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.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summer Interns Start Off Running!

Several years ago, when we designed the summer extension of the Girls Surviving program, Carolyn and I decided to add an intern to the summer staff. Since then, we’ve selected one experienced troupe member to manage the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the workshop day: organize snacks and lunch, keep track of notebooks, collect the troupe for opening activities. The interns also model new exercises, smooth the way for shy newcomers, and set the tone for appropriate social interactions when the need arises. Our interns are paid for their work and, for the most part, they have been responsible and helpful. However, they have never had the responsibility of learning how to plan and implement workshop activities. It wasn’t part of the job description until now. This summer we are raising the bar in an attempt to turn the internship program into an authentic learning experience for the girls who participate in it. We have increased the number of interns from one to two so that the girls can experience a collaboration similar to our own, and we have budgeted extra hours for interns to take part in planning and debriefing meetings with artists and counselors.

On Thursday, we had our first planning meeting with the two girls who will be our summer interns, Brianna and Jessica. The girls are veteran troupe member whom we selected because we know they are responsible, serious, and because they have already voluntarily begun to take on leadership roles in the troupe. When we set the agenda for the meeting, we expected that the girls would be able to help us plan some of the opening week activities, and that they would be comfortable teaming with one or both of us in their implementation. We would begin simply in the hope that, as the program progressed, they would feel comfortable taking more independent roles in developing and leading the workshops. I can’t speak for Carolyn, but I was surprised and delighted by what transpired at that meeting.
After a brief discussion of our expectations for the summer, we asked the girls if they had ideas about what we should do in the first workshop.  Jessica jumped right in.
“I’ve been thinking about this. We should start with a game to get everyone comfortable.”
“Right,” said Brianna, “something crazy, like Cat and Mouse or Bus Stop.”
They paused. Thoughtful looks on both faces.
“I don’t know,” said one of them, “Bus Stop can be a little intimidating. Maybe save it for later?”
“When everyone is comfortable in the group,” the other agreed.

And so it went. The girls remembered bonding and icebreaking activities that I had completely forgotten about. They had great ideas about how to introduce ideas and how to transition from one thing to the next. Before the hour was over, they had planned the first workshop and were beginning to come up with ways to follow through on the second day. They had great ideas about possible themes for the summer play. Carolyn and I looked at each other.
“You want to teach the first day yourselves?” we asked.
“Oh, sure,” said Brianna.
Jessica shrugged, “No problem.”

This has been a recurring lesson throughout my life, and even though I’ve learned it again and again, it always takes me by surprise. Teenagers can manage a lot on their own, and one of the best ways to teach them is by giving them responsibility. In the years since we first met them, these two girls have gained great self-confidence as they have matured. This confidence, along with the discipline they both possess to direct themselves and others, will provide a model for the other girls in the troupe. With work, and a little luck, this summer’s program will move us closer to our goal of creating a troupe of actresses who can organize and direct themselves. I’m looking forward to working with and learning from these two young women.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Surveys: The Girls Have Their Say

Helping teenage girls give voice to their thoughts and feelings is a major goal of Girls Surviving.  It includes telling us how the program impacts their lives.  This year we surveyed the girls on the first and last days of the program. The Day 1 survey we developed encourages the girls to think about what they want to discuss during our workshops, what skills they bring to the writing and performing process, and what they would like to change about themselves and the world around them. The survey they were given after their culminating performance asks them to consider what they liked discussing and writing about with the group, what skills they developed, how the program changed them, and what they would like to change about themselves and their world. Both surveys provided information that will help us continue to develop programming that addresses the interests, strengths, and needs of the teens we serve. The end-of-year survey showed us how participation in the program has impacted the girls as writers, actresses, and individuals. Together, the surveys allowed us to gauge the success of the program.

Thirteen girls filled out the Day 1 survey.  It was mid-October and some of the girls didn’t know each other at all. Others knew each other only casually or from seeing each other in the school hallways.  And, still others had developed friendships, some through participation in Girls Surviving.  The girls sat in a circle and quietly answered the survey questions.  They were relaxed, focused, and thoughtful.

