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.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Counselor's Role: Another Story

There were eight girls and three adults present at last Thursday’s meeting. Two of the girls were juniors, one an eighth grader, and the other five were freshmen. The adults were Carolyn, me, and one of our counselors, Karen. The evening began as usual. Girls arrived through the first half hour of the workshop. While we waited for the last stragglers, we took care of housekeeping: figuring out what we should do about our October 31st workshop and following up on information about girls who haven’t yet shown up for the fall season.
Carolyn and I wanted to begin this workshop with writing. We hadn’t done any writing in the previous two workshops and we both felt it was important to begin collecting written material and to get the girls thinking in their ‘writers’ heads.’ However, before we could begin the session, a couple of the girls had a suggestion.
“We should do an exercise that we did in our PGC workshop,” said Hana.
“Oh… you mean the one with the secrets?” asked Gina. “Yeah, let’s do that!”

PGC stands for Peer Group Connections, which is a program led by upper classmen and designed to help freshmen navigate their first year of high school. As the girls explained it, the exercise in question went something like this:
1.           Everyone writes a secret on a slip of paper – something about themselves or another person, something that only they know. The writing mentions no names and should remain anonymous.
2.           Secrets are folded and dropped into a hat.
3.           Group members chose papers out of the hat and, one by one, share the secrets and allow people to comment on them by either identifying with the issue, giving advice to the writer, or making some other positive comment.

Even without consulting among ourselves, it was clear that the adults had some misgivings about the activity.
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Carolyn. “Are we supposed to guess who wrote the secret?”
“Oh, no,” the girls assured us, “the secrets remain anonymous. And you shouldn’t write anything that would help people identify you.”
“Can you give us an idea of some of the things people wrote in your PGC meeting?” asked Karen.
“Well, someone wrote that they smoke pot every day,” said Gina.
“Another person said they….ummm, I’m not sure I can say this,” said Hana. “because I think I guessed who the person was.
“You can say it without telling,” suggested one of the older girls. “The rest of us don’t know who was in your group.
“Well, okay. She said she felt like all of the skinny white girls made fun of her for being fat. The funny thing is, I figured out who she was because she was the only other girl of color in the group except me and Gina, and I was pretty sure Gina didn’t write it, but I was surprised that girl would think of herself like that.”

These comments settled some of my misgivings. The first secret, the one about smoking pot, could have been written by a child who didn’t fit the stereotype of ‘pothead’ at all. Also, I saw no reason to believe that the secret Hana revealed wasn’t written by Gina. Although Gina is a pretty, well proportioned girl, she could very well have insecurities about her appearance, especially in the presence of unfamiliar “skinny white girls.” I was reminded that the secrets teenagers might choose to reveal are not unique, but are probably shared by several of the kids in the group. I also didn’t see a big problem with individuals trying to guess the source of the secret, as long as they kept their guess to themselves. When I said this to Hana, she replied,
“I know. Now that I realize that girl has some of the same insecurities I have, it makes me more sympathetic to her.”
“And,” I continued, unable for the moment to control my overbearing teacher persona, “it may not have been the long-haired blond boy in the ragged jeans who confessed to smoking pot. It could have been an honors student who is self-medicating to control her OCD.”

In the end, we decided to do the activity with the following change. After selecting a secret from the hat, each girl would read it herself and write a monologue in the voice of a fictional character who may have shared the secret. This would allow the girls time for reflection on and connection to the information in the secret, and it would accomplish our goal of getting a writing sample from each girl.
After writing for fifteen or twenty minutes, we went around the circle. First a girl would read her secret. Next, we opened the floor to conversation about it, and finally, the first girl read her monologue. Things went well. As secrets were revealed, the girls gave thoughtful and, for the most part, mature commentary on them. When a girl identified with the situation revealed by a secret, she said so and related her own experience. Other girls gave advice based on situations they had witnessed among friends and family or vicariously, through reading or visual media. Also, the girls’ written monologues were insightful.
As the conversation moved from one secret to the next, we learned new things about each other, got the kind of glimpses into another person that can, as Hana had said earlier, make them more sympathetic. It was the kind of conversation that helps build the bonds of trust that are so important to our work. Then, when we were about half way around the circle, the dynamic changed as suddenly as if an evil fairy had waved her wand over the group. One of the secrets touched a nerve that was too raw. One girl began a passionate rant against the advice given by some others, a second girl began to cry, a third ran out of the room, and in less than five minutes, half the group was crying in the hallway. The other half remained in the classroom, crying and comforting each other.
Things got out of control so quickly, that my head was spinning. The only thing I could think to do was look to Karen. She quickly moved to take control of things in the hallway. I went to comfort one of the criers in the classroom. Carolyn must of done the same, but I honestly don’t remember.  Then, just as quickly as they had fallen apart, the group came back together. The hall girls came back in, wiping tears and hugging each other. The girls in the classroom got up to greet them. They began apologizing to each other, thanking each other, reaffirming their sisterhood.
This is the second time in the long history of Girls Surviving that a workshop has so completely fallen to pieces. The first time it happened was in our early years, and I had convinced myself that our inexperience was partly responsible for the problem. That may be the case, but last week I realized that making art with vulnerable teenagers can ignite a fire, no matter how experienced the directors. In fact, teen girls share so many secret, volatile experiences that it is remarkable we haven’t had more scenes like the one we had last week.
Both times that our workshops have exploded with emotion, it was the counselors who restored order. Their role in our process is crucial because they have the expertise to know what to do in the face of crises, and the knowledge and insight to help us all come to terms with the situation afterwards. 
This story is a paean to Karen, Kim, Renee, and Sandra whose help and advice have been invaluable to us and to all of the girls.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Guest Writer - Reflections of a GS alumna

