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, April 25, 2013

Rehearsal Begins

This semester’s rehearsal period began last week.  We started the workshop by revealing the results from the audition that was held the week before.  As usual, the girls were excited to hear the roles they would be playing.  If they were disappointed, they didn’t show it.  Discontent about casting, though, is minimized because the girls decide on the process that determines the roles.  This year they chose the audition.  In other years they’ve used different methods. Whatever their choice, they own the process.  As a result, they’re generally enthusiastic about the outcome and happy to get out of their writing seats and onto their performing feet.

That was the feeling in the room last week when we began to read through all of the scenes in the play with a cast in place for the first time. As the reading progressed, however, the mood turned edgy.  The girls seemed impatient when we interrupted them to discuss changes or additions to the script.  Girls exchanged glances across the room.  Whispered side conversations distracted everyone, especially those reading.  We knew that something had happened or was happening between some or all of the girls in troupe, but we didn’t know what it was or who was involved.  They started to sigh, wiggle around in their seats, and daydream when we lingered over a conversation about filling obvious gaps in the writing of the last scene.  When we called ‘break time,’ they all bolted from the room. Not one girl lingered to grab a snack. Only the adults remained to worry aloud about what had happened. 

When they returned, we faced resistance about doing the next planned activity.  Earlier in the evening a couple of girls had asked to see a dance that others in the group had created during a previous workshop and that was going to be incorporated into the play.  We decided that working on the dance would be a good way to end the workshop.  After the break, though, the dancers seemed reluctant to perform.  First they protested that they couldn’t remember the steps. Then they said they didn’t really like it.  From the sidelines, girls who already had seen the dance chimed in with mostly negative comments about it and its relevance to the play.

With adult encouragement, the dancers finally agreed to perform. They struggled through it a couple of times, but half-heartedly. Many of the other girls continued with their side conversations and general inattentiveness.  The dancers became increasingly self-conscious and embarrassed. Some suggested that we shelve the dance and do a drill routine instead.  We encouraged the dancers to salvage parts of the dance that effectively communicated the theme of their play.  They practiced selected movements, but quickly became frustrated and more insistent about doing a drill.  We didn’t dismiss the idea. We knew that several of the girls are part of a drill team and love the work. At the same time, we challenged them to think about creating a drill routine that would augment a play about separation.  There wasn’t a lot of time left to experiment, though, because the workshop was drawing to a close.  By that time we cleaned up the classroom, turned out the lights, and the girls were on their way home, everyone was exhausted after coping with the disagreements and distracted chatter. We left without knowing for sure whether or not something specific had happened to trigger their behavior.  While we have some ideas now, we still don’t really know.  What we do know is that we’re going to have to find a way to go forward with the work.

We’re worried that the girls’ lack of concentration and group cohesiveness will make the rest of our rehearsals difficult to manage. Even with the best planning, rehearsals can be hard on everyone.  Plans have to change constantly because of myriad disruptions and unforeseen circumstances.  School schedules change, girls forget that they’re supposed to attend a family wedding on the day of the performance, parents ground their children for bad behavior, kids break their legs playing field hockey, air conditioners wear out during rehearsals as temperatures soar into the 90’s. If a girl has to drop out of the troupe, parts must be shuffled and re-rehearsed.  If an argument erupts between troupe members or if hard feelings exist between a girl and the adult mentors, no one can concentrate and personal feelings spill onto the stage.  Managing these scenarios to minimize tension among the actresses and keep them actively engaged in rehearsal requires everyone’s patience, flexibility and collaboration. 

We have described the dynamic in this group in earlier posts.  We’ve explained that the success of the program depends a lot on how well the girls come together as a unified troupe.  After the group’s first workshop we started to wonder how well these girls would bond. We’ve introduced a variety of exercises since then to stimulate their interest in and awareness of each other.  We’ve continued to observe the group, looking for signs that they were beginning to set aside differences and support us, and each other, without reservation. There have been signs of progress. 

One night we did a silent theater game that had us convinced the girls had reached a turning point. The game is simple. All of the girls stand in a circle, leaving enough space between each one to allow everyone to extend their arms from the elbow, holding the right hand palm-up and the left hand palm down. Hands in place, they touch finger tips and silently send an electric current-like pulse around the circle through their fingers The objective is to stay physically connected as the pulse makes its rounds. Our pulsating current made its way safely around our circle so many times that I finally had to call an end to the game.  Not a word had been spoken, but when everyone looked up from the game, they were focused and attuned to each other.

