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

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

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

Friday, May 31, 2013

More Rehearsing

Rehearsing the "Aurora" scene

When we began our penultimate rehearsal last night, four girls were absent. That’s four cast members who will have only one more rehearsal before their first performance. In addition, we had added about five new pages of text to the script, a revision that helped tie the scenes together. The actresses’ absences were unavoidable and, in three cases, unpredictable. Illness kept one away; a family emergency arose for another an hour before the rehearsal began, the third girl was at the prom and the fourth showed up late because she was caring for younger siblings and mom stayed later than usual at work.
The girls in our troupe have many distractions and responsibilities. Of course, they have the usual high school responsibilities of homework and study. And they have the kinds of distractions we’ve mentioned in recent posts: sports, arts nights, and proms. But because many of our girls contribute in some way to their family’s economic well being, they also have obligations of a more serious nature, a kind of responsibility not automatically associated with teen life. For example, a girl may have to babysit for younger siblings when her parent is working the night shift, an after-school job might prevent her from attending a rehearsal, or an illness in her family may add responsibilities at home. In some cases, we have lost girls for several weeks because they left the country to be with extended family. These obligations often arise with very little notice. This is one of the reasons our rehearsal protocol must be flexible.

Scene three: Cadacee at her laptop
When we cast our plays, everyone gets at least one part. We don’t appoint understudies, but because of the way our rehearsals tend to flow, girls are often called on to stand in for a fellow actress to insure that one girl’s absence doesn’t preclude the rehearsal of an entire scene. This can drive Carolyn, who has to reteach the blocking to the substitute, a little crazy, but on the whole I think it strengthens the troupe and the program.

In a Girls Surviving performance, actresses perform with their scripts in hand; they are not under pressure to memorized every line, but they must know their lines well enough to act and interact while they are saying them. Because of this feature of our process, many of our actresses are able to take on a new role at the drop of a hat, especially if they have walked through it as a substitute in the scene. This has stood us in good stead on several occasions. One year, on the night of our first performance, the grandmother/guardian of one of our actresses took ill. Naturally, the girl, who had a large part in the most intense scene of the play, needed to be by the side of her loved one. Everyone sympathized, but we got the news about thirty minutes before curtain rise. What to do? We considered dropping the scene before Carolyn remembered that another girl, Aysia, had read the part during a recent rehearsal. Aysia was young and new to the troupe that season. Would she be comfortable stepping in?

“I guess,” she said, and then on consideration, “No problem!”

Carolyn talked her through the script with the help of Roxy, the other actress in the scene. They finished about ten minutes before the girls were scheduled to walk on stage. Aysia was a bit nervous, but with Carolyn’s encouragement, the support of Roxy who was a sensitive, more experienced actress, and her own knowledge of the role, she performed beautifully. No one in the audience would have had the least suspicion of the last minute switch if we hadn’t announced the change in the program.
On another occasion, a day we were scheduled to perform for members of the Morris County Youth Services Commission (YSAC), a group that supports and funds the program, half the troupe was absent! The performance was scheduled at the middle school during the school day. The high school girls had gotten permission to leave school for the performance, but when Carolyn went to pick them up, only one of them was waiting. The problem? Final exams. The exam schedule hadn’t been available when we scheduled the performance and, because exams cause havoc with the regular school day, the girls involved hadn’t realized they would miss the show.

By the time Carolyn arrived at our venue with one actress in tow, the audience was filing into the room. In addition to our funders, the group contained parents, teachers, and perspective troupe members, eighth grade girls who had been referred to the summer program and who wanted to see what it was all about. Once again, our flexible actresses pulled through. A fifteen minute conference with Carolyn while my sixth and seventh grade storytellers entertained the audience, and they were ready. They had to delete a couple pieces from the script, but the piece held together as a whole. (The beauty of our thematic writing!) Four actresses (the high schooler and three eighth graders) doubled up roles and carried it off. The YSAC folks, many of whom were seeing Girls Surviving for the first time, were blown away, and most of the eighth graders signed up for the summer.

A moment from scene two
So what do our girls learn from these erratic rehearsals and last minute changes? Well, last night, Lisa, an eighth grader who, when she began the season, had serious reading difficulties, volunteered to stand-in for an extra role. She took the script, which she had heard and seen performed several times, and began the scene. Her acting seemed natural. She interacted with the other actresses in the scene as if it were really happening, as if she was the girl intent on stealing her best friend’s crush. She was not only reading, but understanding the script. Later in the evening, when Lisa rehearsed the scene she was scheduled to play, there was a marked change in her performance. She seemed to be finding new and deeper meaning in the words. She read more thoughtfully, pausing when the moment called for thought or reflection from the character, and charging ahead when emotions were high. This girl who began the year decoding text with gaps in understanding had crossed into fluency. She had gained the unconscious realization that the words we read hold the same kind of meaning as the words we speak. Obviously, this change has been happening through the year, but much like a musician who can suddenly play a piece perfectly after many weeks of frustrating practices, Lisa’s experience with the unfamiliar script gave her a new level of understanding of the process that is reading aloud.