The following post was written by my youngest daughter, Liz, who was a member of the first GS troupe.

When I was seventeen, my mom would leave on Thursday nights to teach playwriting and acting classes to a group of high school girls at a girl’s residence in town with her friend Carolyn, a program they had founded called Girls Surviving.

I have to admit, I didn’t really pay much attention because she had been involved in programs like this for most of my life. I was sort of vaguely aware of the things my mom did for her job and the people she worked with, but as a teenager I was pretty involved in my own life which was highly dramatic.
It took me by surprise when she asked me if I wanted to join Girls Surviving, but I was interested in the prospect of acting and meeting the girls my mom spent her time with so I agreed to start going.

The girls I met were mostly my age or a couple of years younger and I was surprised to see that we had a lot in common. I’m not sure if they realized how much we had in common. At the time, most of the girls were in the group home where Girls Surviving workshops were held and I always felt like they probably thought that I (with my awesome mom) couldn’t relate to their situation. The truth was that just a couple of years earlier my mom had sent me away from my house to live in an all girls boarding school for “troubled teens” and the dynamics, politics, and special loneliness of living in a structured facility that was not home were all but too familiar to me.

The experience I had in Girls Surviving was really special. The play had already been written by the time I joined and I think in a lot of ways most of what I got out of my time with the other girls was moments of realizing how different other people’s lives were but how, at the same time, we just had a lot in common. We were girls and we liked to be silly and talk about boys and we were confused and, a lot of times, we were hurting. In high school, its actually really rare to have moments where you look outside of yourself and see that other people- no matter how different they might seem from you- are just feeling the same things as you. High school can feel so lonely.

Another thing I saw affected me really profoundly. I got to see how the other girls reacted to my mom. I love my mom a lot, but she’s my mom. In GS, I suddenly was able to see her in a new light. The girls in the house would go up to her and put their arms around her and she would let them. She would not get upset when they got into giggle fits that couldn’t be stopped.  I remembered when I was in boarding school and all I wanted was someone to hold me in their lap but no one would, and I was so happy and proud that my mom could be there for the girls around me.

Seven years later the program is still in existence, and the other day I attended the first meeting of the fall session as a guest. I’m 24 now and Girls Surviving has changed in a few ways. It is held in the high school now and the girls who attend are not necessarily residents of the group home. There is funding now, which is amazing because the group is definitely larger. The group goes to events, last summer they went to Shakespeare in the Park. They seem to be more organized. There is an intern who organizes bake sales and coordinates groups.

But other things are pretty much the same. I guess the main thing that was kind of amazing for me was just the reminder of what high school was like. Its easy, when you grow up, to put being a teenager behind you and forget that when you are in those years they are very real…and they can be very hard. They can also be really traumatic and most of us don’t get through them without scars. Our teenage years are critical, they shape us and we need art. But we also need friends and adults who make us feel safe.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Listen and Learn

Last Thursday’s workshop brought a couple more girls back to the group, making the group just the right size for a school year troupe. Because they were all girls who worked together last year or in the summer, they were comfortable. Conversation flowed easily and, although the workshop was, at times, boisterous, everyone, surprisingly, remained focused on the work we wanted to do, namely, thinking about the theme we will explore in the weeks to come, the theme that will become the central idea of the play the girls will write this season. I say ‘surprisingly,’ but maybe I was the only person in the workshop who was surprised. Because, regardless of what others were thinking, when our discussion began, I couldn’t see it going anywhere meaningful.