We hope that the behavior we saw at our first rehearsal was a temporary setback. We only have six rehearsals left. Who knows what challenges we’ll have to face between now and our performance dates?  At the very least, the girls will need to set aside differences and work with each other, and with the adults, in harmony.  We want them to look good on the stage, but we’ll need their help to make that happen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Into the Woods

print by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)

A tailor’s apprentice was once traveling and he went into a great forest. Not knowing his way, he lost himself and, when night fell, was forced to seek a bed in this painful solitude.”

This young tailor loses his way in the beginning of a Grimm Brothers’ story called “The Glass Coffin,” but the heroes of many tales pass through this same forest. It’s the place where Hansel and Gretel found the gingerbread house, it’s the Forest of Arden, and it’s where Dante found himself at the beginning of Inferno. “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a forest dark, for I had lost the path that does not stray.”

Stories, like dreams, take us back again and again to familiar places that we have never actually visited. I think they are familiar because they make up the landscape of our souls. When we encounter them in dreams, we know where we are and, although we may feel lost, we also recognize landmarks at each turning of the road. When we encounter these places in stories, we can visualize them in great detail as soon as they are introduced.
Of course, we also lose ourselves in this same dark forest in our real, waking lives. It happens to most of us more than once. You could even say it’s part of the human developmental journey. I see my twenty-month old grandson occasionally toddle into it as he begins claiming independence from his mama, and I, who have journeyed more than half of my life’s way, see it looming in the shape of old age and its inevitable conclusion. In my case, these thoughts are passing; and for the most part, they remain in the intellectual realm. My grandson is protected by all of the adults who hover around him like guardian fairies, ready to whisk him to safety at the slightest hint of danger.
However, some people live in this wilderness, and are forced day after day to seek their bed in its painful solitude. I think this describes the state of most adolescents. They are truly lost because there is no map they can follow that will lead them safely from childhood to maturity. They have to find their own way and make their own path, and the journey is fraught with hazard: drugs, violence, ill-intentioned friends and strangers. Some teens are lucky enough to meet a guide whom they trust to point out the pitfalls in the road, but many, like the arrogant older siblings of folktales, scoff at the wisdom of these advisors and end up paying dearly for their distain.
Carolyn and I created the Girls Surviving program in an attempt to provide teen girls with a safe haven along their journey to adulthood. We and the counselors who work with us do our best to arm our girls against the perils they face in the hours and days between our workshops. And, of course, for most of the girls, we’re not the only source of support and advice. They have a parent, grandparent, teacher, minister, or older sibling on whom they can also rely for guidance. Over the years, we’ve watched the girls navigate the risks of adolescence. We have seen girls triumph over challenges, but we’ve also watched girls fall into trouble. At these times, we’ve extended a hand, but that hasn’t always been enough to pull a foundering child to safety. Every story is unique. I’ve watched girls I feared had irretrievably lost the path find strength and confidence on their way back to safety. I’ve also seen girls I was sure would be okay fall hard through one unlucky misstep.

I think the hardest lesson I’ve learned as a teacher and parent of teenagers is that I may not be the one to provide the help my charge needs when she’s in trouble. I’m not referring to situations where the child needs medical or psychological support that I’m not qualified to give, but to those times when I’ve felt sure that I really understood the girl and the problem. I’m talking about those times my support has been refused, not because it was worthless, but because I wasn’t the right person to offer it. The truth is that some of those step-sisters and older brothers in the folktales may have done fine if they had met an advisor they were willing to hear. The wizened old woman doesn’t appeal to everyone, no matter how much she knows, and just because she happens to be standing around the corner when the heroine loses her way doesn’t mean she is holding the gift the girl needs to succeed.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Taking Responsibility

“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.”