Seven girls filled out the June survey under very different circumstances.  They were part of an ensemble of ten actresses that was minutes away from performing for an audience that was mostly composed of eighth grade girls who were potential recruits for the program. They had come to know each other very well during the school year. The three who didn’t fill out the form were too distracted by the comings and goings of audience members and their conversations to focus on it. Most people in the room were talking, moving, or laughing.  The seven girls who did participate in the survey huddled around high, long tables at the back of the room.  The audience occupied all of the available chairs.  With nowhere to sit, the seven girls were standing and bending over the table to write or kneeling and straining to see what they were writing. Despite their obvious discomfort and the disturbances around them, they were as relaxed, focused, and thoughtful as the girls who had filled out surveys on the very first day. For most of the year this group constantly had to be reminded to stop talking or turn off their cell phones during workshops. As they considered what to say in their surveys, however, they shut out distractions.  They looked like they were making a conscious choice to take the survey seriously.

Eight of the thirteen girls who filled out the initial survey finished the program and performed with the troupe.  Two had to drop out because of conflicts with their paying jobs. Three others consistently attended workshops into the rehearsal phase of the program.  One eventually left because of family obligations, and the other two decided to pursue other outside interests.  One of those had been a long time Girls Surviving troupe member and was ready to move on to other activities.  She advised the troupe before she left to appreciate all that the program had to offer.

The first-day survey results from October indicate that when the program started all but one participant felt insecure about either writing or speaking. About half felt confident in one or the other, but they all felt insecure about their proficiency in one of the disciplines. Some said that they came into the program hoping to improve their writing or speaking skills. Others revealed their insecurities with qualified, vague statements like:

“my writing is just okay.”

“I’m a good writer and speaker but not great.”

“Maybe I’m a speaker….”

“…a writer when I’m intrigued….”

“…I write pretty good, but I still feel insecure when some people share their writing.”

“I can act, dance or speak in public but not sing.  I am too shy…”

The results of the end-of-year survey were dramatically different. All seven of the survey participants believed that the program helped improve their writing skills.  All of the girls except for one, who didn’t answer the question at all, said the same thing about their speaking skills. One admitted that, while her speaking skills had improved, she had more work to do to overcome her nervousness in front of people, and one said that she was “an okay writer.”  All of the other comments were positive:

“I’m good at expressing how I feel in my writing.”

“I’m good at writing on the spot (meaning that she can respond to a writing prompt immediately, without taking it home to think about it.)  Before I didn’t like writing.”

“I’m a…good public speaker.”

“…I’ve become better at projecting my voice.”

When the program was over we had four girls who had filled out the initial survey, stayed with the program, and performed with the troupe. Comparing the surveys completed by the four who did both revealed marked changes. All four said they that their skills had improved. In October, one girl had written that she felt shy speaking in front of people.  In June, she wrote this:

“My stage presence has improved because I am no longer nervous to perform in front of an audience.  I’m good at taking on different roles.”

Another girl had said she was a good writer in October, and by June had this to say: “Now I love doing it.”

Also remarkable about the end-of-years survey results by these four girls were revelations that reflected personal growth.  In the Fall, one girl didn’t answer this question:  “If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?” In June she answered this way: “Being (more) kinder.” Another girl had this to say about the impact Girls Surviving has had on her life:

“…it gave me a better view on life.  I’m good at talking to people better.”

And there was this:

“I feel like I have become more open and less afraid.  I’ve discovered my new characteristics of leadership.  I feel like I’ve become a better writer and speaker.  I’m more confident when I speak. I wouldn’t change anything about myself because everything that I am now makes me who I really am. I would change how we treat each other and how we act.  Even though we might act jokingly, we could be hurting someone unknowingly.”

These statements came from a girl who wrote one-line answers to the survey questions in the Fall and said that if she could change something about herself, it would be her height.