This is just one example of the way girls learn from our rehearsal and performance processes. I think that being confronted unexpected problems surprises them into new levels of confidence and understanding as they work to solve them. Our actresses walk away from performances with new confidence that they can summon the skill to deal with whatever comes their way.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bake Sale!

Before the onslaught
I just returned from the first ever Girls Surviving Bake Sale, an event organized completely by the older girls in the troupe. When I walked into the high school atrium with my little plate of brownies, I noticed that the counter in the main office was piled with foil covered trays and plastic containers of food that had been dropped off during the day.  Allanna told me she was up until 1:00 a.m. baking fifty-seven cupcakes! Gabby's mom supplied a large tray of beautiful, home made empanadas. There were also cookies, brownies, blondies, and slices of mousse-filled chocolate cake. Everything looked delicious.

At two o'clock, about fifteen minutes before school dimissal, four of the girls arrived to set things up. Jessica, who directed and coordinated the whole event made sure they all got passes to leave class early for this purpose. I enjoyed watching them get things together. They were clearly excited, but calm and well organized. They were on top of every detail -- what to charge, where to keep the money, how to handle the baked goods. They had plates, napkins, spatulas to serve slices of cake...

A couple more girls from the troupe showed up to help; others stopped by to lend support and say hello. They didn't need any help from me, so I just hung around to watch and take pictures.

First customer
When the dismissal bell sounded, a few kids stopped by on their way out of school to ask about prices, but no one was buying. The girls laughed and joked with potential customers and didn't seem worried by the slow start. It wasn't long before I understood why. About five minutes after dismissal, the sale table was suddenly surrounded by a huge crowd of high school students. Customers stood three or four deep holding out money, shouting orders and questions. The girls never lost their cool.  They handled everything as if they had been selling cake from the cradle. They answered questions, made change, and cracked jokes without missing a beat. After ten minutes, the crowd thinned and almost everything was gone.

Almost sold out!
It was fun and enlightening to see the girls working together outside of the usual program activities. It helped me remember that teenagers are more self-reliant that I sometimes give them credit for. In both of my 'authority' roles, as mother and teacher, I have had a tendency to offer too much help, or take too much control, and it's not good for kids. They need room to try things out, make mistakes, and learn from them. Teenagers get things done when they're motivated. In this case the motivation was sweaters. The girls want hooded sweatshirts with a Girls Surviving logo on them, something that identifies them as part of the group, the sisterhood, something cozier and more permanent than their performance tee-shirts. We don't have funding for extras like that, so the girls decided to earn the money, themselves.

Jessica just texted me that they made over $150.00 at the bake sale. I'm guessing they'll have their hoodies before school resumes in the fall.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rehearsing for Life

The girls have two more rehearsals scheduled before the first performance of their new play. That’s a little scary because, as Carolyn said, we still haven’t yet managed a beginning-to-end run through of the entire play. And we won’t have one this week, either, because one of the three actresses who make up the cast of our first scene will be attending the Senior Prom this Thursday evening. And so it goes!
Theater programs usually schedule intense and consistent rehearsals as they move closer to a performance date. Some of the students in my 7th grade storytelling group who are participating in a production at our local community theater next weekend, have been attending mandatory three-hour technical rehearsals for the past week. (One of them had to miss her cousin’s bar mitzvah for a rehearsal; others were unable to participate in their school’s spring chorus recital.) This makes perfect sense. There is so much at stake in making sure that a performance goes off without a hitch. One actor who isn’t fully prepared can ruin a scene for the whole cast. Ditto a crew member who isn’t in the right place at the right time. A few such mishaps and the whole show can fall apart; so much time and work by so many people frittered away because of the irresponsibility of a few. It’s good for kids to learn that excellence demands hard work and sacrifice.
So, given the interruptions and schedule conflicts that disrupt Girls Surviving rehearsals, how do we manage to get a show on its feet? And, perhaps, more to the point, what are we teaching the girls by allowing these disruptions? It’s certain our girls would learn something from the routine of the more professional be-there-or-be-gone rehearsals. However, although we hope to teach our troupe members to be responsible and to appreciate the demands and rewards of focused attention on a goal, we have other objectives that might be obstructed by the restrictions of an inflexible rehearsal process.
As a rule, girls don’t enter our program because they want to act. In fact, as stated earlier on this site, some girls don’t know when they join the program that they will be called upon to perform before an audience. Many of the girls who join Girls Surviving come with limited social and literacy skills. Some of them haven’t learned participate in a group discussion; some have so little practice speaking their mind that they have trouble organizing and articulating their thoughts; others have real difficulty with reading and/or writing. Children with deficient literacy skills find themselves in a double bind by the time they reach fourth or fifth grade. Their problems with speaking, listening, reading, and writing have a negative impact on their ability to acquire new knowledge, which further slows their literacy development. By the time they reach eighth grade, these children often have very little confidence that they will ever experience academic success. They often hide their feelings by acting out or shutting down in classroom situations, and they need consistent, patient reassurance that they can develop the skills they need to communicate successfully as adults. Other girls who enter Girls Surviving are great students who struggle with family, social, or economic problems that might hinder their development into confident young women. All of these girls benefit from learning in an environment that is forgiving of mistakes and that allows time for growth. Our willingness to let them grow up in the program is at the center of our mission.

