A troupe of teen actresses telling their stories through writing and performance

Welcome to the Girls Surviving blog. We are creating this blog to reflect on the process we use in our work with teenage girls. We are two artists, Paula and Carolyn, who have been teaching writing, theater, and storytelling for many years. We are also mothers of daughters who had a hard time navigating their teens. We believe they would have benefited from a program that provided them with a safe place to talk about what it's like to be a teenage girl and to discover their unique artistic voices. Seven years ago, we began to form a troupe of teen girls who, we thought, could write and perform plays based on the experiences that inform their lives. Since then, we've watched the girls in the Girls Surviving troupe begin to take control of their lives with self-confidence and courage. We are writing to parents, teachers, counselors, and other artists who interact with girls in the hope that this blog will raise awareness of and open conversations about the lives of girls who are growing up in our complicated times.

“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

One Character / Two Voices

 There is a drama exercise we do that helps the girls, as writers and actresses, understand a conflict that may be going on in the mind of a character. It simulates one of those times when a person feels two ways about something. In it, two actresses improvise the thoughts of one character. There are several ways of doing the exercise. Actresses might speak in the ‘inner voice’ and the ‘outer voice’ of a character, showing the difference between what a character says and what she is thinking. The girls used this technique to comic effect in a play called Mirror Images. In the scene, Nikki, a na├»ve over-achiever, is giving a speech to an inattentive audience. Here is some of it:

Outer Voice:  (broad smile, waving to group)  Hi everybody!  Welcome to orientation!  I’m Nikki. (points to her name tag)  See?  Nikki – with two “k’s” and two “i’s”.  The committee asked me to welcome you today. I couldn’t believe it. The honor…wow! Little Nikki from Greenville, Kansas – orientation speaker at State U. Summer Leadership Academy! 

(group snickers)

Inner Voice: Why are they smirking?  Oh my gosh, is my bra strap showing again?

Outer Voice: (taking a breath) During our six weeks together we will be challenged to prove our leadership skills; we’ll talk about kindness towards our friends; and I’m sure, in time, we’ll grow very close.

Inner Voice: Why isn’t anyone listening? This is important information. Is the microphone working? (checking the microphone) Okay, Nicole, remain calm, continue to speak and smile…they’re just anxious.

The speech was performed by two actresses. Outer Voice stood on the stage as if she were speaking from a podium. Inner Voice stood behind her, peeking over her shoulder to gauge and comment on the reaction of an imaginary audience.

Another approach to the exercise is for the two actresses to present both sides of an issue about which a character is feeling ambivalent. The piece below was written by Gianna as an exploration of a character named Aurora, a teen whose mother has been in prison for many years.

Aurora1: Did you do it, or didn’t you?

Aurora2: Are you a sweetheart or a devil?

Aurora1: I’m glad you went to jail. I hope you rot and die there. I never want to see you.

Aurora2: I can’t wait for you to get out. I want you to hold me so dear and close, to kiss my puffy cheeks when I’m sad…

Aurora1: Stay away from me, never talk to me or send any of those pitiful excuses for a letter…

Aurora2:…snuggle me in love…whisper in my fire hot ears and tell me everything will be okay.

This mono-dialogue was written after an improvisation in which two actresses stood back to back with arms locked at the elbows. During this version of the two voices exercise, the ‘two-faced’ character revolves slowly in front of the audience, and each actress speaks her thoughts when she is facing them.

Sometimes during a Girl Surviving workshop I have an image of  this latter version of the exercise happening inside myself. Only in my case, the two voices don’t always alternate. Sometimes they just try to talk over each other.  These arguments often begin when I am forced to acknowledge that problems in the troupe are being caused by the presence of a girl who seems unable to cooperate or collaborate with her troupe mates. Sometimes this girl simply isn’t interested in writing or performing a play, in which case, she usually leaves the program on her own. However, at other times, the girl is too immature or too socially unstable to adapt herself to the writing and rehearsal process. These are the times I begin arguing with myself about what to do. The argument is almost always the same and it goes like this:

P One: This girl has got to go. She is disrupting workshops and creating havoc with our timeline.

P Two: No, this is exactly the kind of girl the program could help.