The results of these surveys have helped Paula and me better understand and appreciate the changes we've seen in the girls over the course of the year.  The girls have seemed more confident, relaxed, skilled, and bonded in recent weeks. Hearing the girls' confirm those observations in the surveys, however, allows us to move forward into the summer program with renewed energy and enthusiasm.  And, on Day 1, we'll ask the girls to fill out a survey.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Second Thoughts

In Thursday night’s audience, there was one parent who made it clear in her post-performance questions to the actresses that she was not happy with the performance. She was disturbed by the language and, I believe, the situation in the Bianca / Melissa scene and she kept asking the girls for assurance that they also disapproved of the Bianca character’s aggressive sexuality. Her questions were intense and, to adult ears, clearly reflected her own worries and fears for her daughter. The girls answered her with some of the words Carolyn quoted in the previous post.
“Yes, that’s pretty much how we talk. Yeah, it’s immature…we’re immature…we’re…kids! And, yeah, we don’t always do the right thing.  We make mistakes, but we learn from making mistakes.  We talk to each other when we have a problem.  Sometimes we go to an adult, but we try to solve most of our own problems.”
The woman wasn’t reassured by this response. It was, I believe, exactly what she didn’t want to hear. I understand that. It is terrifying for a parent to realize that teenagers will walk willfully into mistakes, that they will, for a time, embrace a mistake before they see its problematic effects on their life and begin to learn from their experiences. And while they’re doing it, they’re not relying on the wisdom of adult direction, but on the advice of their peers. We know that tragic things can and do happen to our children because of this approach to learning and, short of locking them up, we’re helpless to prevent the behavior.
Well, not completely helpless, perhaps. We try our best to model a solid moral foundation for our kids while they’re young and willing to learn from us, and as they grow older, we provide them with opportunities to talk about and reflect upon their observations of human behavior.

Carolyn and I didn’t address the disapproving parent’s questions during the talk-back. We let the girls handle it because they were handling it very gracefully. As the scene played out, I was on the edge of my chair, wondering if and when I should intervene. In the end, I decided not to and, although I spoke with the woman after the performance, I didn’t directly address her concerns. I spoke of her daughter’s talent, energy, and intelligence, and told her a bit about the summer program.
Last night, just before midnight, I heard from one of the girls that the woman will not let her daughter participate in today’s performance and all night I’ve wished that I had spoken up during the talk back. It will be hard to replace the girl in the play today, but we’ll manage and the other girls will be stronger for the experience, but I feel terrible for the girl who will be excluded. I don’t know that I could have helped the mother understand that Girls Surviving is her ally, that writing and performing the play might provide the insight and vicarious experience that will protect her daughter from acting out in real life the kind of behavior the Bianca character acted on the stage, but this is what I would have said.

Of course the girls understand that the language and behavior of these characters is problematic and, in some incidences, just wrong. That’s why they wrote the scene the way they did and it’s why they are performing it for you. They are acting character roles in this play, not being themselves, and they have chosen to realistically portray the behaviors that cause physical and emotional rifts between people to help themselves and their audience reflect on the way we should live. Art is a reflection of life. Theater throws a spotlight on the most crucial moments in a character’s life. In its focus on these moments of crisis and epiphany, it exaggerates real life, but watching characters act through the most intense moments in their relationships gives us another way of understanding our own actions and those of the people around us. This insight can help us avoid mistakes by providing the same kind of wisdom we gain through real life experiences.
Your daughter spent weeks collaborating on that scene. She talked about teen friendships and behavior. She spent hours of precious workshop time considering how using the words spoken by the characters in the scene affects both the victim and the speaker, and she and her troupe mates chose to put those words in the scene to help the audience understand what they had learned.

I don’t know that the mother would have heard these words. She seems so concentrated her daughter’s safety that she may be deaf to everything except the words that echo her fears. She was, after all, one of the parents who chose to come to the performance, to support her daughter in her artistic and educational endeavors. I only wish she had realized that we’re on the same side.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Performance: Opening the Door to Important Conversations

        Umbrellas couldn’t protect them from the downpour, but they came despite the rain.  Coats dripping, pants and shoes soaked through, friends and families of Girls Surviving dried off as best they could and settled into the high school cafeteria to watch the troupe perform. Their perseverance and presence made it possible for the girls to achieve the goal they had been working toward all year: to share their voices.
          By the evening’s end, the girls had been heard. They also deepened and strengthened the bond that has been bringing them together as friends and troupe members throughout the semester.

Before the performance, as the girls watched audience members fill the seats, they began to get nervous.  Wishing them luck, I saw the classic signs: sweaty palms, shallow breathing, fluttering eyes, tense shoulders.  When the play started, they looked vulnerable and shy.  But, they sensed the audience’s appreciation of their efforts, relaxed into their roles, focused, and started working as an ensemble.  Momentum built, the girls became the multiple characters they played, and the performance flowed from one scene to the next. 