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago when I was struggling to decide how much influence Carolyn and I should assert in guiding the troupe. I’m still wondering and I think that, although the above statement may be true when we are talking about the journey of any individual teen, I’m not sure it’s the best approach we, as mentors, can take toward the group. The thing that made me reconsider the question was casting the play, that is, deciding which actresses will play what roles. Over the years, we have taken several approaches to casting Girls Surviving plays. All of these approaches have been driven by our desire to let the girls decide. Whatever the process, Carolyn and I have never done anything to affect the decision. We have always wanted the girls to take this responsibility.
The casting for our first plays was completely arbitrary. We put the names of all the characters into a hat and each actress picked one. The name you pulled was the character you would play – no swapping, no complaining. We choose this method because we wanted to create an even playing field as we embarked on rehearsals. The girls had just completed a writing process that stressed the value of each voice in the troupe and we hoped to develop a rehearsal process that would ease even the shyest girl into performance. We feared that if we let the girls cast the play, their choices might be based on popularity or on a perception of a girl’s ability as an actress. We wanted the girls to know that we believed all of them were capable of doing well on the stage, and we knew that any process of selection that involved judgment, by us or by their peers, might reinforce the insecurities of anyone who was afraid to perform.
As we continued to refine our processes, however, we realized that casting from a hat wasn’t helping us achieve our goal of creating uniformly confident actresses. It wasn’t giving the girls enough credit. We soon came to see that it didn’t matter that we felt confident a girl could play any role she pulled, we couldn’t transfer that confidence to an actress who didn’t feel right for a part. We needed to trust the instincts of a shy girl who felt she needed to start with a small role, or by playing a character who resembled herself, just as we should encourage the confidence of a girl who felt she was capable of mastering a more demanding role. So we modified our process. We asked all of the girls to choose the role or roles they wanted to play and we didn’t resort to the hat unless more than one girl wanted the same part. This worked for a while. The actresses were, on the whole, happier and more comfortable with their roles, and they were all gaining experience and confidence at their own pace.
Then one season a very demanding role that was coveted by several girls was pulled by Ceci, a girl who just wasn’t up to it. As a result, rehearsals were painful for everyone. At first, I was sure that patience and sensitive coaching would prepare Ceci for the role. What, in hindsight, I can only see as hubris, led me to believe that under our direction, Ceci’s success in the part would raise her confidence and open the eyes of troupe members who didn’t think she could do it. In fact, what happened was that as the performance date approached, Ceci became more and more overwhelmed by the pressure of the role. She began missing rehearsals and the other actresses became fearful that her lack of preparation would make them all look foolish. I think that, at some point, everyone wished we could just give the role to a more experienced actress and prevent more weeks of anxiety. However, Carolyn and I both felt that to change actresses two or three weeks before the performance would be a bad lesson for everyone. Theater is always risky; there is never a guarantee that a performance will proceed seamlessly. Every girl in the troupe has to be ready to take responsibility to save the performance at any given moment.
In the end, Ceci’s performance was fine. Everyone was happy with the outcome of the play and I believe the girls involved learned more from the process than they would have if rehearsals had proceeded smoothly from first to last. However, one of the things we all learned was that we needed to come up with a better way to cast the play. Consequently, when casting time rolled around in the next season, we asked the girls to come up with a new process that would avoid the pitfalls of the past. They decided that every girl would sign up for at least two roles, each specifying her first choice. Then each member of the troupe would vote for the actress they thought would be best for each role. This worked well. The voting was anonymous; girls voted using ballots which Carolyn or I counted. Girls who lost their first choice settled for their second or third without any demonstration of pique, and we never had a situation in which an actress was given a responsibility that made her or her troupe mates uncomfortable. We realized that, by not giving the girls power over who played which part, we had been creating an unrealistic environment. Not being chosen is a reality of life from which we had, unwisely, tried to protect them.
We used this casting procedure until the season an especially mature and thoughtful troupe asked if they could audition for parts. We agreed, stipulating that choices would still be made by the girls. The auditions took time, nearly an entire summer workshop, but it was time well spent. The actresses stayed focused, both on and off the stage. Performers put their hearts into the auditions, and judges took their responsibility seriously. It was one of those days we left the workshop feeling that we were doing things right.
But theater is always risky and there is no guarantee that anything will go the same way twice. We were reminded of this when we tried to audition a troupe whose members include girls who were neither serious nor thoughtful. This time, actresses lost focus in the middle of a scene, judges talked and giggled in side conversations with no regard to what was happening on stage, girls lost their ballots, misplaced their scripts, forgot which parts they wanted to play. It was a nerve wracking experience for me and Carolyn, but it was worse for the girls who were taking themselves and their responsibilities seriously. My heart went out to these actresses as I watched their frustration with the process.
Then I went home to tally up the ballots and realized how bad things really were. Choices had clearly been made with no thought to how the actresses had performed. One of our most seasoned veterans, a girl who has grown tremendously as an actress, writer, and role model, and who tried out for several roles, received only a couple of votes, while other girls who clowned through the auditions won multiple roles. When Carolyn and I discussed this outcome, we realized that we weren’t doing anyone a favor by honoring these votes. In this case, we had given the girls a task they either couldn’t or didn’t care to accomplish, and to ignore that after the fact would be tantamount to participating in the travesty. We couldn’t cross our fingers, hold our breath, and hope for the best. The time had come to open our hands and raise our voices to teach the girls that those who work hard to accomplish something will be rewarded, and that those who don’t take responsibility seriously relinquish their right to have a voice in the process. There are some lessons it's hard to learn on your own.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Re-Evalutating the Internship Program

            With the girls’ play almost written, rehearsal about to begin, and performance two months away, we’re planning for what comes next.  Right now, we’re re-evaluating the internship program established when we started the summer semester eight years ago. 