Girls join the program for many reasons; among them –

-       they want to socialize with other girls in a relaxed setting,
-       they want a safe place to talk about themselves and the issues in their lives,
-       they are writers looking for a safe place to share their writing and receive critique,
-       they are looking for an environment in which they can comfortably be themselves,
-       they want an experience that will improve their self-confidence,
-       and, of course, some girls do join because they are interested in performing.

It falls within the mission of the Girls Surviving program to serve all of these needs because Girls Surviving is not, simply, a theater program. We expect every girl in the troupe to participate in a public performance of their play at the culmination of each season because we believe that the skills acquired and the lessons learned from participation in a theater production are the skills they need to become happy, productive adults. Although all of the skills the girls learn throughout the program –  to trust and be trustworthy, to listen and speak appropriately in group discussions, to collaborate in the planning, writing and revising of the script – also teach these lessons, it is the process of rehearsing and performing that brings it all together. It’s almost as if all of the skills taught during the beginning months of the program are preparation for the rehearsal stage, during which they will be tried and honed.
During rehearsals, our actresses learn to make second-by-second behavior assessments and adjustments. Each actress must be present in herself and her character, and be ready to respond to the words and actions of others on the stage. It requires insight, excellent listening, and appropriate social interactive skills for the situation being portrayed. If someone makes a mistake, misses or adds a line, for example, she has to be ready to deal with it and make it seem like a part of the scripted interaction, or if that’s not possible, to gracefully slip out of character long enough to put the audience and her colleagues at ease before resuming her role. These are the social and communication skills required of diplomats in the most sensitive political assignments. It stands to reason that no one acquires them over night. Mastery of these skills requires time, patience, and experience of many aspects of human behavior. Staging a successful performance in spite of tee-shirt quarrels, prom dates, bake sales, and babysitting is part of the process.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Blocking or Bake Sale

       Last Thursday was a dramatic weather day, marked by sudden, scattered downpours, rollicking thunder, and odd breaks of brilliant sunshine. It was a soggy humid mess that snarled traffic and delayed or postponed or cancelled schedules.  People had no choice but to sigh, adjust their thinking, and accept the reality.
       Rehearsal that night felt as topsy-turvy as the weather. One actress couldn’t make it because she was involved in another school activity.  Four or five girls were late because of traffic delays. Others straggled in five, 10, or 15 minutes past our 6:00 P.M. start because they got sidetracked chatting with friends as they wove their way from the school lobby to rehearsal. 
        Once everyone had assembled, we couldn’t get started because, unexpectedly, the subject of t-shirts came up in conversation.  Our actresses wear t-shirts in performance instead of costumes.  Printed with the words ‘Girls Surviving’ on the back and front, the t-shirts have become an important Girls Surviving tradition. Each semester we order new ones in a color of the girls’ choosing. A couple of weeks ago they decided on this year’s color: red shirts with white writing.  The decision appeared to have been settled.  Unbeknownst to us, however, disagreements about the choice were brewing below the surface.  When we learned about the controversy, revisiting the matter suddenly took priority because we needed to order the t-shirts immediately or they wouldn’t be ready by our performance date.  There was a lot of wrangling over the issue before it was resolved.
         Meanwhile, the clock was ticking and we hadn’t even started to rehearse.  We had a lot to accomplish too. Essential transitions between the scenes hadn’t been written yet, the ending poem hadn’t been blocked at all, a play title hadn’t been chosen, and the blocking that had been worked on needed fine-tuning.  With only two more rehearsals left, one of which would fall on the night of the senior prom, we were feeling tense.
          When the girls finally took their places to begin, they had trouble quieting down.  Other distractions were interfering with their concentration. First, they were rehearsing in a different room, the one that would serve as their performance space – the high school cafeteria.  Even though I’d set up chairs and moved tables to simulate the look of an auditorium, the environment looked foreign.  The space felt cavernous, with its high ceilings and glass-filled walls.  Distances between exits and entrances were longer and the girls had trouble getting a feel for timing their crosses. The humidity added to their agitation, as did their insatiable hunger. 

