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.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Teaching with Artists

As Carolyn said, the first two weeks have gone quickly and well. Our group of girls is still a bit smaller than we anticipated, but it’s actually the best size for our work. This group has come together quickly. New girls seem comfortable taking risks and our veterans have accepted them as members of the troupe.
So far, the most exciting part of the summer for me is the collaboration with our two new artists, Dominique and Julie. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how collaboration between artists strengthens an arts education program, but I have found that it always does. Carolyn and I have written often on this site about how our collaboration brings out the best in us. It provides a sounding board for each individual’s ideas, fears, and frustrations, and it seems to generate creativity beyond the cumulation of our individual powers. This has been true in every true collaboration with which I’ve been involved. When team members brainstorm and organize plans together, the result is always greater than the sum of the parts. Working with fellow artists broadens the scope of my thinking and encourages me to take risks that I never realized were there for the taking.

Dominique and Julie taught last Wednesday’s workshop. Near the beginning of the morning, Dominique introduced all of us to a Bhutoh inspired movement exercise that, for me, was a revelation. In the exercise, we broke our usual circle and scattered the chairs in different parts of room. Each one of us sat in a chair and imagined an object that was either above our head, directly in front of us, or on the ground. Once the object was established, we reached for it with slow, controlled movement, movement so slow that it felt like no movement at all. I was reminded of those time condensed videos of flowers unfurling their petals in which the real time action may have taken a day or longer to play out.
Because I was doing the exercise, I didn’t see the movements of the girls, but I felt their concentration in the silence and stillness of the room. My own focus had the intensity of meditation as I reached to pluck an invisible plum that was hanging from an imaginary branch above my head. Time stopped. My body was all breath; my mind held by imagination. At some point, Dominique told us to stop and look around. Each girl was frozen in the act of reaching. No one stood passively with her object in her hand.
“That was incredible,” said Dominique. “I wish you could have seen yourselves. With no words and very little motion, you had my complete attention.”
Everyone knew that what she said was true. We had all felt it. I thought of how the girls, even the most experienced actresses among them, avoid being silent or still on the stage. Year after year, Carolyn and I assure them that if they are in character and focused on the action of scene, the audience will remain engaged, even if the actors are not speaking or moving. Our words have had little impact on the problem, but in a fifteen minute workshop activity, Dominique gave us a strategy for demonstrating the truth of our advice.

The extension of the Bhutoh exercise also involved very slow movements. This time, clothing props were placed on the scattered chairs, one or two articles on each. The girls were instructed to select a chair and create a character using the props. They moved languidly around the chairs, slowly taking ownership of the props. Jessica pulled on a white kid glove with minute, continuous movements. Clara held a veiled, black Juliette cap at eye level and examined it from every angle. Val held a rolling pin above her head and, in very slow motion, used it to hit an imaginary varmint. The only sound in the room was soft background music, courtesy of Julie’s iPod. In time, a whole cast of characters had come to life in our classroom: an old woman wearing her Sunday hat and gloves hobbled by, a sportin’ gent in a top hat and tie went out for a stroll, a bride walked into a church, and a black-robed judge made her way to the courthouse. These characters wended their ways around the room while others sat, stood, or kneeled near their chairs.
When the movement exercise came to an end, the girls took their notebooks to various spots around the room and wrote monologues for the characters they had created. The pieces were tragic, touching, and funny. Lots of good material for the script they have begun developing this week.

The workshop ended with storytelling by Julie, who brought us back to the alter ego theme by introducing pictures of Hindu goddesses, each one an aspect of the Great Goddess. Her story was a native American tale of a young woman who was forced into a series of new identities by the vicissitudes of her life. We all went home with our heads and hearts full of new dream material, threads of which we are currently weaving into the newest Girls Surviving play.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Fast Two Weeks


            The last workshop of our first week was as fantastic as the first.  The girls continued to get along and build on the positive feelings that they brought to the first workshop.  We observed trust building between newcomers and veterans during our discussions and new friendships blossoming.  All of the girls loved the writing activities as well as the warm-up games. In fact, they couldn’t wait to finish the dialogues they had begun on the second day and share them with the group.
            That enthusiasm carried over into the second week and sustained the girls through three challenging workshops and punishing heat. Fortunately, we are working in an air conditioned room, but I doubt that any of us got enough sleep. By the time Thursday’s session ended and we had said our good-bys, our notebooks were fat with writing that had taken us in many different directions. We were simultaneously tired and exhilarated.

