The evening’s activity and the discussions that came afterward were difficult for them to grasp. More than the bathroom, they needed distance from the adults who had introduced a dramatic scene from a very complicated play to them, then engaged them in a heavy discussion.  The play was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, by Paul Zindel.   Written in the 1970’s, the dialogue sounded foreign to the girls.  The dated references and disturbing content also confused them.

Because the author is a master craftsman, through discussion, the girls eventually understood much of the story.  Adroitly manipulating dialogue and physical action, Zindel drops bits of information about the characters until their personal histories and intricate relationships eventually become clear. Like Hansel and Gretel, who find their way home by following a moonlit path of breadcrumbs, Zindel’s audience is lured along a pathway to clarification, one fact at a time.

“Devil’s Kiss?” the girls asked, quizzically looking up from the script, “What’s that?”  The answer to their questions came in the next line.  “Oh, it’s a lipstick!” they exclaimed, in two’s and three’s, little echoes around the circle affirming each other’s conclusions.

While they were relieved to have gotten that reference, by the time they finished reading the scene, they still believed they hadn’t understood much about it.  Struggling to figure it out, everyone spoke up at once:

“This was confusing.”
 “I hope we’re not reading this a second time.  It’s too long, too long!” 
“I don’t get it.  Is Beatrice Ruth’s mother or her sister? “
 “She’s the mother?!  And she let’s her daughter smoke??” 
“She sounds more like a sister than a mother.”
“Why won’t she let her daughter go to school?”
“That doesn’t make sense!”
“The mother wants to kill the rabbit?”
            “She does?”
            “She does!”

We let the girls drive the conversation forward with as little intervention as possible. While they grappled with the scene’s content and meaning, we did little more than shrug if we didn’t know the answer to one of their questions, explain something about the time period that would help them determine what was going on, and nod “yes” when they successfully pieced together a part of the characters’ family life. The responsibility for making sense of the play, therefore, fell mostly to them.  To accomplish their task, they used the tools they found in front of them: the script and each other.  They dug into the text for illuminating facts and relied on their own and others’ observations and insights to connect them. They were learning largely through their own efforts.

The discoveries they made shocked them. Beatrice, the mother in this play, and her older daughter, Ruth, were horrible bullies, they realized.  A series of traumatic experiences had left them hurt, bitter and just plain mean.

            “Why did you have us read this play?” someone in the group despaired when she felt the weight of the characters’ reality. 

            “A great question,” I responded.  “Why do you think?”

            “To be thankful for the families we’ve got!” We all laughed and nodded, disarmed by her insightfulness and candor.  She was absolutely right.  One of the major goals of the program is to provide girls with opportunities to reflect on what it means to be human.  Creating and analyzing plays helps them understand themselves and others.  It allows them to see their world through different eyes.
Equally insightful observations followed:

            “It’s what you said earlier about characters who are mean but don’t call each other mean, like we did in the scenes we wrote last week.”

            “There’s stuff in here about their past.”

            “Yes, there’s a lot of information in the scene, given to you a little bit at a time,” I explained, then asked,  “What did the dialogue reveal about the characters’ lives?” The question unleashed more discussion that unveiled additional secrets about the dysfunctional family that inhabits the world of “…Gamma Rays…”

            After their much needed and very long break, the girls settled into their seats. Building on comments made before the break connecting Zindel’s writing with their own, we asked the girls to re-write the first scene. Not everyone was happy about tackling the very same scene they had labored over during the last two workshops.  No one likes to do something all over again, start to finish.  While they may have groaned internally, they patiently acquiesced because they knew the initial versions needed work.  Based on scenes spontaneously created on the stage in improvisations, the dialogue in the first versions was fiery, passionate, and authentic, but it lacked substance. 

We hoped that analyzing a well-built play like “…Gamma Rays…” then re-writing the first scene immediately afterward would guide the girls toward a better understanding of drama.  The process of creating drama involves balancing spontaneity and reflection, passion and reason, control and flights of fancy. After reading and discussing Zindel’s scene, we hoped that the second versions would be more insightful and complex than the first drafts.