There was a lot going on at the high school that night, too. Our girls could see the cars pulling into the parking lot and people filing past the windows, holding umbrellas up against the rain.  Some of those parents and kids saw us, too, and, hoping to avoid the long trek to the official school entrance, knocked on the cafeteria doors to beg entrance. Because of security concerns, we had to turn them away. Which girl could run to the door the fastest at the sound of a knock became a major focus for a solid hour as people came and went, peering into the cafeteria as they made their way from one place to another. 

We managed to rehearse about half of the play before we felt the girls’ restlessness steal away their concentration.  They simply had to poke around the high school, check out the myriad end-of-year activities that were drawing so many people into the building, and investigate who else of importance might be roaming the hallways. And, they needed to eat.  We wondered, as we watched them stream out of the room, how hard it would be to retrieve them.

Maybe it was because I brought cupcakes that night but, amazingly, they reappeared without much delay.  Trailing them we saw the girl who had told us she couldn’t come to rehearsal.  She had taken time away from her other activity to talk to the girls about the bake sale she was organizing to make money for Girls Surviving hoodies.  It was a surprise.  She had broached the idea of holding a bake sale several weeks before, but we didn’t really expect anything to come of it.  In the past, girls have mentioned similar initiatives but, understandably, they haven’t found enough time in their busy lives to follow through. What was this all about, I wondered.

Everything for the sale had been arranged, she announced: the date, the time, the location.  All the other girls had to do, she said, was bake a lot of stuff and bring it to the school on such and such a day.  She suggested that cupcakes would be the most popular. Then she passed around a picture of the hoodie and told us that she had found a supplier with a very good price. The bake sale was fully rehearsed and ready for performance.  The play was not.

Oddly, topsy-turvy rehearsals like the one I just described reaffirm our commitment to move with the program into the future.  It reminds us that Girls Surviving is an experience, not just a writing and performing program; it focuses on process, not just performance; it creates a sisterhood, not just a cast for a play.  Within its protected walls girls experiment, explore, and sprout wings of many different colors.  In Girls Surviving, we take time for blocking and for bake sales. Allowing for both yields many rewarding surprises.

The rainy spell that dampened our spirits has passed.  The sun is shining as I put the finishing touches on this blog post.  The leaves are out full on the trees.  The peonies and iris have burst into bloom.  How would that have been possible without the inconvenience of the rain?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Learning to Rehearse

Rehearsing for the performances of the Girls Surviving plays is the most intense part of the program. During the school year, when we devote much more time to writing than rehearsal, it makes sense that we’d all feel under pressure as the performance deadline approaches, but even in the summer sessions, when we evenly divide workshop time between rehearsal and writing, rehearsal workshops are more intense. There are several reasons for this:

-      Rehearsing the play is much more public than writing it. Even though every girl opens herself to critique by the group when she first shares her writing and, later, when it is revised and edited for the script, the process feels more comfortable than standing up in front of everyone and learning to play a role. The level of self-confidence this requires would stress most teens, and many of our girls have joined to troupe specifically because their confidence is low.

-      We often have several girls in the group who are not fluent readers. These girls usually have little problem writing, but although they can decode text, they don’t immediately understand what they’re reading. This makes it hard for them to act their lines. An activity like script reading in which the text is read aloud repeatedly with a focus on prosody is an excellent way to overcome this problem, and we see great improvement in the reading fluency of these girls as they continue to rehearse the play. However, when we begin rehearsals, this deficit can add to all the actresses’ frustration.

-      Learning to play a role is demanding work that involves using and perfecting several skills, all at the same time. Not only does an actress need to learn to read her lines fluently, using appropriate phrasing, pitch, volume, and inflection, she must also move on the stage, interact with other actresses, and make it seem as if she is doing it spontaneously. In addition, she must understand what drives her character’s words and actions throughout the play or scene. 

-      Carolyn and I make more demands on the girls during this part of the process. Because the work of every girl affects the outcome for the whole group, we insist that they attend every rehearsal and stay focused on the work throughout. No side conversations, daydreaming, or snacking except at break.

