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

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

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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Another Voice

Jack McKeon is a storyteller, a teaching artist, and a colleague of mine. With his permission, I am sharing a post he published on storytellingarts.blogspot.com


by Jack McKeon
Yesterday (8/16)  Julie DellaTorre and I attended a performance of a play written and acted by Girls Surviving, the program in Morristown that Paula Davidoff has been a guiding part of for years.  It was my second time to watch these girls perform in the summer program and both times I have been impressed by the cohesion, cooperation and even acting abilities of the girls, who must, at first, show up with all the baggage of  “girls at risk”, and by the sophistication of the ideas explored in the play itself, written through a process of self-exploration and mutual discussion focused on issues of immediate consequence to the girls.

The play was titled “Hidden”.  The concept paired the girls, one as the socialized persona trying to keep to the right path and the other the hidden shadow urging them on to some sort of self-destructive, if immediately pleasurable, behavior.  A second theme was dreams, what they are like, what they can give us or unleash in us, and how we can try to make them real.  The lovely opening put the girls onstage, the hidden self behind the open one.  They began to speak of dreams while performing slow dance movements, hidden interweaving with open.  If these kids got that concept, as they must have, what a wonderful thing for them to experience.

As the play went on, I was struck by the fairy tale concept in it.  It was, in fact, a good representation of the princess/waiting maid conflict in “The Goose Girl”.   I spend much of my storytelling time with this kind of analysis so I was happy to see it open up on stage and, I would think, in the imaginations of the girls.  At one point, one of the girls becomes her Dad’s “princess” and her mother tells her that she will always be close to her daughter’s heart.  It was an impressive parallel to the Grimms’ tale, even after (Duh!) one of the girls during the post performance Q and A mentioned that Paula had told them a story which had influenced the shape of the play.  Of course this was “The Goose Girl”.  Paula, I now remembered, had introduced her wonderful analysis by saying she was going to use it in a situation involving “alter egos”.

What a vivid example of the power of story.  These girls were able to see the patterns of their own lives revealed in the pattern of the story.  They could take that notion, work with it to make it their own and see in it some hope, some indication of the power they have over their own lives.  At the end of the play, the two halves embraced or, hand in hand, opened the door to the future.  In ”The Goose Girl”, the maid and the princess don’t quite make that accommodation, though I believe that the maid’s self-imposed punishment is carried out, perhaps according to her desire, for the good of the whole.  In the Q and A, it became even more clear how these girls, strangers at the beginning, had been drawn together by the experience into a unified, supportive group, a “troupe” as the playbill has it. Even the youngest, an 8th grader, felt accepted and protected by the older girls.  They were sharp, articulate and clearly pleased with what they had accomplished.  The success of the program in general was evident by the number of alumnae there were in the audience.

Having taught high school for many years and worked at the juvenile facilities in Morristown for the past year and a half. I am always curious about what effect we have on the kids we work with.  Sometimes we know, usually we don’t.  However, Julie Pasqual (who also worked this summer in the Girls Surviving program), at the Sussex County fair ran into a boy who was at the detention center when I started with the program.  He recognized her (big surprise there!), was delighted to see her, proud to be out, going for a GED and working.  Julie said he looked like just a kid.  It would be nice to think that his joy at seeing her reflects a little of what we all might be accomplishing, of what storytelling can do.  Maybe you all have many reports of a similar nature. 

Anyway, “Hidden” was a wonderful demonstration of how empowering it can be to tell your story – even if your audience is just a stove. 

Not to put you on the spot, JP, but it would be interesting to know about your experience with the girls.  The joy seems apparent.  What were the difficulties, if any?  And, Paula, if I have misrepresented anything, please comment.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Another Hurrah

Carolyn directing a scene from "Hidden"

The story of our amazing summer troupe is incomplete without special mention of one of our new troupe members, Bianca. She showed great courage this summer in coming day after day to take part in a program whose main focus is verbal communication because, as a recent immigrant, she had very little knowledge of the language in which the rest of us wrote and spoke.