P One: But we’re not getting anything done!

P Two:  She just needs more time.

P One:  She’s a bad influence on the other girls. By accommodating her, we’re, in effect, saying that we condone her behavior.

P Two:  We’re modeling patience and our willingness to work with girls who need extra help to adapt to the workshop environment.

When I see it written like this, it’s clear to me why the two sides can’t agree. They’re both right. Sort of. It is the mission of Girls Surviving to provide a safe place for girls to express themselves –  to discover their unique voices and learn how to effectively make themselves heard. Some of the girls who join the troupe need only to be in the program’s supportive environment to gain courage to speak aloud the things they’ve been thinking for years. Others of them need time to figure out what they want to say, and yet others need to learn how to speak their thoughts. All of these voices, regardless of where they are in their development, need some amount of encouragement from the Girls Surviving teaching artists and counselors, and from the girls in the troupe. However, the support that nurtures one girl may be enabling another. Which is what makes it so hard for me to decide whether it’s time to ask a girl to reconsider her decision to continue in the troupe.

In 2004, when Carolyn and I began to talk about creating the program that became Girls Surviving, I think we imagined a more active performance troupe than the one we have now, a troupe that would, perhaps, spend less time developing their material and more time taking it ‘on the road.’  However, as the program has developed over the years, we’ve realized that the process of working toward performance is at least as important for our girls as the performances, themselves. We believe it’s crucial for all of the girls to take an active part in developing and writing the scripts. When our plays are performed every girl who was a member of the troupe during the playwriting process hears words she wrote spoken on the stage – a powerful endorsement of the validity of her thoughts and the way she chose to express them.
It is equally important that every girl participates in the rehearsal process. Play rehearsal is a microcosm of successful community life in which participants work together to make everyone successful in the achievement of a common goal. In our case, it’s also a nearly democratic process. The girls initially take direction from Carolyn, but when the actresses in a scene have learned to react and interact well enough to support each other through anything that happens, they take control of the scene. When they feel like something isn’t working, they make changes to the script and the blocking.
After an intense and successful collaboration in writing and rehearsing, the culminating performances are powerful positive experiences for everyone in the troupe. I think every girl has felt successful after participating in the public presentation of her troupe’s play, and I know that the adult members of the troupe are proud of the growth we see in the girls as each season progresses.
However, this success is dependent upon collaboration and cooperation on the part of everyone involved in the program, which is why it’s so hard for me to figure out what to do with a girl who seems unable to place the needs of the troupe below her own, or to find fulfillment of  her own needs in the work of the group. One girl who needs always to be the center of attention can stymie the whole process. Yet, when I reread the beginning of this paragraph, I feel like I could be describing an ant colony. How can we achieve a balance between the real needs of individual members and the work of the troupe?
I think, again, the answer lies in the time we spend on process. Our actresses are, after all, teenagers, young women in the middle of transformation from children to adults. The adult members of the troupe are doing our best to help our girls survive by teaching them skills and strategies that can aid them in the process, but as every parent of teenagers knows, all we can really do is cross our fingers, hold our breath, and hope they make good choices on their own. If we were simply a performance troupe, we could decrease the possibility of accepting unsuitable participants by auditioning potential troupe members. As it is, we accept every girl who wants to join, and sometimes it doesn’t work. There have been times when, for the health of the troupe, we have asked a girl to leave the program. At other times, our patience with an immature or socially inept girl been rewarded as we watched her develop into a confident team worker. There is no easy answer. Which is why I can’t win this argument with myself.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Shaping the Play

            In most traditional plays, a central character undergoes a transformation.  Her problem is revealed in the beginning, developed in the middle, reaches a climax, and is resolved at the end.  The trajectory of the heroine’s journey through the play is called the arc.  We have found an alternative works for our girls and their audience. The Girls Surviving plays that have been produced in recent years build tension and reach a climax, but it is not because they trace the transformation of a single central character.