During the performance, the audience’s attention was riveted on the girls as they brought their poignant tales of separation between friends and families to life on the stage. The first scene, depicting a typical teenage love triangle, brought smiles of recognition to their faces.  And, when the boy, Henry, declared his love for the heroine at the end, they gently laughed at the sweetness and innocence of the moment.  The actresses played more broadly in response.  Immersed in their roles, they shyly touched hands, their faces glowed with affection, and Henry sounded as if he would die of love for his Melissa as he called her name. The scenes that followed were more serious.  They spoke about divorce, imprisonment, and the possibility of building relationships despite the obstacles.  The actresses and their audience gave themselves over to the performance experience, and the give and take of their communication continued until the end of the final scene.

This audience - character interaction helped bond the girls into an acting troupe and allowed the audience to see their daughters, sisters, cousins, students, and friends with fresh eyes. In private discussions with parents during the reception that followed the performance, the adults said repeatedly that the performance had given them insights into their daughters’ behavior and real-life situations as well as their own experiences growing up.  The performance had paved the way for important conversations.

After the girls took their bows, they grabbed chairs, smiling. They perched in front of their audience, expectantly awaiting questions and comments.  They were dressed in an array of brilliantly colored t-shirts that accentuated their individuality and diversity.  A moment of thoughtful silence filled the room as the audience contemplated the row of triumphant looking faces and formulated their reactions into words. The exchange that followed shed light on what brought this diverse looking group of girls together as a troupe. 

The comments and questions were forthright and challenging.  Most came from adults. Some came from parents. These questions forced the girls to think about how to respond truthfully and respectfully.  The girls instantly realized that they had to summon their mature selves to respond to adult concerns in a public forum. If, at that moment, they harbored any ill feelings about their fellow performers, those feelings disappeared. They united and declared, early in the discussion, that they were sisters.  Within the protective walls of their sisterhood, girls came forward one at a time to speak to the issues raised by the audience. Just as each t-shirt reflected the color preference of each girl, each answer reflected the opinion of a single, unique young woman. At the same time, the strength they gathered from their bond helped them find and project their individual voices.

Home from the performance, I jotted down what I remembered from the girls’ answers to the adults’ probing comments and questions.  Looking them over, I heard again the chorus of strong, proud voices.  They defended their right to be who they are right now, to be the age they are now, to speak the truths they know now, and to keep on learning. They said they would make mistakes, help each other through the rough patches, and look to adults when they felt the need. 

They added that they had learned a lot about themselves and other people in Girls Surviving.  They had learned to trust and rely on each other. The writing, rehearsal and, now, the performance process had shown them the value of understanding another person’s point of view and working together toward a goal.  Still, they knew that they had a lot more to learn from family, teachers, and friends. They were looking forward to the summer semester of Girls Surviving.   

Listen with me to what could be a monologue that combines the comments made by the girls after their performance and also reflects the sentiments of many of the girls who have participated in Girls Surviving over the years. It’s written the same way that our girls patch together lines from their individual writing to create a collaboratively crafted character monologue for one of their plays.

Character: a typical Girls Surviving actress
Time: immediately following a Girls Surviving performance
Place: the high school cafeteria

(Lights up on a teenage girl facing her audience. She gestures to the audience to indicate that she has heard all of their comments and questions)

Yes, yes, those words…those words you heard in our play…that’s pretty much how we talk. Yeah, it’s immature…we’re immature…we’re…kids! And, yeah, we don’t always do the right thing.  We make mistakes, but we learn from making mistakes.  We talk to each other when we have a problem.  Sometimes we go to an adult, but we try to solve most of our own problems. Yes, this right here? (she gestures to the girls around her)  We’re a sisterhood. 

We got the idea for our play from talking…from discussing things we think about.  We all just decided…separation was what we wanted to write about this year.  When we write, we all pretty much write the same thing.  Two heads are better than one, as they say, so when one person’s line sounds better than another, we put that one in the play.  That’s how the dialogue sounds real.