 Eventually, though, we wanted the girls to compare and contrast two versions of the same scene, look at them side-by-side on the desk, discover the value in each, then find ways to combine them.  The girls needed to incorporate more of their characters’ back-stories into the final version and revise thoughtfully.  They did not need to sacrifice all of the authenticity of the dialogue in their first versions to do it.  We hoped the lessons learned from this workshop’s activities would help them achieve balance in their writing.  Given balance, we believed their final scene would heighten reality in a way that moves hearts and stimulates minds.  We hoped it would have the power of drama.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Automatic Writing

The dialogues written after the improvisation exercise I described in my last post were very raw. They portrayed what must be every “best friend’s” worst nightmare. In them, the characters, Melissa and Bianca, spat obscenities, hurled degrading slurs, and revealed each other’s deepest secrets in humiliating detail.
Carolyn and I typed transcriptions of all of the dialogues for the girls to read and revise at the next workshop. Although some of the language in the transcripts was obscene and explicitly sexual, it didn’t shock us. We understand that giving teens the freedom to express through their writing anything that comes to mind builds their confidence as writers and allows them to lay the foundation for interesting and realistic material. We also knew that we were typing the roughest of first drafts, writing that would be reworked many times before it was published on a stage. However, when the girls read the dialogues aloud in the workshop, Karen, the counselor who was with us last week, gave us a new insight.
“They read like ‘tweets’ that students, mostly girls, actually send each other,” she said. “My colleagues and I have been discussing this because it’s becoming a real problem. One kid dashes off a mean remark about another and, suddenly, it’s all over the school.”
Karen went on to speculate that the impersonal aspect of arguing and gossiping through social media allows teenagers to say things they might hold back if they were talking face-to-face. The damage is escalated by the fact that, with the push of a button, the remark is published on the phones and computers of at least a dozen other kids, each of whom may send it to a dozen more.

All of the girls we teach can speak movingly about the evils of cyber-bullying. It has been the subject of school assemblies in the middle- and high-schools for years, and after the tragic death of Rutgers student Tyler Clemente, the State of New Jersey adopted anti-bullying legislation that has heightened conversation about the issue in every school. So the students in our district are not only informed about the problem, they are also knowledgeable about some of its horrific real-life consequences. Yet, as Karen pointed out, many of them don’t seem to apply any of these lessons to their own actions.
It’s nothing new, teen girls being cruel and spiteful to assuage their own egos. In fact, it’s so common that, for years, it has been a cliché of cinematic, televised, and literary storytelling directed at girls between the ages of ten and eighteen. The girls in our troupe talked extensively about bullying in the first weeks of our fall workshops, when they decided that they wanted to write about the theme of “separation.”
Of course, the dialogues that sewed the seeds for this reflection were just that – writing about separation. I do not know, or have much reason to believe, that any of the girls in our troupe would instigate in real life the kind of attack they created in their writing. Although any of us might, in the heat of an argument, say something we regret, that’s a far cry from writing a cruel text, tweet, or facebook post and publishing it to everyone on our contact list. Or is it? Has this kind of electronic communication become so casual to our students that it feels like speech? If so, it’s ironic that the kids about whose illiteracy my generation laments are as comfortable with writing their thoughts as they are with speaking them.

The process we use to develop the scripts of Girls Surviving plays promotes deep reflection on the power of words because it requires the girls to review their writing over and over again. A week after they write a scene, the girls see their words reformatted as a typed script. Then they hear them read aloud. The scenes are discussed;  repetitive and ineffectual lines are culled; and the remaining lines from each girl’s piece are combined to form part of a collaborative script which continues to be revised through the rehearsal process.

When the girls saw their typed scripts and heard them read aloud, they seemed surprised and a bit shocked by the words that had poured from their pens the week before. As they read the scenes aloud, they blushed, stumbled, giggled, and even asked, “weren’t you embarrassed to type this?” And it wasn’t only the shock value of the words that impressed the writers. Hearing the verbal exchanges they had written helped them evaluate their effectiveness.
“How were these girls ever friends?” one of the girls asked.
“It doesn’t make sense that they got this angry so quickly,” said another.
I think that hearing fictional characters (that is, actresses playing the characters) speak provides a distance that allows all of us to hear the words more clearly, to ponder their impact. It’s another example of literature reflecting life and giving us insight into our own behavior.

In past years, our girls have said in talk backs to their audiences that writing and rehearsing the plays has changed them. They’ve said things like, “Working on this play made me see things from the other person’s perspective,” and “Before we started writing this, I had never thought much about (the issue).” When asked whether their experience with the play would effect their actions in the future, they answer with an emphatic “Yes!”
I know that behaviors aren’t altered that easily. Judging from my own experiences, the epiphany that promises to be a life-changing realization is quickly forgotten in the heat of passion. Yet, I believe, with Aristotle, that virtue is a habit, and I think that every opportunity to reflect on our behavior moves us a step closer to improving it.  I hope their experience writing about Melissa and Bianca will give our girls pause the next time they are tempted to tweet in anger.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Playwriting: the Power of the Spoken Word

We went into last week’s workshop ready for the girls to create the first collaborative scene of this year’s play. During the past few workshops they had taken several steps to prepare for this part of the playwriting process.