Our process of asking each of the girls to write produces many bits and pieces that must be connected to form a play. Scenes emerge from the girls’ collaborations.  Their plays consist of three to six scenes that depict a variety of characters and situations and that are united by a single theme.  Each scene explores aspects of the theme and traces a central character’s mini-journey.  Once the scenes have been written, the girls piece them together in ways that provide the audience with a stage picture that it can recognize as an artistic whole and relate to emotionally.  The goal is to engage the audience intellectually and emotionally even though the pattern may be different from what they’re used to.

We think of shaping a Girls Surviving performance piece so that it impacts the audience as if it were “quilt making.”  Quilters stitch together different squares and triangles to form an artistic pattern with complimentary and contrasting colors, shapes, and textures. She might frame her pieces with thick bands of black and gray satin, as one would frame a photograph. Or she might cross-stitch her pieces together with red silk embroidery thread.  Whatever method she chooses, she uses the tricks of her trade to bring her vision into focus so that others can see something in her artwork that has meaning for them.

Organizing the girls’ scenes so that the audience can see a message materialize or feel tension build is the first step in shaping our plays.  Sometimes deciding the scene order is easy.  The year that the girls explored their fears in writing, we knew early in the writing process that the funniest scene should come first and the most thought provoking and hopeful should come last.  In Scene 1 two girls, scared to go down into the dark basement, descend and hear all kinds of scary noises.  By the time a cat meows, they have worked themselves into such a frenzy that they run screaming from the scene.  It was a great way to start the play. It allowed the audience to relax, become engaged, and focus on what the girls had to say. 

            Uncovering a play order for the scenes in another play, Selective Truths, was more challenging and wasn’t completely resolved until close to performance time.  The problem revolved around clarifying the message that the girls wanted to communicate to the audience.  As in the play about fears, a logical order seemed to emerge, with the most humorous scene coming first and the most disturbing last.  The first is the cartoon-like tale of two girls in their early teens who tell a seemingly innocent lie to their parents, find themselves involved a series of mischievous acts, and get caught red-handed.  By the end of the scene, a parent knows that the girls are lying and the audience knows that the parent has control of the situation.  In each succeeding scene, the teens get older, the secrets become more serious, the adults know nothing about their teens or the secrets they keep, the teens suffer in silence, and the consequences of their silence are dangerous. The message is bleak.  Rearranging the scenes so that the ending would provide the audience with more hope did not build dramatic tension.  We talked to the girls about changing their message, but they unanimously agreed that it reflected their experience and should remain. In the end, we decided to stick with the original scene order and accept the fact that the girls had written a tragedy.

Once the scene order of a play is in place, it’s necessary to insert scene connectors to fill the gaps we see in the script.  Poems that have been written throughout the season sometimes serve as transitions. New poems or monologues can be written, too, to clarify characters’ feelings before or after scenes.  One year the girls wrote and staged vignettes to connect the scenes.  That year the play was divided into three parts.  Each part consisted of two scenes.  The first, involving a modern-day teen engaged in a seemingly losing battle with a rival, was juxtaposed with a fairy-tale scene in which the aggrieved party gets what she wants. To clarify what was going on for the audience, we decided to stage the second scene in each part as a dream sequence.  Each scene from real life ended with the central character going to sleep in a designated dreamer’s chair. A fairy godmother appeared, and with the wave of her wand, the sleeper dreamed the second scene.  When she woke, she spoke about what she had learned from her dream about her real-life situation.

Another approach that works to shape the scenes into a play is to create a unifying scenario that features a narrator-like character.  The summer the girls wrote the play Lost, it felt like everyone got so lost in writing about being lost that no one could find a way out of the woods to unify the play.  The girls were getting worried about it and time was getting short.  Everyone liked the different scenes, appreciated each one, but no one could find a way to organize them in a way that would make sense to the audience.  A unifying scenario helped us organize the scenes and connect them so that the play flowed easily from one part to the next.  We decided that the scenes would become the subject of a film about teen experiences and that the girls would play the parts of adult actresses who, in turn, were playing the parts of teens in the film.  We invented a new character, the Film Director, who brought the actresses together for pep talks about remembering what it was like to be a teen so that they could play their parts with authenticity.  The Film Director also orchestrated the filming of each scene.  The girls wrote additional dialogue so that when the Director called “Take” between each scene, they could reflect a little on the lives of the teen characters they had enacted. In effect, we had used ‘the play within the play’ convention to connect the scenes.