-      Rehearsing involves doing the same thing over and over again as the actresses and their director strive for perfection. In spite of this repetition, the actresses must find a way to keep their words and movements fresh, as if they were saying and doing them for the first time, as if they weren’t anticipating the lines of the other characters in the scene. This is hard for anyone. It’s what makes acting an art. It’s especially hard for teenagers who are experiencing the most impatient time of their development since their “terrible twos.”

However, although rehearsal workshops are sometimes difficult, we have come up with a system that helps make them bearable. In the first years of the program, rehearsals were worse. In those days, the girls wrote conventional plays, dramas about one or two main characters at a time of crisis or conflict. Because the actresses who played the main characters were in every scene of these plays, there was a lot of down time for most of the other girls in the troupe. If we ended up spending an entire rehearsal trying to work through a problem in scene two, for example, everyone who had a smaller part in another scene was left with little to do. They could either rehearse their own lines or watch the other girls rehearse. Nights like this were impossible. Imagine a classroom with desks pushed against the wall so that no one can move comfortably outside of the center. In the central open space, three or four actresses are working with the teaching artists doing the same thing over and over, trying to figure out why something isn’t working or just trying to coordinate their lines and movements. Meanwhile, eight or nine other teenage girls are sitting around with no compelling work to do. Of course they are talking to each other, distracting the working actresses, and missing their cues if they have an entrance in the scene. They’re teenagers! Meanwhile, the adults in the room are getting more and more annoyed that the kids are acting like kids. And this is actually the description of a good night. There were also workshops when an actress with a central role couldn’t attend because she was ill or had to babysit. On those nights we had to muddle through with a stand-in who usually didn’t know the blocking for the role. As I said, it was impossible.

Then, after an especially hard season during which a large troupe presented a long play, Carolyn and I realized something had to change if we were going to keep our sanity. It was then that we came up with the idea of having the girls write scenes and vignettes based on a central theme. In these performance pieces, each girl usually has a role in only one scene. If  an actress is unavoidably absent from rehearsal, we simply focus on a scene that is unaffected by her absence. Also, when the girls in one scene are working with Carolyn, the other two adults can take the rest of the girls out of the room to work on some aspect of the other parts of the play. They can run lines, rehearse their blocking, or revise problems in the script. With this format, everyone is always engaged in the work of  rehearsing. There is no one sitting around for an hour, waiting for her entrance. It’s more productive and more fun for everyone, actresses and staff.
This doesn’t make rehearsal less intense. The stressful circumstances I listed earlier are still part of the process, but that is a good thing. Learning to take a text off the page to create a dynamic oral performance gives the girls problem solving strategies and social and communication skills they will use for the rest of their lives. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Widening the Net

GS at NJ PAC with Dr. James Gallagher and Ms. Phyllis Hassard

 Carolyn and I recently took three of our veteran girls on a field trip to the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts in Newark. The occasion was “A Night of Broadway Stars,” a fundraiser for Covenant House, a national organization that provides shelter, healthcare, counseling, and educational services to homeless adolescents. This is the second year we’ve been invited to attend what can only be described as a gala celebration. Our sponsor for both years was Dr. James Gallagher, a great friend to the Girls Surviving program since its earliest days, and a long time supporter of Covenant House. Deeply committed to improving the lives of ‘at-risk’ teens by helping them develop their own inner resources, Dr. Gallagher understands that these excursions into Newark offer our girls much more than a fun night out. When the girls go some place new and exciting where they meet people whose lives are different from their own, they become aware of possibilities they may never have considered.

Teenagers are naturally solipsistic, and no wonder. They are growing and changing so quickly and in so many ways that it’s hard for them to focus on anything outside of themselves. But although it’s a normal part of emotional growth, this aspect of development can also be a trap. So much attention to the self can make a girl forget that she is but part of larger and more complex systems: family, community, humanity, that are affected, for good or for bad, by her actions and attitudes.

The central focus of the event at NJ PAC was a performance by professional actors, singers, and dancers who donate their time and talent for the benefit of the teens who are served by Covenant House New Jersey. However, although our girls were delighted by the performances of “stars” like Stephanie Block (Wicked), William Micals (South Pacific), and Capathia Jenkins (Newsies), I don’t think this was the highlight of the evening for them. These professional acts were interspersed with slide shows and descriptions of Covenant House projects, testimonials from young adults who have successfully negotiated the transition from Covenant House to college and careers, and performances by teens who are currently living at Covenant House. The stories of these kids (some only a few years older than our girls) and the folks who help them attest to the good that people can do when they are aware of what’s happening around them and willing to act. 