-First, they had gotten to know the scene’s characters, their personal histories, and their relationship with each other.  They had talked about the characters and developed back-stories by doing character interviews, like the one I described in my post from December 14.

-Second, the girls had improvised a scene between the characters several times, with different girls playing the parts in each version. Paula described some of that process in her January 2 post.

-Third, each girl had written a dialogue based on her interpretation of the improvisations she had just observed.

-Fourth, we had typed, copied and collated all of the girls’ dialogues.

These steps taken, we were ready to initiate step five: read all of the dialogues aloud, then ask the girls to identify the lines they liked the best in each one so that we could cut and paste a draft of a scene that included lines from all of the dialogues.

The dialogues were based on a typical teenage argument. Best friends, characters named Melissa and Bianca, both like the same guy, named Henry. The girls argue after Melissa overhears a conversation in which she thinks Bianca is flirting with Henry.  Melissa is particularly upset because Bianca knows that she likes Henry. The dialogues captured the intense anger that occurs in real life situations like this one but not much else.

The goal of this night’s work would be to help the girls create a single dramatic scene from their bursts of angry dialogue.  In the first few weeks this fall, the girls had spent most of their workshop time getting to know each other by sharing personal thoughts and stories through discussion and journaling. While they were writing dialogues now, they knew very little about how to craft a scene.  Over the years, though, we’ve seen the way static, short dialogues like these, when viewed collectively, can be arranged to create a genuine scene, with a beginning, middle and end. I had read all of these dialogues before the workshop. There were possibilities for combining them effectively.  Each girl had contributed a detail, a description, some movement, or a revelation about a character that would help shape the material into a scene.  A lot more revision would be necessary to transform it into something closer to drama, but by the end of the evening it seemed likely that a scene would emerge.

What was less clear to us going into the evening was how the girls would react to the intensity of the anger in their dialogues when they heard them read aloud.  The language was raw, sexually explicit, and, in some cases, obscene and demeaning to women. Paula and I have worked with teenagers long enough not to be shocked by the obscene language they sometimes choose to express themselves. As teachers of adolescents, we understand their need to vent pent up emotions, rebel against cultural norms, or generally push the limits of acceptable behavior; and we believe writing is a safe outlet for their volatility. Furthermore, writing whatever comes to mind in any order that it comes – uncensored - is a necessary first step for a writer of any age to take in order to fully flesh out her ideas.  Free-flowing thoughts sometimes include obscenities; a revised, final version of those thoughts might or might not.  Revision is about making choices.  On this night the girls would be hearing their uncensored words read aloud for the very first time. We knew from experience that hearing them might convince the girls that revisions would be necessary if they didn’t want an offended audience to get up and walk out of the play that will complete this year.  

Sitting in a circle and taking turns, they hadn’t finished reading half of the dialogues before they started laughing, tittering, oohing and aahing at the outrageousness of their writing.

“It doesn’t sound like these two girls were ever best friends.  It just sounds like they hate each other!” exclaimed one.

Another sheepishly asked, “Are we really going to say this out loud in front of people?”

They were embarrassed, apologetic, and shocked by the power of their spoken words. Even though we didn’t criticize them for writing uncensored rough drafts, some suggested they immediately re-write the dialogues. After a brief debate, they decided not to do that on the spot, but they all were energized by the realization that they had a lot more work to do before their writing would be ready for an audience to see.  They didn’t need to select lines from the dialogues and create a full scene to realize that writing is all about revision.  All it took was reading their dialogues aloud.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Blogging: publishing life?

Program art from the Girls Surviving play, Lost.
One of the difficulties I am having as I work on this blog has to do with what I can publish without betraying the trust or invading the privacy of people I’m writing about. For example, when writing about the program, I describe the girls’ actions and quote their speech. Without these descriptions, my reflections on the work would be too abstract to convey meaning. Carolyn and I meet with the girls in the troupe every week and almost every week we learn something from them about how and why the program works. However, these lessons take place in an environment in which trust is essential, where we have the rule that what happens in the group stays in the group. How then, is it possible to reflect publicly about what we see and hear in the workshops?  In other words, how can we publish writing about the process that is our work?
When we first discussed this question, Carolyn and I came up with a couple of clear guidelines: we never use the girls’ real names and we don’t include any information that would identify a specific girl or, even, a specific workshop. That said, it’s still possible that if one of the girls read this blog, she might recognize herself or a troupe mate in one of the entries. In this case, would she feel that the writer, me or Carolyn, had betrayed a confidence? Would she be justified in this feeling?