The week’s work was varied and thought provoking. It was filled with new experiences that prompted complex thinking and writing.  On Tuesday, Paula told The Goose Girl, a coming of age tale about a princess who goes on a journey that teaches her to become a queen. We asked the girls to think of the characters in the story as different aspects of ourselves that guide us on our own life journeys.  Afterward, we discussed and wrote about how those character-aspects help us grow into women.  The Old King in the story, for example, represents the protective part of ourselves that teaches us how to keep ourselves safe; The lying Maid represents the part of ourselves that can lead us astray; she teaches us to be cautious in choosing our friends. The Mother figure reminds us that wisdom develops with experience and awareness of the world we live in.

On Wednesday, Dominique and Julie led an extraordinary workshop that reinforced the idea that we are made up of many different selves.  Dominique started with a series of slow motion, meditative exercises that helped the girls learn to concentrate and use their bodies to communicate character.  Without speaking, the girls put on costumes, assumed the roles suggested by them, and interacted with each other non-verbally.  Afterward, they wrote monologues in the voices of their characters. We ended the workshop with Julie’s Native American story that tells of a girl who is given different names by the people she meets during her journey.  Each of her names represents a different aspect of the woman she eventually becomes.

By Thursday our brains and notebooks were bursting with ideas, characters, and possible scenarios for our play.  We used that last day to process all that we learned during the two previous workshops, revise some of the writing, and play around with staging ideas.  Next week we’ll begin connecting disparate pieces of writing and discovering ways to organize this wonderful mess into a play.

There is no time to catch a breath. The six-week summer session is a fast moving super sonic jet that jolts all systems into action. By week four, we’ll be revising and rehearsing!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

First Summer Workshop

Carolyn and I spent last week preparing for the opening of the summer program. We checked out our venue and brainstormed ideas to extend the summer curriculum. We bought notebooks, snacks, and lunch food. I organized paper, wrote contracts, and mailed first day information and permission forms to the homes of forty girls. On Monday evening, my hallway was piled with bags and boxes of the things we would need to begin the week.

By ten-thirty yesterday morning, only ten girls had arrived for the first workshop. That’s half the number we need to meet our summer funding requirement, but we’re not worried. Experience has taught us that girls dribble in during the first week. Some are away, others have sports practice, summer school, or baby-sitting obligations they have to work around the Girls Surviving schedule, and a few just need one more morning to sleep in. Also, new girls are sometimes shy to join. It can be scary to walk into an unfamiliar space with no sure knowledge of who will be in it.
After the workshop, we looked over the list of absentees. We texted the veterans who hadn’t shown, and our interns, Brianna and Jessica, looked over the list of new girls and took the phone numbers of those they know so they can call and encourage them to come today. By the time I went to bed last night, the number of girls I’m sure will be attending had risen to fifteen. We’ll probably end up with more than twenty girls on the roster, but because we aren’t strict about letting the girls miss days for work and family obligations, the group in the workshop on any given day should be manageable.

The first workshop went off without a hitch. Brianna and Jessica planned and taught it. They opened with one game that helped us learn and remember each other’s names, then followed with another game that kept us running, laughing and shouting. By the time that was over, everyone was relaxed and, at the same time, energized to begin the ‘work’ of the workshop.