This year’s play explores what brings people together and drives them apart.  The girls have almost completed the three scenes that explore the issue.  Their quilt is still in pieces, but a few weeks ago they began to develop a unifying concept that we think will stitch everything together. As in Lost, a new character, the Photographer, will serve as the liaison between scenes.  She will photograph formal portraits of the families and friends who populate the play.  The photos will reflect the ways in which relationships change with the passage of time.  We’ve just begun to explore the possibilities for staging family portraits, as Paula explained in her recent post.  It’s going to be exciting.  But, with only a couple of months left to finish the play, cast, and rehearse it before our June performance, the process feels painstakingly slow.

            Would it be easier to write a traditional play?  We did that for several years.  But the occasionally messy method we use now better fits our mission. We want our girls to take the time they need to write collaboratively, listen to each other, understand characters they may not know very well, and explore stage movement.  Our focus is not on teaching them the steps involved in producing a routine play.  We want to minimize the pressure they feel to achieve perfection.  We give them enough freedom to engage in other school activities and still find time to devote to Girls Surviving.  We can do this because we’re not looking for a single “star” of a play or a polished performance.  We want them to experience what it’s like to build something together that they can own, and do it from scratch. We want all of our girls to feel like stars. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Family Matters

When the girls started arriving at the workshop last week, they wanted to begin where they had left off the week before, that is, by playing games.
“I think we should begin every week with a physical activity and then write,” said Nia, one of the girls Carolyn characterized as a kinesthetic learner.
It wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s already March and the girls haven’t completed their script. They’ll be on their feet rehearsing soon enough. In fact, they need to begin rehearsing by the end of the month to meet our deadline of having a performance ready piece at the end of May. When we mentioned this to Nia, who is new to the group this year, she said,
“You mean we’re going to perform this in front of people? Not just the group?”
The other girls groaned.
“Why do you think we’re writing it?” one of them asked.
Nia grinned. “Oh goody,” she said, “I love to be on stage!”
No one was surprised to hear it.

Our plan last week was to read through the parts of the script that are most complete. The new play will be composed of three scenarios that explore the theme of ‘separation.’ Two of those scenes have been written and put together, but the girls hadn’t read the most recent drafts. We wanted them to read through and make suggestions for further revisions. We also hoped that we would have time to continue work on the third scene, which is still being developed.
The girls had fun reading the scripts, but it was mentally exhausting. Their questions and suggestions cleared up some issues, but seemed to cloud others. By the time we were ready for our break, it was clear to Carolyn and me that we needed to something to clear our heads before the girls looked back at the writing they had done for the final scene. Because the play is about times when friends and families feel that they are moving away from each other, Carolyn had suggested in a previous workshop that it would be interesting to create tableaux of the characters in happier times. Last Thursday, while the girls were snacking and taking bathroom breaks, we decided to spend the rest of the workshop improvising those tableaux, and we decided to introduce the exercise by asking one or two of the girls to create a tableau of their own family. I imagined that we would move quickly through this introduction and end the workshop with material that might, eventually, end up in our culminating performance. I was surprised by what actually happened.

Carolyn directed the activity as a PlayBack Theatre exercise. She asked one of the girls to create a family portrait using the other girls as stand-ins for her own family members. Leila volunteered.
When asked who would be the first person in her portrait, she immediately said, “My father.”
“Okay,” said Carolyn, “pick an actress to represent your father and place her as your father might stand.”
And so it continued. Leila placed her father and her little brother together, arranging them carefully. After each change to an actress’s posture, she stepped back to study the effect. When she was satisfied, Dad’s hand was on Brother’s shoulder and Brother was posed like an energetic ten-year-old who could barely tolerate having to stand still. The next character in the portrait was Mom. She stood separate from the first pair, observing them, but not connecting. Carolyn asked Leila to find one word to describe each character. Dad was ‘strong;’ Brother was ‘mischievous;’ Mom was ‘gentle.’
Under Carolyn’s direction, Leila added her grandmother and a cousin to the group, posing and labeling them as she had the first three. Last of all, Carolyn asked her to choose and place someone in the portrait to represent herself. When the tableaux was complete, Leila stepped back and took an imaginary photograph of the group.