Bianca (reminder: we don’t use the girls’ real names.), who is fifteen years old, moved to the United States just over a year ago. She learned about Girls Surviving when her mother mentioned to a friend that she was worried about Bianca spending long summer days with little to do. That conversation eventually led Bianca and her mom to the office of Karen Jones-Williams, a high school counselor who is on the Girls Surviving staff. Karen encouraged Bianca to join the troupe, but before the first summer workshop, Karen told us that she wasn’t sure Bianca would have the nerve to show up because she had confided that, although she understood some English, she was often too shy to speak it among strangers, and that she had spent most of the previous school year sitting silently in classes.
In spite of her fear, Bianca came to the first summer workshop. She walked in alone, a tiny girl with large, lovely eyes, whose face becomes disarmingly beautiful when she smiles. However, on that first day, we didn’t see a smile. Bianca didn’t know any of the other girls. She spoke a few words in Spanish to Karen and to Jessica, who is also bilingual, but otherwise remained silent. However, she participated in games and did her best to answer direct questions that were put to her during the discussion. Later in the week, when the girls began to write in earnest, Bianca seemed at a loss until we told her to write in Spanish. That was like uncorking a bottle. She wrote pages, as if it were a relief to get her thoughts into the open.
For the first couple of days, when the troupe shared their daily writing, one of the Spanish speaking girls would translate Bianca’s writing into English for the rest of the troupe. This allowed everyone to hear her ideas, but we still weren’t hearing her voice. Once, when the girls paired up to write dialogues, Bianca and her partner wrote and read in English. Bianca was taking a huge risk to read aloud in front of the group and everyone was supportive and encouraging of her effort, but  her reading was clearly rote pronunciation of the English letters. We weren’t yet hearing her authentic voice.

After the first week, Karen began transcribing Bianca’s Spanish text and translating it into English, so that when we began handing out typed copies of the girls’ writing, we had both English and Spanish versions of the pieces Bianca wrote. The first day that we presented the girls with Bianca’s Spanish text, two of our English-only speakers immediately volunteered to read it aloud. Their performance provided the breakthrough that we all needed to begin resolving the language issue.  As soon as the girls began to decode the writing, Bianca began to smile. When one of the girls pronounced hija HEYE-JAH (long /i/; hard /j/), Bianca put her hands over her mouth to hold in her laughter, an unnecessary precaution because everyone else was laughing, too.
The girls who were reading were taking the task seriously, (“Don’t make fun of us, tell us how to say it!” one of them said to a bi-lingual troupe mate.) but the example of seeing the language proficiency shoe on the other foot, so to speak, was, I believe, an eye-opener to Bianca and a relief to everyone else. After that, most of the tension that had been caused by their inability to understand Bianca seemed to fade. The girls made sure that she was sitting with the group during lunch and breaks, and we all began speaking to her in English. There were, of course, still times when we needed a translator, and there were other times when I couldn’t tell how much of the group instruction given by Carolyn or me made sense to her, but Bianca was clearly gaining confidence and becoming part of the group.
When the girls cast the play, Bianca volunteered for a very small part, a couple of lines that she had read aloud when we were first trying out the material. However, as we began to finalize the cast list, one of the girls said,
“Bianca’s part is too small. She needs to do more.”
And they found ways to fit her into other roles and scenes. In one of these roles, she performed, in Spanish, lines that she, herself, had written. In the other roles, she performed in English.

Performing the scene
In the final rehearsals, there was no difference in the way the girls or the staff interacted with Bianca and with the English proficient girls. As we’ve said before on this site, rehearsal is the most intense part of our process. Everyone has to work together; it’s the test of whether the group is truly a troupe. The girls need to forget their own insecurities so that they can hear and support each other. During this process, Bianca was one with the rest of the cast. Her performance was terrific. She spoke her lines, English and Spanish, in her practiced “stage” voice. The collaboration between the actresses in her scenes was seamless.
After everything was over – the performance and the talk-back – when the girls came forward, one by one, to receive gifts of flowers from the staff at Morris Arts, Carolyn introduced Bianca by saying, “I don’t want to make anyone self-conscious, but I want you to know that when Bianca first joined us six weeks ago, she knew very little English.”
The audience burst into applause and Bianca’s beautiful smile burst forth.