I thought about this one evening as I watched girls in the troupe improvise the continuation of a scene they had written. This is an exercise we often do to advance plot and develop characters when the girls begin writing a play. In this case, the characters in the scene were long-time friends who were being dishonest with each other. We played the improvisation several times with different actresses trying on the roles. The girls did a good job of coming up with spontaneous, believable, and continuous dialogue, but as I listened, I wasn’t sure the exercise was accomplishing its objective. In spite of the impressive energy of the actresses, the scene wasn’t moving. It occurred to me that the reason for this might be that I was observing an imitation of real life. That is, I was watching the actresses replay arguments that they had either witnessed or that they had, themselves, engaged in.
Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether this insight was correct. I rarely see any of the girls outside of our workshops and I’ve never been privy to their arguments with friends. I only know that I was watching and listening to actresses engage in a series of verbal exchanges that could neither move nor resolve the characters’ conflict. This kind of dialogue happens frequently in real life, especially (if my memory serves me), in teen life. I remember any number of similar arguments that took place in school hallways, in the back seats of cars, or over the phone during my own teen years – angry exchanges in which people say anything that comes to mind with no thought about the possible consequences of their words. However, as I watched the girls do the improvisation exercise, I began to think about how they craft art from their observations of life.

As Carolyn said in her most recent post, the themes in the girls’ plays reflect their own experiences. Over the years, some of the plays have explored issues that personally affected certain troupe members. For example, one of the characters in The Other Side, a play written during the summer session several years ago, struggled with how to tell her parents that she was gay. This character was created after a discussion in which one of the girls in the troupe confided that she was in a similar situation.
One the other hand, the girls don’t always write about their own issues. Sometimes, they create characters and conflicts as a way of trying to understand the problems of others. One example of this is the mother/daughter relationship described in Carolyn’s post. Another example is the discussion that inspired Lost, a Girls Surviving play about teen pregnancy. None of the writers of this play was or had been pregnant, but they all knew girls whose lives had been irrevocably changed by a pregnancy. I think that writing about the subject was a way for our girls to discuss and examine the issue. It provided an opportunity to ask questions, confirm or debunk theories, and vicariously walk in the shoes of their pregnant peers.
So although when playwriting begins each of the girls may have a real-life person in mind as the prototype for an imaginary character, as the writing progresses those specific realities melt into the more universal truths uncovered through the artistic process. The character who can’t decide what to tell her parents about her sexuality becomes a model for every teen who recognizes that part of becoming an adult requires emotional separation from parents. The character of the pregnant teen reveals the hard choices and dire consequences we can face when life spins out of control.
But what if one those real people a writer had in mind turns up in our audience? Will they recognize themselves in a character they unwittingly inspired?  Maybe. But a lot of other people in the audience will also see something of themselves in the same character. People say that art imitates life, but that’s not quite right. Art reflects life. Like a mirror, it can show us something that we haven’t noticed, or clarify something we haven’t properly understood. And it does this, in part, by distilling critical moments from the dross of life.
This is one objective of the creative process we use in Girls Surviving. The girls may begin to develop scenes by imitating life, but by writing, talking, collaborating, acting, rewriting, then revising their rewrites, they end up with performances that provide reflections of life for every member of their audience.
Art, maybe especially literary art, helps people recognize that some aspects of life are common to all humanity. In a small way, Carolyn and I see examples of this commonality in our work with the Girls Surviving troupe. Each girl is unique, but year after year, the group dynamic is familiar. That’s not to say that the workshop experience is repetitive. Every time I recognize an interaction as one I’ve witnessed before, I gain new insight. However, I can write about an incident that happened last month and feel certain that if it were read by girls who participated in the program five years ago, someone would recognize my example and think that I was writing about her troupe.
I have no illusions that the writing on this blog is literary art, but I think that, as a distant relation of literature, it may claim some family characteristics, so that when I tell stories about our workshops, they might sometimes seem familiar, not because they are descriptions of one incident, but because they are distillations of my reflections on many.