As her improvised camera ‘clicked’ to capture the photo, all of the girls rushed toward Carolyn.
“I’m next!” said Gina.
“No, pick me!” shouted Nia.
“I asked first,” said Elaina.
Every girl wanted the opportunity to create her own family tableau. Because Leila’s portrait had taken about fifteen minutes to complete, we had time for only a couple more. Both of those girls posed their portraits as thoughtfully Leila, taking time to arrange and rearrange each actress’s stance as new characters were added to the set. In one photo, a ‘caring’ single mother was surrounded by children ranging in age from forty-three to fourteen. The other included cousins and friends along with the immediate family.
Since Carolyn was directing the exercise, I had the opportunity to observe, not only the girls taking part, but also those on the side line. I was moved by the care with which each photographer organized her portrait, as well as by the look on her face as she made the culminating click of the camera. The girls’ enthusiasm as they chose, placed, and described each family member somehow made them seem younger than their age. I wonder if anyone who is asked to create such a portrait would hearken back to a time in childhood when family relations seemed uncomplicated; when even the parent standing apart seemed merely ‘gentle.’
I also noticed something else that was occurring in the real time of the exercise. As the portraits grew larger, I sensed tension among the girls who were observing. There was more than one dynamic being played out in the exercise. Not only were certain girls lovingly creating family portraits, they were also choosing troupe mates to represent family members. I watched girls who hadn’t been chosen exchange glances as others were slected more than once. I got the feeling that there was something of the choosing-teams-in-gym-class atmosphere in the room, and I realized that this group hasn’t completely bonded. Although most of them have been in the program together since October, they are still swayed by the cliques and conspiracies of their outside social groups.
In the days before our next workshop, Carolyn and I will talk about this. We’ll try to think of ways we might facilitate alliances between girls who aren’t yet comfortable with each other or with the group. We know we can’t make the girls connect, but the exercise that we hoped would give the girls insight into the relationships of the characters they’re bringing to life through their play, has shown us something about the separations that still exist in the troupe.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Writing on Your Feet

          A playwright relies on three means of expression to craft her play: dialogue, monologue and stage directions. Our girls develop their dialogue and monologue writing skills before they learn how stage movement can effectively communicate a message to the audience. Because they have a lot in common with the characters they create, the girls quickly recognize the connection between authentic sounding dialogue in a play and their common speech, or the similarity between their personal journal writing and a character monologue.  Dialogues and monologues flow from their characters naturally and improve with revision.

The girls need special instruction, however, to understand how to replace or enhance their dialogue with stage movement and write stage directions that describe what they would like to see happen on the stage.  They’re used to writing stories in which narrators describe what the characters are doing or have done in the past.  Writing stage directions for characters that move on a stage requires the girls to know a little bit about acting.  They need practice themselves moving around in a performance space, turning their bodies in ways that allow the audience to see them, and standing in places on the stage that don’t block other actors from view.  Some playwrights actually move around while they write in order to envision how a scene will look when performed. They write on their feet.

 It takes time for some of our girls to feel comfortable moving around as actors do in front of the group.  They sometimes feel shy and, like many adolescent girls, worry about being judged for what they look like.  Breaking out of adolescent silence means learning to move as well as to speak with confidence.   To this day, I remember my teen self walking between classes, feeling like I was running a gauntlet of stares and giggles. Was my bra strap showing? Did I have lunch gunk stuck in my teeth? Had someone stuck gum in my hair?  These worries followed me down the hallways and made me sweat.  From what I hear from our girls, high school hallways haven’t changed all that much since I inhabited them. Needless to say, it takes several weeks before our girls feel secure enough within the group to take a risk engaging in stage movement exercises.

Introducing movement into our workshops a little bit at a time eases their discomfort.  They might stand to read a page of written dialogue first, for example, then expand that page into two through improvisation. While improvising, they naturally begin to move.  Discussing how the movement enlivened the dialogue helps them begin to look for ways in which movement can be added to their script. When an actress jumps out of her seat and stands directly in front of another actress who has just said, “I gotta’ go!” the girls realize that a character’s behavior can be a powerful substitute for a line in a play. They also begin to recognize the overlap between acting and playwriting and see the value in learning both disciplines simultaneously. As they become more comfortable with us as their mentors, with each other, and with their dual roles as Girls Surviving playwrights and actresses, they are more likely to enjoy and benefit from theater activities that focus movement.