 Photos by Barbara Reuther

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hurray for the Girls!

The summer program ended last Friday with a performance of Hidden, the play that the girls had been writing and rehearsing since early July. The performance was a great success. It was well attended and the actresses were in top form. It was the perfect end to an extraordinary summer season. I have written previously about the focus and dedication of this summer’s troupe, but their effort deserves a more detailed account.

A scene from "Hidden," the GS summer play
(photo by Barbara Reuther)
From the first day, the girls in attendance got right to work. I think that at least part of the reason they were able to begin trusting each other so quickly was the way Jessica and Brianna planned the first workshop. They began with games that were designed to raise the comfort level – one to help everyone learn each other’s names, and a second to help get rid of any remnant of self-consciousness that may have arisen from finding oneself in a room with strangers. Because of the interns’ thoughtful planning, by the time the group sat down to talk and write on the first day, they had already begun weaving the fabric of the troupe.
The first day was also the day that the baby of the troupe – Mimi, the only eighth grader who joined us this summer  -- introduced the idea that became one of our central themes, that of the alter-ego. The subject arose from a question: Do hard things get easier as you grow older? As girls and staff members tried to answer with stories from our own experiences, Mimi said,
 “Sometimes when I’m feeling nervous or shy, it’s like another person takes over me to help me deal with the situation. She seems so real and different from the shy me that I’ve named her. Her name is Brooke.”
My first reaction to this confidence was concern that the older girls might laugh at Mimi’s disclosure. It was a very personal thing to reveal in an unfamiliar group, and I knew Mimi well enough from my interactions with her in the middle school storytelling program, that the wrong reaction from the group could be devastating to her.
Laney, a veteran troupe member and a group leader, was the first person to respond to the remark and her response set the tone for the rest of the discussion.
“That is so cool!” she said, her face alight with her most sparkling smile. “I need someone like that to help me.”
The other girls followed Laney’s lead and the continuing discussion opened the door to our summer of self-examination.

This is just one example of the instinctive way the girls supported and led one and other through the summer workshops. As the weeks went by and we progressed from writing about ideas to actually writing and putting together scenes for the play, we saw strengths and talents emerge from each member of the troupe.
On a day that Dominique led the girls in a character making exercise, Tina, a new troupe member who will begin high school in the fall, stood up and became someone we had never before seen, never even imagined. She was a cooking show hostess with an eastern European accent who was demonstrating how to make cupcakes, “that American favorite with the cheesy cream frosting,” when her workplace was invaded by a giant cockroach. It was hilarious to watch the character try to maintain her professional demeanor with her imaginary audience while surreptitiously dealing with the vermin!
Everyone was surprised and delighted by the performance. I don’t think we have ever seen a new girl take such a huge public risk, and Tina’s triumph inspired everyone to rise above their personal insecurities and try things that, in another setting, might have been intimidating. After the culminating performance, Tina’s mother told me that Tina had previously been discouraged by school drama activities because she felt they never offered her the opportunity to reveal her acting skills. All I could say was that she, herself, created her own opportunity this summer, and the result was evident in her performance in Hidden.

The weeks went quickly and, because the script was complex, it took more time than usual for the girls to piece it together. As a result, we didn’t begin rehearsing the play until the penultimate week of the program, leaving the girls only five real rehearsal workshops. And once rehearsals began, new problems arose. Two of the actresses had conflicts with school sports, which began practices the first week of August. Then Cindy, who had a big role in the play, was offered a job which she felt obligated to begin immediately. Actresses were missing from rehearsals as Carolyn was blocking scenes, and Cindy didn’t know that she would be leaving us until the last day of rehearsal.
I imagine that this scenario might be a disaster for another drama program. It could have been a disaster for us. However, two things saved the show. First, the staff didn’t panic. We know that our girls are dealing with life issues that are more pressing than their participation in our troupe and we’ve learned to stay calm and flexible in the face of last minute changes. The second reason that the performance was so successful was the girls’ ownership of the program. Veteran troupe members have learned that they may have to step into a role at the last minute, or that a scene may have to be cut or revised before the final performance, and their response to these circumstances models appropriate behavior for the new girls. When the sports girls had to miss a rehearsal, someone else read their lines while the other actresses in the scene adjusted their blocking as necessary. When they heard that Cindy would be leaving us, the veterans put their heads together and decided that Hana should take the role. Under Carolyn’s direction, and with the support of Mimi, who was also in the scene, Hana learned her new blocking during the last rehearsal. She practiced her new lines at home the night before the performance, and on the day of the performance, she was perfect: poised, clearly audible, and commanding in her role.