The stories and testimonials our girls heard during the “Night of Stars” program presented a compelling example of what can happen when people use the web that interconnects every person in a community to form a safety net for the less fortunate among us. The kids who are helped by Covenant House didn’t have the luxury of thinking beyond their own needs for basic survival until strangers offered them help and hope. These strangers, the people who staff and support Covenant House don’t have to devote their time, talents, and money to charitable work. They have full, busy lives, and many of them have the means to spend their leisure time engaged in interesting and exotic recreational pursuits. In other words, they could devote their extra time and money to themselves. But they don’t. And the value to society of that choice is evident in the stories and faces of the kids they help.

Our girls were impressed by this. After the performance, they spoke to and were photographed with some of the Broadway “stars,” and they were thrilled by this moment of contact with professional artists. However, on the ride home, the “stars” they talked about were the kids of Covenant House.
“They’re amazing.”
“They’ve overcome so much.”
“Hey, maybe we can invite them to one of our spring performances.”
GS troupe members with Covenant House Stars

Whether or not we are able to make another connection between the teens in Morristown and Newark, one thread has been spun. The Girls Surviving members who attended the Covenant House event have touched a world outside their own. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Notes from the Field

Rehearsal is fun and exciting. It always feels that way in the beginning.  The actresses love trying on their new characters.  After a few rehearsals, though, they realize that wearing those same characters day after day and learning to make them move and speak convincingly require a lot of time and patience. Remember when you first slipped on the brand new three-inch strappy silver sandals that you had to buy for the last gala, prom, or wedding?  You looked and felt fabulous, no?  But, what was it like dancing the night away in those shoes?  Similarly, the idea of rehearsing a play can be more thrilling than the reality. 

In Girls Surviving, rehearsal is fun, but it also can be tedious, stressful, and tiring.   We ask a lot of our actresses because we want them to feel confident and accomplished in performance.  Rehearsal time is short, however.  This year, for example, we will have a total of seven, two-hour rehearsals.   Because the troupe performs staged readings, with scripts-in-hand, this time frame is manageable.  Unexpected changes to it, however, create stress.  Just last week we were asked to change classrooms in the middle of rehearsal because our classroom had been double-booked.  We happily accommodated.  But, by the time we had cleared out of room 1, moved desks out of the way in room 2, gathered girls who had strayed to the bathroom during the move, and refocused everyone’s attention, significant time had been lost. As adults, we’re used to juggling circumstances like these. Losing time, though, means that we have to ask our young actresses to work harder.   We look for ways to help them smile through the hard work.  We encourage, cajole, and bring food.  As imagined in the script below, a rehearsal facing a time crunch looks something like this:


Half-way through rehearsal

Classroom, desks pushed aside to form an open rehearsal space

Okay, let’s try it again.

(Actresses, not entirely happy with the request, repeat their lines)

Good job.  That’s it.  Listen to each other….relax…take your time, Alexis.  Pretend you don’t know what she’s going to say next, okay? Remember, it’s like real life…you’ve never heard her say this before.  Now, let’s do it one more time. (actresses groan)  Just one more time. That’s all.  Then we’ll move to next scene. You’re doing great work. 

I’m tired.  Can we take a break?

(comforting) Of course you can. Just as soon as we’re finished.  I know it’s hard.  You’ve been standing for a long time. Stay with it, though.   When you focus, you’re terrific.

(sighing) Okay.
I want to take it from your cross.

(whiny) Way back on page 2? Can’t we do it later?  I’m starving!

I know, I know.  That’s pretty far back.  But it’s a difficult cross.  You have to get from one side of the stage to the other without saying any lines. That’s really hard.  Ready?  (she nods, tired) Remember, you’re in your house.  The stage is your house. Imagine you are crossing from the living room to the kitchen.  Think about why you have to go all the way to the kitchen.  What is it that draws you there?  Do you smell something burning on the stove?  Did you forget to put the chicken in the oven?  If you imagine that you have a purpose for going to the other side of the stage, you will walk purposefully, your face will reflect purpose, and the moment will feel believable to you and look convincing to those watching.  Watch me do it, then you try. 

(As the director starts to demonstrate, Actress 1 begins to chat with the other actresses.  Director stops)

Hey, are you watching?  I need you to stay with me, okay?  Just a few more minutes and you’re done.

So-rrrry.  I’m watching.

Great, ‘cause we don’t have a lot of time left and we need to get to the next scene.  Okay?


Okay, watch. (she demonstrates)  See what I mean?


Good, now you try.

(Actress 1 crosses)

That’s it.  That was perfect, perfect!  Wonderful job. Now, go practice in the hallway while I rehearse Scene 2.

I thought you said—

--(quickly) After you take your break.. You did a great job.  Now, quick…go get yourself a snack!
(Actressess run off, shouting improvised lines like, “Save me some grapes!”  “Is there any humus?” “ Doritos! My favorite!”)