It helps to have a couple of girls in the troupe who are kinesthetic learners.  This year’s troupe is blessed with girls for whom movement is as essential as breathing.  I’d been looking forward to finding the right moment to get them on their feet and explore stage space. I’d been hoping that this particular group of girls might come up with creative ways of including non-verbal vignettes into their play.  A couple of the girls already had suggested writing raps for the play, and as I watched them practicing basketball moves and drill team routines during our workshop breaks, I began to envision dialogues interspersed with dance, spoken word, and hip hop too.

I saw lots of possibilities, and the night Paula and I decided to formally introduce movement exercises I began to see even more. We presented the activities in a particular order that allowed the girls to build upon the skills they learned in each exercise and make increasingly creative choices as the workshop progressed.   We started with a highly structured game. Like musical chairs, it requires participants to move so quickly that they forget why or how they were moving and who is watching them.  As our girls played, their self-consciousness disappeared.  They intently listened for cues to run to a new seat in our circle of chairs and threw up their hands in surprise and amused despair when they found there was no place to sit. We ended the game amid much laughter soon after I landed in somebody’s lap as we both vied for a seat. 

The next exercise allowed for more creativity. The tone of it is quieter, and the pace is slower. Like the first game, though, it demands spontaneous reactions and keen observation.  Standing in a circle, each person silently forms an imaginary object out of a lump of invisible “space” and passes the shape to the next person in the circle, who re-forms the “space” into something entirely new.  The girls had trouble transitioning from the rowdiness of the first game into this more focused, deliberate activity. They quieted, though, when one of the girls, Nan, expressed her delight that we were doing an exercise that she had learned in acting class. Nan offered to help us model the exercise, and soon she had every girl’s attention.  Impressed by her concentration and skill while shaping her invisible ear buds, the other girls conscientiously followed her example and took time and care to meticulously create imaginary skateboards, hockey sticks, and cars.

To challenge the girls’ creativity a little more, we asked them next to build an imaginary room, fill it with imaginary objects, and interact with every object, silently. They entered the space one at a time, each girl adding a new object to create their defined environment.  The girls who went first put together a living room, complete with TV, radio, and a couch. But, there were a lot of girls participating that night.  Once those essential objects were in place and the girls had had their fun dancing to music and napping on the couch, they started to wonder what the next girls could possibly add to the room.  From their perspective, the living room had everything it needed. All eyes were on the girl who entered the space next. That’s when things got exciting. Woken by a sound, she rolled off the couch, ran to the door, opened it, slammed it and ran away from it with her hand over her mouth, a horrified expression on her face. Just when it seemed like there was nothing left to create, a story started to emerge. A baseball bat materialized. The next girl turned it into a weapon. The next wiped it clean of blood. The last girl stashed it under the couch. The story was over, and every girl had participated.  It was remarkable. The girls had been asked only to create and inhabit a room without speaking.  But they had done much more.  They had written a story without using a single word.

They were learning how to write on their feet.  They were engrossed in the process.  They were relaxed.  They were having fun. They were prepared, too, to tackle one more task. Working in groups, they created, rehearsed and performed non-verbal reenactments of a poem.  The poem resonates with the same theme that they are writing about in their play.  Like the play, it speaks of family members who come together in a show of unity one moment and find themselves separated from each other the next.

After reading the poem aloud a couple of times, one girl asked, “Can we perform this as a dance?” As usual, we welcomed the suggestion and any others that did not involve speech. The girls’ dance turned out to be a powerful choice.  It captured the rhythm of family life, the embraces that bind and the distances that tear people apart. As we watched the girls join hands in their dance circle, then spin away from each other and collapse, scattered across the floor, we knew that their work had to become part of the play. Without saying anything, they had enacted the meaning of the word separation. The poem had become dramatic action.  Our girls owned the stage.