We know the people we’re writing about. I have a lot of guy friends who ask me about how they can get with girls they like.  I know how they sound. So, it’s not a problem writing the guy’s part.  Playing it comes easy too. And playing adults…well…I know how that sounds too. I have a lot of aunts and I babysit all the time. I know how to slip into those different roles.  Are there any more questions? (silence) Okay, then, let’s have some cookies!
          A chorus of voices, speaking as one, can make powerful statements.  The parents and other adults who came out in the rain for the performance that night, heard the messages the girls communicated, first in their play, and later, in the discussion that followed it.  Candor met with candor.  The performance, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, also opened the door to the possibility of future conversations between adults and teens.  They might not be easy conversations to have, but they will come from places within that are true and honest.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Post Performance Reflections

On Thursday evening, the Girls Surviving troupe presented the premier performance of Broken Frames, the play they have been writing and rehearsing for the past few months. In spite of the frantic and, somewhat, disconnected rehearsal process, the play went off without a hitch. Every actress was in attendance and the performances were nuanced and very moving. The theme of the play was “separation,” and as I sat in the audience, surrounded by members of the girls’ families, I realized, for the first time, how truly personal some of the material was. I am, of course, always aware that our girls are writing about their own lives and experiences. It is a crucial part of our mission and one of our primary program objectives to offer them a safe place to do just that. However, as a season moves forward with its bustle of weaving and rehearsing material, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the players may be reenacting pieces of their real lives.

“Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve read that this opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is one of the most widely quoted lines from all of literature. I don’t think Tolstoy got it quite right. Even happy families have their unique unhappinesses, just as there are, occasionally, happy moments that unite families who have been torn apart by misfortune. All of the girls who performed on Thursday evening have had some unhappiness in their family lives. Most of them belong to families that have been affected by either violence, drug abuse, illness, divorce, or death. Some of them continue to deal with a number of these sorrows on a daily basis.
Eleven actresses performed on Thursday evening. The families of more than half of them were represented in the audience. Among them were a grandmother and an aunt who are raising a second generation of children, single fathers who are struggling to raise strong and confident teenage girls, a mother who has overcome her own demons and is doing her best to regain the trust of her children, and a mix of step- and half-siblings who have weathered their parents’ break-ups and divorces.  This description could give the impression that the families in the audience fall into the “unhappy” category. They certainly have had trials that cause them hardship, but family life is complex and family units can be resilient.
During the play, I was situated so that I could observe the audience as I watched the actresses. I read mixed emotions in the posture and expressions of many. Some of the parents and older siblings reacted with shrugs or nudges to lines that may have cut close to home. When a character who was meeting his half-sister for the first time referred to her mother as “some trick,” a young woman exchanged a playful smile with her step-mother. But if there was any feeling of ambivalence at seeing moments that might have been familiar reincarnated through their daughters’ and sisters’ work, the overwhelming emotion in nearly every family member was pride – pride in their daughters’ talent, and in the confidence and courage each of them has to question and reflect upon her own, unique unhappiness. We all hope and believe that our children’s thoughtful examination of their parents’ mistakes can help them avoid replaying the same mistakes in their own lives.
If, as Carolyn and I both said in recent posts, the families of our actresses are part of the Girls Surviving support network, the Girls Surviving program is also part of theirs. The families who support their daughters by attending their performances view the program as one of the things that helps them guide their girls toward a successful future.

During the post-performance reception, a father told me, “I was busy with work this evening, but I told the people I had to leave early to be with my daughter.” He smiled as he watched her joking and dancing with friends on the other side of the room. “She is everything to me,” he said. “Everything.”  

It was a happy event.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Behind the Scenes

The past week has been a little crazy. I feel like I’ve been living in a cave, or underground, hardly aware of anything that’s going on in the world above. I think that June may be the cruelest month for the directors of arts education programs.  At least it’s the busiest, and that’s not only because all of our school year programs are coming to their exciting conclusions with performances, publishings, and parties. June is the end of the fiscal year for most of the arts organizations with whom I work, so it brings the paperwork that that closes up the year: project summaries, ‘client’ tallies, and final reports. But June is also a time of beginnings. At least it is for me. It’s the time when funding proposals for next year’s programs are due. And it’s time for Carolyn and me to make sure everything is ready for the summer program. This all adds up to a lot of time at my laptop, always with the nagging fear that I’m forgetting something crucial that should have been done yesterday.

