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, September 26, 2013

Teacher Training Animoto

Here is another Barbara Reuther animoto. This one captures the spirit the Artist Training Carolyn described in her most recent post. Our Brian(n)as taught the group at minute 1:03 -- Community Arts.

Arts in Education animoto

Monitoring Success

Because organizations that provide funding for programs like Girls Surviving naturally want to know if they will be supporting a program that has a lasting effect on its participants, Carolyn and I are often asked if we have a procedure for monitoring the long-term progress of the girls in the program. Our answer to this question is always, “No, we don’t have a procedure, but we know that our graduates are doing well.” This answer is unscientific. We have no quantitative measure of our girls’ success after they leave the program, and we’ve never been able to devise an effective tool for measuring long-term outcomes. But we do know how they’re doing.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into our local Starbucks to meet a one of our graduates for a cup of coffee and a chat. She wasn’t there when I arrived, but as I sat down to wait for her, someone called, “Hey, Paula!”
It was Kat, another GS graduate, who is working part time as a barista while she attends the County College of Morris. In between customers, Kat had time to tell me about what she’s been doing since we last saw each other. When Briana, the girl I had arranged to meet, arrived, the two girls gossiped a bit about friends and family before Kat had to get back to making lattes.
Then Briana and I had a long talk about her college, her plans for the future, and her family. The conversation moved to the other GS girls who graduated in Briana’s class and, through that, I learned that they are all beginning their second year of college, that one of them is planning a move to live with relatives in another state, and that a couple of them are dating boys who may be “the one.” All of the girls are doing well and, what was most interesting to me, they all keep in touch. They still talk and text on a regular basis even though two of them are living on campuses in other towns, and they get together to hang out during school vacations when everyone comes back home.
“We still have a bond,” said Brianna. “It’s funny,” she continued, “but now when we meet girls our age who haven’t learned to act like adults, we just roll our eyes and say, ‘she needs Girls Surviving!’ It just pops right out, sometimes simultaneously. It’s become one of our private jokes.”

We laughed and went our own ways, but as I walked back home, I thought about how much I had just learned from Kat and Briana about what past troupe members are doing, and about the bonds that I have formed as a result of my own participation in the Girls Surviving program. I have developed friendships with Carolyn, our school counselors and principals, and with everyone on the staff of Morris Arts, the organization that administers the program. I have become acquainted with other adults who provide a variety of youth services: teachers, social workers, ministers, court liaisons, and police officers. Also, because we live in the same town, Carolyn and I run into the girls and their family members when we are out shopping or walking or attending school and community events. Girls Surviving has bonded us with a group of people in our town whom we may have never known otherwise. This line of thinking made me realize, once again, how important our community is to the success of the program.
It’s the reason we can keep tabs on the girls after they leave the program. We know how and what they’re doing because we still talk to them and to their friends and family members. We know because they call us up to ask for letters of recommendation or if they can list one of us as a reference on a job application. We know because their parents and grandparents live and work in our town and we meet them as we go about our daily lives. We know because we overhear their gossip about each other in chance meetings like the one I just described.
I think the community is also one of the reasons our girls do so well when they leave the program. The bonds they form with us and with each other extend beyond the walls of our workshop space and, even, beyond the time we all spend together in the program. Girls Surviving troupe members, past and present, are part of something bigger than workshops and performances. Carolyn just wrote about our recent experience at the Teaching Artist Conference which gave two of our girls, one a graduate; the other a current troupe member, an opportunity to travel to a new place and meet a group of adults who wanted to learn from them. Another member of the Girls Surviving community, Jim Gallagher, recently made it possible for the whole troupe to attend a performance by the NJ Shakespeare Theater. When our girls attend local arts events, members of the Morris Arts staff recognize them and make them feel welcome. The community that has formed around the Girls Surviving program continues to educate the girls, expand and feed their curiosity, and boost their self-confidence into their adult lives.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I think there is truth in the saying, but in this case, the village is also transforming the lives of us old folks, too. I feel so enriched by the bonds I’ve formed with the girls and their families and with the other members of the GS community, and I think that the girls who are at its heart will go on to make other communities strong and vibrant. Long term.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Teenagers Teaching Teachers