Praise, persistence, patience, and kindness help the girls get through the seemingly endless repetition required to make a scene work.  The promise of food, though, offers additional incentive. 15 teenage girls can demolish three pounds of grapes, a giant bag of nacho Doritos and a family size container of Chips Ahoy during the first rehearsal hour. The physical and mental demands of a focused rehearsal make teenage actresses hungry. 

“Not enough snacks,” I was told by one starving teenager after last week’s rehearsal.  I expressed surprise, but I made a mental note to bring cupcakes for the next one. Several girls in the troupe celebrate birthdays this month. That gives me a good excuse to indulge them. It will be money well spent when we see the smiles on their faces. Cupcakes always make them happy.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Notes from the Bench

When I read Carolyn’s post about beginning rehearsals, I had to rerun my memory of that workshop to convince myself that I was there, too. When I did, I remembered the girls’ impatience to get out of the their seats and into action with the scripts, and I remembered the giggling, whispering, and resistance to the dance. What I couldn’t find in my memory was the tension and worry Carolyn expressed in her post. It didn’t take much pondering, however, for me to understand the reason for this. It was, after all, as the title of the post announced, our first rehearsal.
During the first half of a Girls Surviving season, Carolyn and I share the same role. We team to plan and lead activities, we both model writing and theater exercises, we both transcribe the girls’ writing from notebooks to the typed documents that eventually become their scripts, and we’re usually both on the same emotional road. This changes when we begin rehearsals because Carolyn is the director of the play.
Although I am a performance artist, I usually work solo. I have to decide what to say and how to move effectively in front of an audience, but I don’t have to consider the speech or movement of anyone else because I’m the only one on the stage. I play all the characters in the story. Carolyn’s theater experience is much more extensive. She’s an actress who has worked with and directed ensemble groups, so when it’s time for our girls to get the play on its feet, most of the decisions about how to do it fall on her shoulders. There is still plenty for me to do. I rehearse with the girls after scenes have been blocked, help them with decisions about how to deliver their lines, and oversee the writing of bits and pieces we use to thread the scenes together. In between, I get to watch the magic Carolyn works on the stage.
As she said in her most recent post, many decisions about the blocking of the play are made by the actresses as they learn to move through the script, but as in every teaching and learning situation, it is the person with the most knowledge and experience who drives the work. I know our scripts as well as Carolyn does, but I am always surprised by how she makes them come to life. Like the girls, as I write myself or piece their scripts, I imagine characters moving in a space as they talk. In addition, my experience as a writer and performer has taught me the importance of conserving movement and condensing action, so by the time the script comes together, I have an idea of how it might look on stage, but when we begin rehearsing, I usually realize that my vision was pedestrian. Carolyn, on the other hand, is able with a tiny change to the way an actress turns her head, or how she enters the stage, to create art. Her vision of the script gives it breath, makes the characters real, allows the actresses to carry their audience along the emotional journey they are enacting.
Take, for example, the story of Aurora, the character who spent much of her childhood separated from her mother. The idea for these characters came out of a discussion about separation. As the girls developed it, they decided to present the story in the form of letters written by the two characters over the span of their separation. Working with this idea, the girls created moving pieces of writing, but they (and I) were stymied when they tried to envision the writing as a scene.
“It will be pretty boring to have two actresses sit on opposite sides of the stage reading letters,” one of the girls said.
“And how will the audience be able to tell that time is passing?” asked another.
They began to brainstorm ideas. Maybe Aurora never received the letters her mother sent. Maybe her father or guardian kept them from her “for her own good” and she found them one day when she was looking for something in the attic. Maybe the scene should take place after the mother returns home so the characters can talk face to face. There were problems with all of these options and we all left the workshop that night frustrated in the knowledge that we had good material which seemed impossible to stage effectively.
Later that week, Carolyn phoned me with the words that like, “once upon a time” in the stories I tell, always begin the magic.
“I’ve got an idea about the Aurora scene,” she said. And I knew everything was going to be fine.
Carolyn imagined three actresses playing Aurora, each at a different age. She imagined “dream conversations” in which mother and daughter could exchange the lines in their letters face to face. And finally, when the girls began rehearsing the scene, she created the moment of conflict she described in her most recent post.

This responsibility takes its toll. Rehearsal workshops are more fraught for Carolyn than for me, which is why we left that initial rehearsal workshop in such different frames of mind. Like every artist, Carolyn strives for perfection, which is hard to achieve when directing teenage girls who are thinking about class trips and final exams and prom dresses in between rehearsals. There are some rehearsal days when I feel like my most important job is keeping Carolyn calm. But that's fine with me. It's a small price to pay for the privilege of working with an artist.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


            I recently saw a production of short plays written by Samuel Beckett in which actors masterfully wove together movement and words to dazzling effect.  The combined efforts of the playwright, director, and actors were laid out before the audience like a simple, but exquisite, artistic feast for the eyes and ears.  It reflected ensemble work at its very best. 