This summer’s troupe was remarkable. They surprised and amazed us at every workshop, but I believe that any Girls Surviving troupe of the past few seasons could have handled the situation just described. What makes the program successful is the girls’ desire for it to succeed, and their understanding that the fate of the troupe depends upon the support they give each other.

A group of 2013 summer troupe members basking in their success.
(photo by Jim Hunt)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Update, Summer Program

One week to go in the summer program! This past week the girls finalized the script and began rehearsing the play. Rehearsals are going extremely well because this group is so focused. They get along, they are serious about the work, and they are consistent in their attendance. For the first time in several years, we are staging a play in which the entire cast appears on stage for parts of every scene, and we can do this because the current troupe is dedicated to the project. They come on time every day and they work. The group is still smaller than our usual summer troupe – there are fifteen girls on our roster, but only thirteen will be performing next Friday (one has taken a full-time job; the other has family obligations next week) – but the size of the group is one reason they are able to maintain their current level of intensity.
This troupe has taken ownership of every aspect of the workshop. They make sure scripts are organized every morning, and they set out and clean up lunch and snacks with no reminder from adult staff. They correct each other’s behavior when necessary, reminding a girl to put away her phone, or shushing a backstage conversation when we need a quiet set; and they seem to have come to some agreement about which girls have the authority to organize and instruct activities. For example, last week four or five of the veteran troupers arranged the entire audition process. They explained how it would work, signed up actresses to audition for parts, and conducted the auditions without any input from me or Carolyn.

Julie was with us for two of the three workshops this week. She and Carolyn worked together on blocking and choreographing the opening scenes and they make a terrific team. Carolyn’s knack for visualizing the spectacle based on her reading of the script is complemented by Julie’s knowledge of dance and movement. The girls are also involved in this process, stopping rehearsals to make suggestions about blocking or revisions to the script.
Most of the girls seem comfortable on the stage. New girls take their lead from veterans with regard to workshop protocol, but they bring their own talents and knowledge to the creative work. It is especially rewarding to note the growth of our veteran troupe members. Three of the girls who, a couple of summers ago, were almost too shy to speak aloud from the stage are now confident actresses. They move easily on the stage, creating characters through their voices and bodies.
Rehearsals will resume on Tuesday. We have only three days to rehearse and there are still a couple of scenes that need to be blocked, but the girls learn quickly so we should be able to run through the whole play by the end of Tuesday's workshop. Dominique will be with us this week to add her voice and experience to the mix. Since she didn't see any of the work we did last week, it will be helpful to get her fresh impressions of the play. There is a lot of work to do before Friday's performance, but there is no question in my mind that this troupe will get it done.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Listening to the Self

Tuesday was the half-way mark of our summer residency program and things are heating up. The group continues to work well together. The girls are smart, creative, insightful, funny, and they seem to be very invested in the project. The script for the summer play is nearly finished. This week we have been working hard on revisions and concepts for staging. Tomorrow the girls will cast the play.  
The theme of the girls’ writing is dreams: day dreams, night dreams, nightmares, and dreams for the future. The writing explores the different aspects of personality that manifest themselves in dreams, and examines how people integrate these aspects of self to become mature, happy human beings. The script contains an array of scenes in which two actresses play different aspects of one character. Each scene depicts the protagonist’s struggle for balance between what Freud may have called her id and her superego. For example, in one scene, a girl’s desire for something she sees in a store overcomes her better judgment and she convinces herself to steal the object. Here are some lines from the scene:

(Good and Bad are standing by a rack of blouses. Bad takes one and slips it under her shirt.)