Directing the Girls Surviving program involves more than planning and teaching our weekly workshops. Carolyn and I have many behind-the-scenes obligations that keep the program running. As we have said before on this site, the workshops and performances of the Girls Surviving program are the central piece of an extensive web. Each strand of the web is intertwined with others. The network includes program staff, administrators and counselors at the high school and middle school, the Morris School District Board of Education, the entire staff of Morris Arts, the Morris County Youth Services Commission, the State of NJ Juvenile Justice Commission, private and corporate funders, parents, and other friends in the community. There are people in all of these organizations who work hard for the program, so if a strand of that web weakens or breaks, the whole thing is in danger of falling apart. To continue the analogy, Carolyn and I are the spokes in the web. It’s up to us to make sure that all of the strands stay connected, that everyone knows what’s going on so they will know what they have to do and when to do it.
Most of the time, it’s not so that hard to keep on top of things. We get a lot of help from Morris Arts, and we have divided up the rest of the work, most of which has become routine, between us. We check and balance each other. Then comes June when the things that need doing pile up so fast that sometimes we feel like Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory. During the last few weeks, we’ve had to book performance venues, make sure the girls’ scripts stay complete and up to date, order the girls’ performance t-shirts, send invitations to everyone in the GS network, buy food and supplies for the reception, pick up the t-shirts, design and print the programs, make last minute adjustments to all of the above. And during this time, we’re both still teaching and directing other programs.

The most time consuming thing for me is writing reports and proposals for the projects I direct or oversee. This entails describing what has been done, accounting for time and funds, and projecting for next season. It’s what I’ve been doing all week. When the time comes for me to begin this writing, I always feel a little panicky. The stack of forms I need to complete is always the same, and I imagine the long and tedious hours I’ll spend on them. Once I begin, however, it’s really not so bad. It does take a lot of time, but it’s time well-spent because the June paperwork presents a unique opportunity for me to pause and reflect on the work that was done, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the various programs, and begin to plan ways to improve them. When everything’s done, I emerge from my work room with the sense of optimistic pleasure I have always associated with the beginning of school, the feeling that this is the year I’ll get it right.

The Audience: An Integral Part of the Show

We’re one day away from our performance. Interaction between our actresses and their audience will transform Girls Surviving’s new play, Broken Frames, into theater.  The performance is a gift that the girls have worked long hours to create, fine tune, and share with others. How their gift is received is important to the success of the performance experience for audience and actresses alike. 

The audience can help build our actresses’ confidence or deflate their egos.  Distracted, fidgety audience members can even derail performances.  Sensing inattentiveness during a performance, actresses begin to lose focus. Confused about the signals they’re receiving, they forget basic acting skills and make mistakes. They speak too softly or miss cues.  Multiple mistakes throw off the timing and interfere with the flow of the play.  The exact opposite is true if those who watch respond positively.  Confidence swells, bodies relax, and voices open up on the stage when actresses hear an audience’s appreciative and appropriately placed laughter or silence.  Sensing respect, the girls are less likely to stumble and give over more of themselves to the experience. When the audience and actresses immerse themselves in the performance, they complete each other and everyone comes away feeling like a star.
          Our audiences and actresses generally respect and support each other. A couple of times, early in the history of the program, our girls lost their way in performances because of the reaction of a few audience members.  What we learned from those experiences helped us prevent them from happening again. One time, a group of teenage girls who seemed completely unfamiliar with audience protocol came to one of our performances.  They giggled, talked, and texted.  We realized that they probably didn’t know how to behave during a live performance, and they weren’t aware that they were being rude.  Now, we routinely educate teenage audiences, just before the play begins, about the ways in which they can show their support for the performers.

Another time, the girls performed for a group of adults, many of whom were distracted by other obligations and concerns.  Under different circumstances, these audience members might have been more responsive.  That performance, though, was part of a mandatory professional meeting and the attendees were not there by choice.  When they came into the auditorium, some chose seats in the back row or off in a far corner and opened their laptops.  Others sat in two’s and three’s, huddled in deep conversation.  We explained to them that the girls had trouble projecting their voices and asked them to move closer, but many stayed in place.  Even before they uttered the first line of their play, the girls looked intimidated, and the performance did not go well. Luckily some in the audience were sensitive to the girls’ vulnerability.  They compensated for the inattentiveness of others, and gave the girls positive feedback in the post-performance discussion.  Their support helped rescue the girls from what could have been a completely demoralizing experience.  Afterward, we promised ourselves that our actresses would only perform for audiences who came of their own free will.