Last Thursday five of us from Girls Surviving led a workshop for 20 teaching artists, arts administrators, and educators as part of an annual two-day conference at The Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, NJ.  Sponsored by the New Jersey Arts Education Collective (NJAEC), a partnership of several NJ not-for-profit arts-focused organizations, the conference provides professional development for members of the arts education community.  The conference attracts about 100 people per day. While most of them live and work in NJ, many come from Pennsylvania and New York.  This year I met one artist who came all the way from her home base in Brattleboro, VT to attend.  It’s an important event for those of us who are interested in creating opportunities within our communities for people of all ages to make art.
            The GS team consisted of Paula and myself; Renee, one of the middle school counselors who has been working with us for several years; Brianna, a junior at the high school, a long-time troupe member and one of this past summer’s interns; and Briana, an alumna of GS and a former GS intern who currently is a sophomore at the County College of Morris and pursuing a career in nursing.
           As I mentioned in my last post, our idea was to conduct a typical GS workshop so that participants could see first hand how we work. We were thrilled that the school board approved Renee’s request to join us, that an alumna could take time away from her job and studies to come along, and that a current troupe member, also juggling school and a job, could co-lead too.   We could not have demonstrated how our collaborative creative process builds an ongoing community without their remarkable presence. 
           Both girls were awesome! From the planning to the implementation, they worked hand-in-hand with us to turn our workshop into a resounding success. When I picked them up at 8:00 that morning, the girls were excited but nervous about leading a workshop for adults. While I drove the two hours it took us to get to the Grounds for Sculpture, Renee sat in the back seat of my too-small car as we both talked them through the agenda, rehearsed their scene, and helped them figure out how to explain and present one of our workshop exercises.  Renee’s obvious unwavering belief in their ability to co-lead the workshop put them at ease.  And, when it came time for her to become public and lead her part of the workshop, she presented with the same calm confidence that was so evident on the car ride down.  We felt incredibly lucky to have her with us.           

While Renee’s presentation and interaction with the group were impressive, the real stars of the workshop were the girls.  Briana and Brianna deservedly stole the day.  The applause and praise at the end was for their remarkable leadership. One artist, who has attended many of these conferences, summed it up this way:  he said that this was the first time in his memory that students who actually benefit from arts education programming had ever led a workshop for those who bring arts programming into their schools. Like so many teaching artists in the room, he saw in these girls the positive impact of the kind of work he does every day.  Teaching the teachers, Briana and Brianna demonstrated the ways in which the arts build self-confidence and improve literacy, social and communication skills. He and the other teaching artists were awed by the living proof of their achievements.
            The two teenagers presented an example of student-led learning at its highest level.  They talked about the ways in which the program had changed them, performed their scene and explained how the group wrote it, improvised together, led the writing exercise, and mentored a small group of professional writers through our collaborative process. They spoke candidly about themselves and their experiences with the troupe.  Before they joined GS, both were shy, they said, afraid to speak and, especially, to read aloud.  They never thought of themselves as writers or performers until they started coming to GS workshops.

It took time for them to become more self-confident, they said, but no one in Thursday’s workshop would have known that about them if they hadn’t said it.  They explained clearly and in detail how we use exercises in our workshops to introduce topics that girls need so desperately to talk about but don’t feel comfortable bringing up on their own.  They shared the types of questions, concerns, and challenges that girls write about in our sessions – everything from an eighth grader’s worry that she will lose her friends when she goes to high school to a 16-year-old’s fear that she will lose her mother’s trust if she slips out to see her boyfriend when her mother thinks she is babysitting for her siblings.
           I feel so proud to have been part of this incredible team of presenters.   It was a joy to work with Paula, Renee, Brianna and Briana and, together, create and implement an agenda that resonated so profoundly for our workshop participants.  Finally, the fact that teenage girls led a workshop for professional artists, teachers, and school administrators…well, I’m stilled awed by it.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Looking Forward

            September is a good time to look back at our successes, as Paula just posted.  It also gives us time to think, plan, and find ways to help other organizations, artists, and educators learn about and implement what we do.  Next week, for example, we’ll explore placing a second Girls Surviving program in Newark. After collaborating with Dominique and Julie this summer, we’re excited about taking this next step to expand the program, with them at the helm.  They’ll make fantastic Girls Surviving leaders.