Good: Wait! Stop! That’s not right.

Bad: Uh, it’s whatever. No one will notice. It’s not like we will get in trouble or anything. (smoothes down her shirt)

Good: (walking towards the door) I don’t think I can do this. I feel so guilty.

Bad: C’mon, you’re almost there. Just walk out the door.

But in another scene, an overly controlling character’s willingness to take a risk gives her new confidence. Here Erica’s inner voice encourages her outer control-freak to relax:

Erica Inner: Go!  You’ll have fun and maybe you’ll find a cute guy to (dance) with.

Erica Outer: No, I can’t really dance.  I’ll make a fool of myself.

Madaline (her friend): Come on.  They won’t care.  Just sway or bop a little.

Erica Inner: Yeah, go and dance.  You’ll regret it if you don’t.  You need to be able to say you did something fun once in your life.

As the girls work with the concept of trying to integrate these character voices into one successful ego, they are struggling with the same issue inside themselves. Although I think that the struggle to weave ourselves a moral and resilient soul is a life long endeavor, teenagers are at a most crucial moment in the struggle. They are still partly children with all of the tempers and uncontrolled desires that belong to the very young, but they are also becoming adults. In this role, they face challenges that demand the ability to control childish instincts.
There have been moments this summer, when we play a silly game like Cat-and-Mouse or Mixed Vegetables, when the girls channel their eight-year-old selves, shrieking and laughing as they chase each other around the room. At other times, like just a few days ago during check-in, when one of the girls described the sad experience of a close family member, they seem to summon the empathy and understanding of their future, forty-something selves. In between, they fool around, sometimes making bad decisions that disrupt our work; other times throwing themselves into the work at hand like experienced scholars and playwrights.

Today, during our break, I watched a group of girls huddled around someone’s smart phone, laughing and chatting about something they were watching on the screen. The chatter indicated to me that they were viewing images of teens engaged in antisocial behavior, either violence or intoxication, or a combination of both. Knowing that they have all heard stories of tragedies that resulted from thoughtless video taping and sharing, I asked them to think about the possible consequences of their actions in viewing and sharing the material. A couple of the girls looked up as I spoke; most looked away; some of them made the eye-rolling contact with each other that is the universal teenage sign for ‘adults don’t get it.’
Watching their reactions, I remembered that other people’s voices have great impact on one’s personal development. Just as the Madaline character in the Erica scene reinforces Erica Inner’s encouragement to take the risk of dancing with a boy, the voices of peers add weight to various aspects, positive and negative, of our souls. The people with whom we’re surrounded throughout our lives add their thoughts and opinions to the balancing act that takes place inside of us as we try to successfully integrate desire with reason. It’s important that, along with the voices of their peers, teens have the voices of their more experienced elders in their heads. These voices also become aspects of the soul. The voices of parents, grandparents, teachers, and other mentors whisper in our ears in much the same way the three drops of blood on her mother’s handkerchief remind the princess of the folktale that things are going as they should.
All of these voices: peers, mentors, angels, and devils comingle in our heads, but if we are to successfully integrate them, the voice that must, ultimately, arise above the others is the voice of the self. And the only way to learn to hear that voice is to speak thoughts and ideas aloud. Last week, one of the girls wrote in the voice of a fatherly folktale character, the Old King in The Goosegirl. Here are her words:

Oh, princess, you have a story to tell, so I do this for you. I give you a chance, a chance to tell your story, a story that you are dying to get out and… I have given you an ear, an ear that has heard every word... So I now know your story. A large weight has been lifted from your shoulders… I gave you a sigh of relief. Relieved of your past, you have been given a future... Again, I give you a chance. A chance to live the life that you were meant to live. 

These words express beautifully the mission of the Girls Surviving program. We offer our girls a safe space in which they can tell their own stories, out loud, in their own voices. We give them the chance to learn the sound of themselves and to experiment with the voices in their heads and their hearts, to begin to form those words into truths they can live with.