Today, our audiences are made up of people of all ages who take time out of their busy lives to support us.  They care about individual girls in the troupe or the success of the program, or both.  They are parents, siblings, counselors, teachers, school administrators, funders, friends, colleagues, and members of the community who, for one reason or another, have heard about Girls Surviving.  They come because they want to come.  They come because they understand how important it is for the voices of teenage girls to be heard.  And, tomorrow night, they’ll be an integral part of another Girls Surviving performance.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

See the Show!


a new play 
written and performed by

The Girls Surviving Troupe

Time: Thursday evening, June 13, at 7:00

Place: Morristown High School Cafeteria 

Admission is Free 

The performance will be followed by a light reception and conversation with the actresses.

Performance Tips

            Our final rehearsal is tomorrow night.  Will all of our girls make it? Even if they don’t, this will be our dress rehearsal.  The girls who do come will rehearse as if they are performing.  They’ll run through the play from beginning to end one or more times.  They’ll rehearse a curtain call.  A volunteer will sketch out a short speech to welcome the audience to our performance and she will rehearse that. They'll catch their breath over snacks while we review the order of performance day events. We’ll attend to as many of the final details as we have time for and refine as much of the acting as we can.  The show will go on, no matter what.
        I’ve been making a check-list of performance tips and reminders to share with the girls.  I’ll have to pare it down, both because there won’t be enough time to say everything that I’d like to say, and I don’t want to risk sounding like an overly anxious parent.  I remember enough about my child rearing days to know that if I really want the girls to succeed, I’ll need to back off, carefully pick and choose what I recommend, and allow them to discover the rest during their performance.  It’s time to start letting go.
          Below is my first step in that direction: a shortened version of my long list of performance tips.

-Shoes:  Don’t wear flip flops or any other clothing that interferes with your ability to move with agility, precision, and concentration.

-Entrances and Exits: Be on stage before you enter.  Get into character and stand ready for your entrance well before your cue.  Entrances and exits should look smooth and timely.  If necessary, memorize entrance and exit lines and cue lines.

-Mistakes:  They happen. You can handle it. No matter what, stay in character.  Do not whisper a line to an acting partner, shoo her off the stage, or say “oops.”  The audience has never seen the play before.  They won’t know if someone makes a mistake unless you signal it.  Cover for mistakes.  Don’t reprimand or remind an acting partner that she made a mistake.  Help her.  Improvise lines to cover her late entrance.  Feed her a clue about what she is supposed to say next.  This is really hard to do.  Be creative and try your best.

-The Beginning: Rehearse it at home. You will capture the attention of the audience and keep it if the opening is dramatic and performed with outsized confidence. 

-The End:  Rehearse this at home too.  Know and understand it well. The ending of the play carries the message and feelings that you want the audience to take away from the experience of watching the play. If you believe wholeheartedly that your play speaks the truth about what it means to be alive, the audience will believe it too.

-Confidence:  Believe in yourself and your character. Your audience will believe whatever you convey, physically or verbally.  If you look confident and speak with confidence, the audience will think that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t feel that way.

-Concentration: Never, ever, break character. Think the way your character thinks, feel what she feels, react as only she can react.

-Joy:  Have fun!  Theater is the art of moments that last in memory – yours and the audience’s.

          Given how little time we have left and how much we have to do, I’ll probably have to make this even shorter. And, if I only have enough time to say one thing, it might sound something like this:

Believe in yourself and your ability to bring enjoyment and greater understanding about the meaning of your lives to an audience that wants to hear your voice.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Production: Less is More