In the past we’ve asked the oldest, most experienced, dedicated, and mature troupe member to work as the summer semester’s paid intern.  Her job has been to help lead exercises, set an example for the younger girls, help integrate new girls into the group, set out food for snacks and lunch, help clean up, and generally assist us in any way she can. Our job has been to coach, guide, and direct her through the experience. It hasn’t always worked as well as we had hoped it would.  We decided it was time to take a closer look at what it has been and what needs to be changed to make it a more vital and integral part of Girls Surviving.
Some of our interns have handled the job with more maturity than others.  Maturity levels do vary from girl to girl.  Each girl charts a unique course through the maze of adolescence and therefore responds to job responsibilities in different ways.  All of the interns initially feel proud of their position and express enthusiasm for the work.  Some have responded positively to the demands of the job, our suggestions, and fulfilled our expectations.  Others have helped with housekeeping activities and logistics, but have fallen short of becoming leaders and role models for the other girls.  Why, we’re asking, do they seem to lose sight of their purpose?

It’s hard to sort out exactly why or how that happens.  Some years our interns simply are not as mature as we thought they were and their immaturity doesn’t manifest itself until they’re given more responsibility. Some are close friends with other girls in the troupe, and those relationships influence their decision-making.  When an intern solicits advice from a friend, she can get confused about how to respond.  The advice might not be bad, but it sometimes interferes with the intern’s ability to take a stand of her own. She can end up entangled in the latest gossip or drama circulating in school or in the group.  We select our interns because we value their good judgment and repeatedly validate good decisions that they make.   Still, peer influence is that force we all must reckon with.

The summer program’s schedule moves very quickly.  What we normally accomplish over the course of the school year is accomplished in an astonishing six weeks.  We have to push the pace and I wonder if some of the interns have trouble adjusting.  When summer snack time is over, for instance, it is important that everyone return to work on time.  We count on the intern to help round up strays who have wandered off to the bathroom, bumped into old friends, or lost track of time while responding to text messages.  Unfortunately we often have to go in search of our intern, who gets as involved as their troupe-mates in those activities.  On the one hand, their behavior is completely understandable.  On the other hand, we really need their help enforcing the time limit.  We’ve found that the girls respond much more positively when one of their own enforces the rules.

As we’ve mentioned so often, ours is a balancing act.  We’re always struggling to meet the needs of adolescent girls and, simultaneously, move the program’s work forward. But the internship is a job and a new responsibility.  While they don’t get paid a lot, our interns do get paid.  The internship also provides opportunities for those willing to work a chance to learn new skills.   As we think about how to change the internship program, we’ll have to focus less on their personal needs as adolescent girls, and more on whether or not they’re ready to take on a job.  Both interns and mentors will have to think differently about their roles.

Defining those roles in writing and creating a contract that spells out our expectations and those of our interns will help us move this program in the right direction.  We haven’t done that before.  All of our communication about the program has been verbal, and that may have led to misunderstandings and confusion in the past. A contract will give all of us a structure within which to work, a reference point if there is a problem, a reminder if we lose sight of our responsibilities.

Puzzling it out on paper will help us clarify our requirements and our coaching strategy.  It will force us to answer tough questions about how the internship can enrich the experience that Girls Surviving provides:  What can we do to help the interns grow and learn?  What will we teach them?  How?  When?  And…what exactly do we expect our interns to do on a daily basis?  What are the consequences if they don’t fulfill their contractual obligations?  How do we talk to them about their shortcomings as well as their strengths?  We’ve known the girls we select for this job for years.  We’ve developed close relationships with them.   What happens if the internship arrangement doesn’t work out for us or for them?

We want the internship to evolve into a meaningful extension of Girls Surviving for our older, more mature girls that allows them to adjust to the workplace realities they will face in the not-too-distant future.  Our goal is to help them to develop skills that they can use if the Girls Surviving program suddenly disappears or that will help them with other work they choose to do in the future.  We want them to become leaders among their peers.

In the coming weeks we’ll sit down to work out the details of the contract. We’ll explain how the intern/mentor relationship will work in the future, outline our goals and objectives, and spell out our responsibilities to each other. It will be challenging and exciting to think about how the internship program can help all of us learn and grow.