Also coming up for us this month is a workshop presentation at the Annual Multi-Day Teaching Artist Conference, sponsored by the NJ Arts Education Collective/NJ State Council on the Arts.  Two of our girls and one of our counselors will lead the workshop with us.  Together, we’ll model the learning strategies we use in a typical Girls Surviving workshop.  In this way, teaching artists from across the state will see first hand how our collaborative approach helps students grow intellectually and emotionally, facilitates ongoing student-led learning, and builds community in socially diverse environments. 

Having the girls by our sides at the conference will be a proud moment for us.  We’re looking forward to hearing the girls share with the participants what Girls Surviving means to them. We hope that by watching them in action, other teaching artists will immediately recognize the benefits of the program and want to incorporate what they can of it into their own work.

Classroom teachers will have a chance to experience a Girls Surviving-style workshop, too, at the New Jersey Education Association Convention in Atlantic City in November. Unfortunately, the girls will not be with us for that, but we’ll consult with them in the next couple of months about how to plan for it.  We presented at the convention in 2010 and met many motivated and talented middle school and high school teachers.  They were hungry for innovative teaching techniques and interesting classroom exercises.  Based on the enthusiasm of those we met that day, we’re excited about connecting with others this year.

What we’re looking forward to the most this fall, however, is the start of the Fall/Spring 2013-2014 Girls Surviving Program on October 10.  Watching the girls get to know each other, learn to trust, and come together as a performing troupe at the end of every program is a magical experience.  It inspires us to spread the word about their remarkable journey and the possibilities for engaging other adolescents in creative journeys of their own.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Glimpse Back in Time

Today is the first day back to school for our girls. We'll give them a month to get settled and then resume workshops on October 10th. In the mean time, this seems like the perfect moment to look back at a past success. Barbara Reuther of Morris Arts made this short video about "Broken Frames," the play performed at the end of the last school year.

GS Troupe, Spring 2013

Highlights of "Broken Frames"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Exceptional Summer

            When I wasn’t working with the girls this summer, I was preparing to move out of the house I had lived in for many, many years.  The multiple and multilayered realities of dreams and alter egos that the girls were exploring in their writing resonated for me personally as I sifted through my past and packed what parts of it I wanted to carry into my future.  The entire summer felt like a dream.  Now that the move is complete and my new house is more or less functional, I’m enjoying some time to reflect on the remarkable six weeks that brought the Girls Surviving play “Hidden” to the stage.
           Each reincarnation of the troupe develops a unique personality. In this post, I want to talk about how special we found this group of girls.  

          All of us watched with pride as this summer’s group became a focused, cohesive, and committed troupe. Almost from the beginning they understood that the success of the program depended upon their investment in it.  By the last day, every girl had given over a part of herself to the process and was modeling behavior that others could emulate.  Everyone looked like a leader. As soon as they understood our routines, new troupe members didn’t wait for interns or other veterans to wait on them.  Without being asked, they took it upon themselves to fetch the food, the notebooks, or something else that we needed.  They looked for opportunities to help. When the interns explained the audition procedure to newcomers, they invited another experienced veteran to share the platform with them. Recognizing her leadership potential, they didn’t feel threatened by it.  Instead, they confidently mentored her, paving the way for their possible successor.  When a younger, new troupe member feared that she couldn’t talk to her new sports coach about taking time away from practice for play rehearsals, she didn’t shy away from the problem and simply quit one of her activities.  She talked to us, and because she entrusted us with her conflicted feelings, we were able to intercede on her behalf so that she could follow through with both commitments.  Another girl sacrificed vacation time at the shore with her family so that she wouldn’t miss rehearsals. Yet another fought through significant personal and family struggles to see the program through to the end.  And, of course, there are the amazing stories, described in Paula’s posts, about how Bianca, a recent immigrant, performed in English and how Hana stepped into a new role the day before the performance.