Below is an imaginary, but very close to real, conversation about performing that typically comes up during the rehearsal phase of the Girls Surviving program:
          “Where are we performing at the middle school this year?” one of our veterans asks casually while we’re moving classroom desks out of the way before rehearsal.
           “The orchestra room, where we did the play last year,” I say, without thinking much about it.
           Surprised, a new girl looks up from her iphone. “You mean we’re not performing in the auditorium?” 
           Begging for time to think about how to explain why our productions must be small-scale affairs, I reply simply, “No.”
          “You mean we don’t perform for the whole school?” the new girl persists.
          The girl’s questions express the growing anticipation and excitement that we see as we draw closer to our culminating performance.  We want to encourage that enthusiasm.  Simultaneously, we must be realistic.  How do we explain that?  It’s hard for young people with limited theater experience to understand how complicated it is to produce a play. One possible answer, simply put, could be: “ Not all audiences enjoy the same kinds of plays, and not all performance venues are suitable for them either. Girls Surviving plays require intimate settings and small, invited audiences who understand and value the mission of the program. “ I don’t say that, though because it wouldn’t make much sense to a teenager.  These are the kinds of things I say instead:
          “Well, remember, we don’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We’re still writing parts of the play with only three more rehearsals to count on.  Two girls can’t come to the next rehearsal because of the prom, we haven’t finished the blocking, and we’ll have practically no time to work on projection and enunciation.  In a room the size of the auditorium…wow…I’d be really worried that you couldn’t be heard. I don’t want this to feel like pressure.  Not you, but some of the girls have never set foot on a stage before and might feel uncomfortable performing for the all of the kids in the school.  I really want you to look and feel good about what you’ve done. It’s important that everybody who watches the show appreciates how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.  That’s why we invite girls who we think might like to join the troupe or who understand the writing and performance process.”

An answer like this describes the goals and realities of our performance without dampening the girls’ enthusiasm for it. What follows is a more complete explanation.

Our productions are staged readings.  They reflect a process that focuses on the creation and interpretation of text.  Big stages, sets, and audiences detract from our mission. They also make it difficult for us to transport our productions to different schools or other locations in the community. We’re minimalists when it comes to production values.  We don’t use any scenery.  We furnish our stages simply, with chairs, and only when necessary.  Our costumes consist of t-shirts that identify the Girls Surviving program.  We even use props frugally because the girls must keep their hands free to manipulate scripts.

Girls Surviving productions require uncluttered, intimate performance venues that don’t swallow our small casts, undermine the audience’s ability to focus on the writing and our process, or that intimidate our actresses. We want our audiences to hear our girls’ stories.  We need to place our actresses close enough to the audience so that their untrained voices can be heard as clearly as possible.  The venues most conducive to our needs allow our actresses to break the fourth wall too.  During a typical Girls Surviving play, characters interrupt interactions with other characters to speak directly to the audience. Before and after the play, the girls interact with the audience as themselves in casual conversations and more formal post-performance discussions.  We look for settings that allow for that flexibility.  Our goal is to create a relaxed, comfortable environment to facilitate meaningful interactions between the actresses and the audience.

When a receptive audience and Girls Surviving actresses come together in the right environment with a solid script, theater magic happens. The actresses spin imagined tales out of the stuff of real life and the audience believes them. I remember how we worried that the audience wouldn’t understand that the play Positively Negative was taking place during a sleepover. Early in the rehearsal process, we discussed a variety of options to clarify the setting. The girls couldn’t lie on the floor because they wouldn’t be performing on a traditional stage. Without stage elevation, they wouldn’t be heard or seen by most audience members. I brought in sturdy milk crates hoping that the girls could drape themselves over these and prop themselves up enough to be seen. I brought in decorative pillows, too, to cushion the crates and help set the scene. The crates skidded under the weight of the actresses and the pillows scattered in ways that interfered with blocking. It didn’t work. 

Frustrated with these attempts to solve the problem, we brought out our trustworthy folding chairs and tried another approach. The actresses sat close together, relaxed their bodies, closed their eyes, allowed their heads, elbows, or knees to rest on the girls sitting next to them, and breathed slowly and regularly, as in sleep.  They held their positions until they sensed that those watching were quiet and focused on the tableau. Then the play began:

(Leila screams and the others wake up)
What’s the matter?  What happened?
She’s dreaming.  (shakes Leila) Wake up!
(sits up and looks around wildly) Oh my God!  I just had the most horrible dream!

This idea worked.  The more the girls rehearsed, the more they believed in the illusion they were creating.  On performance day, the audience believed it too.  They immediately understood what was going on.  A simple set, good acting, and a dramatic opening to the play successfully convinced them that a sleepover was underway on the stage. 

I don’t remember the details of the discussion that took place between the actresses and audience after that show.  Time after time, however, people who attend our performances comment that the plays look and sound real.  “It was just like it happens in real life,” they marvel.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?