In a talk after the performance, the actors and director spoke about the rehearsal process that brought the play to the stage so movingly for the audience.  At first, they tried to use Beckett’s precise stage directions, as any company that respects a playwright’s work should do. Soon they realized that some of Beckett’s imagined staging just didn’t work for them when they tried it out on stage.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t consult with the playwright, as is the custom, because Beckett passed away a few years ago.  Instead, they took the liberty of experimenting with alternative staging. Tackling it as a team, they eventually created a production of the plays that did work.

What does it mean when actors and directors talk about stage directions working or not working? Anyone who has watched or participated in a rehearsal has heard them complain, ‘It just doesn’t work!’ or exult, ‘Great!  That worked.’  Movement that works well keeps the audience’s attention fixed on the stage.  At the same time, it helps convey the characters’ intentions, personalities, and circumstances. It also makes interactions between characters look and feel believable to the actors and the audience. And, finally, it helps clarify the message of the play.

The process of discovering which movements ‘work’ is called blocking in theater.  A scene is blocked when decisions have been made about which movements work seamlessly with the dialogue to make the script come alive for the audience. In Girls Surviving, everyone gets involved in making blocking decisions. We essentially follow the model used by the company that performed the Beckett plays.  In other words, the director, actors and those company members watching rehearsals decide what works and what needs to be changed.

During rehearsals our girls learn that scripted stage directions and movement that works in performance are two different things.  As they move on the stage, they discover that seemingly plausible directions in the script can pose problems for actors who are trying to use them.   For example, a scene that calls for a kiss to show how deeply two people feel about each other might have seemed like a perfect idea when it was first conceived. Doing it in front of people, however, feels awkward for teenage actresses. When we see how awkward that looks in rehearsal, we rehearse again until we find an alternative that helps the actresses feel and look confident in performance and still convincingly convey the characters’ feelings for each other.

Playwrights can’t always foresee the logistical difficulties of their stage directions.  They may not realize, for example, that simply getting an actor from one side of the stage to other can be challenging.   Our plays pose the same problems. In some of them, actresses exit and then dash behind the curtain in order to get to the other side of stage in time for their next entrance.  It’s hard for an actress to do that and still enter in character, unless the character is supposed to be panting. It may require the actresses who remain on the stage during the dash to add dialogue or movement that can cover for a delay in the action. If there’s no simple fix to the problem, the actresses and director must experiment to make the moment look believable.

Occasionally, too, a script calls for a character to confront an obstacle every time she repeats a simple task, like opening a jar or carrying a heavy object up the stairs. In those situations, the goal is to find gestures or movement that make each confrontation with the obstacle interesting to watch.  During a scene we’re currently rehearsing, a character named Javain repeatedly tries to stop another character, Cadace, from leaving the stage. Cadace wants to get to her next class on time, but Javain wants to continue their important conversation. Our work involves exploring   ways for Javain to block Cadace’s path. In a recent workshop, he stepped in front of her, grabbed her arm, took hold of her shoulders, commanded her attention with his voice.  While we haven’t made final decisions about which techniques to use in performance, playing with different blocking possibilities has helped us figure out exactly what we’re looking for:  movements that are varied, build tension between the characters, and feel believable.

Encouraging our girls to play with blocking in rehearsal can lead to important discoveries about the script. At the end of another scene that we’re blocking right now, a daughter, Aurora, shuns her mother, who, she discovers during the scene, has been lying to her all of her life. Three actresses portray the daughter at different ages to show how time leads to the girl’s decision to reject her mother.  Our blocking challenge in a recent rehearsal was to find a way to perform the act of shunning. We experimented by placing the mother center stage and surrounding her with the three Auroras who bombarded her with their resentful, angry indictments. As they finished their lines, they turned their backs on her.  Stung and desperate to reclaim her daughter’s trust and love, the mother sang a lullaby. The sound of the mother’s strained, fragile voice combined with the sight of her standing alone, encircled by three rigid backs was heart wrenching. When it was over, everyone spoke at once:

“It’s soooo sad!”
“The girls should turn to look at her.”
“Can they touch her shoulder?”
“They should say something.”
“Should they reach out to her?”

After seeing the moment staged, the girls immediately realized that they didn’t want their play to end so tragically. They wanted to communicate forgiveness.  Which of their suggestions would ‘work,’ we wondered aloud to each other.  We would need more rehearsal to figure it out. With forgiveness on our minds, we all went back to work.