        What inspired each of these girls to step forward?  Upon reflection, I believe it was their openness to each other, the teaching artists, and writing and rehearsal process that made these six weeks remarkable. The veterans who participated deserve credit for setting the tone; their openness created a domino effect that allowed for extraordinary learning to take place, a genuine collaboration to unfold, and leaders to emerge. They came into the program with open minds and without preconceived notions about what the troupe ought to look like by the end of the summer. From the start, they seemed to understand that this summer’s troupe would not be the same as the last; they accepted the seasonal shifts of troupe life.  They also seemed to appreciate the changes we made to the program. They were excited, for example, that we offered our summer interns more input into the planning and execution of our daily activities, and they welcomed the participation of the new teaching artists.  Their overall understanding of and enthusiasm for the program immediately helped newcomers shed any reservations they had about joining the troupe, relax, and begin to extend themselves

        As the new girls saw how responsive even the youngest veterans were to the range of theater exercises we offered they increasingly approached the work with open minds.  One of our first exercises was the Bhutoh inspired slow motion movement exercise.  I suspect that none of the girls had ever experienced anything like it.  Several giggled uncomfortably as Dominique demonstrated how slowly they would be expected to move.  The giggling continued as they began to follow her lead. The gigglers grew silent, though, as one by one, girls focused on moving one muscle at a time.  Soon everyone was working hard, and a powerful scene, performed in concentrated silence, began to materialize. Those few who were too shy to give themselves over to the exercise stood next to Dominique and allowed her to point out some of the beautiful movement interactions that were unfolding before their eyes.  In that way, those girls, too, began to view this work as relevant and important. The girls’ courageous approach to that exercise signaled to us that this group of girls would be open to fully engaging in the work of making theater. 

        A different group might have grown impatient with Julie’s yoga breathing exercise that followed a few days later, groaned through stretching routines, or regarded articulation exercises as silly.  This group, however, approached each new activity with gusto, often doing far more than was required.  Several girls, for example, working in pairs, created comedic scenes by stringing together the entire list of 20 tongue twisters we had given them to practice.  Their assignment had been to dramatize only two.  One girl even practiced the articulation exercises at home, picking up on Dominique’s suggestion to do them while holding a pencil between the teeth.

         With each positive response, we were able to take the work to a deeper level.  And, with each step we took, the girls remained open to the possibilities and responsibilities we held out to them.  Because of their openness, they were not only accepting of the challenges we faced during the rehearsal period, but they actively participated in helping us work through them. The more involved they became, the more they learned.

         Two critical moments from that period stand out in my mind as remarkable.  First was the time that we had to recast a part and rehearse it during our dress rehearsal.  We were pretty tired, and we were worried that taking time to re-block scenes would make it impossible to have a run through before the performance.  Because we’ve had similar, if not similarly urgent, experiences like this in the past, we knew the blocking session would be grueling, but no one made a fuss.  Hana, our brave understudy, helped enormously by staying focused so that we were able to accomplish the task in record time.  Nevertheless, the entire cast had to sit on the stage as they would during performance throughout the entire process.  Not one girl complained, disrupted the rehearsal with side conversations, or fidgeted.  They sat there respectfully watching, realizing that at any moment they might be called on to make an entrance or redo a scene.  Every girl, including the remarkable Hana, took personal responsibility for ensuring the success of the next day’s final performance.  And, because of their focus, we managed to squeak in a run through.
          The other critical moment for the cast occurred when we were rehearsing the ending of the play. Beginnings and endings of plays require a lot of rehearsal time to get right, and we already had spent a long time practicing the ending when we reached an impasse. I had tried to explain the logic of the blocking to the actresses several times.  I knew that the movement needed to fit precisely with the text so that the audience would understand the transformation that was taking place for the characters on the stage.  One of the actresses was confused and getting tense about how and when to move.  The cast was sitting on risers waiting to practice their finale.  We could have settled for what was an acceptable performance and called an end to the rehearsal.  We were running overtime.  With faith in the cast, justified by what we had seen all summer, I decided to try one last time to encourage the actress to make the final minutes of the play exceptional.

          As the director, I asked the actress once again to forget about where she put her feet or when to turn her head and focus instead on her character’s desperate desire to rid herself of a nightmare.  I assured her that if she could reach into the depths of the character’s need, her body would move effortlessly in the right direction at the right time.  It worked.  She nailed it.  We were thrilled.  When I told her how brilliantly she had grasped the concept, I knew that the rest of the cast was listening.  They had been watching the entire time.  They had soaked in what transpired and, as a result, recognized the difference between an acceptable performance and an exceptional one.  Their patience, support of each other and appreciation for the work of creating theater paid off.  Every one of them opened themselves to the rehearsal process, dug deep into the hearts and minds of their characters, and performed brilliantly.