This summer is bringing changes to the Girls Surviving program. In addition to the added responsibilities to the interns’ role that I mentioned earlier in the blog, we have two new teaching artists on staff. Dominique Cieri (http://dominiquecieri.com) and Julie Pasqual (http://www.juliepasqual.com) will be collaborating with Carolyn and me this summer. We have asked them to join us for a couple of reasons. Carolyn and I have been teaching and tweaking the program since we first created it seven or eight years ago, and we both know that a creative process like the Girls Surviving program needs to be refreshed, needs a new point of view to keep it healthy. Julie and Dominique are talented artists and teachers who will bring a new perspective to the workshops at a time the program is ready to grow.
The other, more practical reason that we’ve asked these artists to join us this summer is a grant we received from the Gallagher Family Fund to expand the program by creating a second troupe of young actresses. As we’ve mentioned numerous times on this site, Dr. James Gallagher has been a friend to us and to the program since it’s inception. This latest gift, however, comes from Jim’s daughters, the administrators of the Family Fund. Jim told us that the picture of Girls Surviving conjured by this blog inspired the gift. We hope that the collaboration with Dominique and Julie will strengthen the program by giving us all new ideas and teaching skills, and that, in the fall, we can begin to seek a new site in which to form a new troupe which they will direct.
After yesterday, I would say that the prospect for this is promising. Both artists fit perfectly into the group. The girls took to them immediately, and their presence added humor to our games and depth to our discussions. 
I’m heading off to our second workshop full of new ideas for the summer and for the future of the program!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Change of Pace

            Exciting events and changes are coming to Girls Surviving this summer.  During the lull between the final performance of the school year semester and the first day of our summer session, we have been busily planning for them.  One thing we’ve been doing is revising our internship program, as Paula explained in her last post.  We’ll be reporting about other developments in the future.

We have a pretty good idea of what we’ll be blogging about because we just talked about it. We didn’t talk by phone.  We didn’t exchange email or share on google drive, the internet space we occupy to write our book about Girls Surviving. We didn’t text and we didn’t wiki about it either. We sat side-by-side on the white wicker settee on her porch and talked.  It was a welcome change of pace.

We talked about lots of other things besides blog posts too. Our conversation segued comfortably from one subject to the next.  I would say something that reminded her of something and vice versa.  We took our time exploring each topic before moving on to the next. We talked about our families, cleaning houses, the benefits of living in walkable towns, the books we’re reading, what we like to do to maintain our sanity. We even repeated stories we’ve told each other before.

Our plans for Girls Surviving hovered in the background and occasionally one of us would say something that triggered a new idea for the program. While we were on the subject of books, for example, I suggested a one-act play that I recently had re-read as a possible writing prompt for the summer program.  Focusing on Jim Gallagher’s generous offer to take a group of girls to see a live production of As You Like It, we brainstormed ways that we could use parts of the play in our upcoming workshops.

We hadn’t planned on taking time out of our busy afternoons to sit on the porch. It just happened. There was no urgent need for us to meet in person. Our technological devices ensure daily contact between us to take care of business. Technology has drastically cut down on the necessity for the kind of time consuming meetings that used to be our norm only eight years ago when we created the program.  Our porch time the other day, though, reminded me of how important those first meetings were.  They helped us get to know each other and appreciate the unique strengths and talents we were bringing to the program. There is no doubt that technological advances have made our communication faster, more efficient, and precise. We now accomplish so much more in a given day than we used to. In fact, I find myself glued to my machines.  Perhaps that is why I found our face-to-face conversation so refreshing and important. 

That unexpected hour felt like a holiday treat. We momentarily relaxed into summer and allowed the heat and humidity to stall previously made plans. We judged how to direct the conversation by looking into each other’s eyes. Our decisions to change topics, elaborate, or ask questions were based as much on our observations of facial expressions and body postures as they were on what we said. The conversation would not have taken the same memorable twists and turns if we had been chatting online.  I love the benefits of technology.  Still, it cannot substitute for an uninterrupted conversation between two living human beings. 

It’s difficult for the girls in the troupe to detach from their cell phones.  Once they do, however, they sit in a circle, settle down, and focus on other people. When they look into each other’s eyes, their conversations open up and take exciting twists and turns. Sitting together and talking allows them to form deep and lasting relationships.  Similarly, sitting on the porch with Paula allowed us to get to know each other all over again, refresh our friendship, and remind us of our special bond.