Once the girls were seated in our usual circle, we asked them to begin brainstorming ideas they would like to write about. Several girls said that they had already begun thinking of a theme for the new play.
Anna, the first girl to speak, said, “I think our plays have been too heavy. I wonder if we could do something like a fairy tale.”
My initial, unspoken, response to this suggestion was a resounding YES! I would love to spend the next few months collaboratively deconstructing a fairy tale to find in it connections to real life issues in the lives of teens today. I believe that the stories that have come to us through the oral tradition are reflections of the collective unconscious, and I think that time spent on deep interpretation of a traditional ‘woman’s story’ would teach the girls much about literature, about the role of women in society, and about themselves. Also, a couple of years ago, Anna was one of a group of eighth grade girls who worked with me on a ‘women in myth’ project, so I knew that her ideas about fairy tales went beyond the concept of ‘happily ever after.’ However, it’s not my play, so I didn’t say anything. I just listened.
The fairy tale idea was quickly dropped. The other girls don’t share Anna’s knowledge of the genre and so the term probably brought only Disney movies or bowdlerized children’s books to mind. Several of the girls did agree with Anna that our recent performances have dealt with sad and depressing material, and that they would like a change.
“Maybe we could write a comedy!” suggested Carmen.
At this, everyone began to talk at once. The girls clearly liked the idea of working on something funny. They began giving examples of scenes from movies and television shows that used comedy to highlight serious issues. The examples raised laughter, louder talk, and inside jokes between some of the girls.
I sat listening and watching, wondering when to intervene to bring the verbal free-for-all back to the topic that started it – the search for a theme. The girls seemed so carried away that I was sure adult intervention would be necessary to bring structure to the discussion. Carolyn, Kim and I, the three adults in the room, did make some contributions to the conversation, but they seemed to make little impression amid the torrent of words and ideas that were coming from the girls.
The talk rushed along. Girls interrupted each other, talked over each other, talked all at the same time, and then, amazingly, a real topic began to take shape. Right smack in the middle of an explanation of the premise of “Real life Hollywood Husbands,” (or something like that), someone said,
“That’s it! We should write about stereotypes.”
“You could make a reality show about that by just filming a day at Morristown High School,” said another girl.
“Real Teenagers of Morristown High,” chimed in a third girl.
And an idea began to develop.

Will this be the theme of this season’s play? I don’t know; it’s really too soon to tell. Is this a novel idea for the troupe? Not really. We’ve written about stereotyping in many, if not most, of our plays. But, a new approach to the topic from a different mix of girls will deepen insights into the matter. The question of identity is one of the pressing issues of adolescent life, so it can bear multiple revisitations.
 Regardless of where things progress from here, I left Thursday’s workshop impressed by the glimpse I got of the troupe’s creative process as they spun a concrete idea from the threads of their chaotic talk.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Introducing Mrs. Rogers

A new and very different participant joined Girls Surviving when it started up again two weeks ago.  She stood in the same corner of the room during our workshops, tall, thin, and detached.  Her remoteness felt a little unnerving. She offered nothing to our conversations, but she observed a lot of what we did.  When she was engaged, nothing escaped her notice. Her watchful eye made some girls feel self-conscious. Everyone agreed that, if we were to get along with her, we would have to figure out what role she would play in the life of the troupe.
          The ‘she’ that I’m talking about is the video camera that Jessica is using to make the documentary that Paula described in her last post. And, at our last workshop, we decided that giving her an identity would make us all feel more comfortable having her in the room.  That’s how the camera became a ‘she.’
It all started when one of the girls, Annie, suggested that we cover her up so that we wouldn’t notice her disconcerting stare. Then someone held out a black sweatshirt, and we draped it around her gangly limbs.

“Less intimidating?” we asked.  The girls’ responses were lukewarm.  Dressing her obviously wasn’t sufficient.
           “We could name her!” exclaimed Gillian, who, like Jessica, is a broadcasting student and excited about learning how to make documentaries while assisting Jessica with this project. “We could name her Mr. Rogers,” she quickly added, referring to the sweater and slipper-clad host of the long-running TV show who welcomed generations of pre-schoolers into his trouble-free suburban neighborhood. “I remember Mr. Rogers being really kind,” said Gillian, “ so he’ll just be here…observing us…no big deal….”  Her last comment hung there expectantly. 

When no one replied, we asked the girls if they would feel more comfortable having a ‘she’ observe them than a ‘he.’

Gillian immediately chimed in, “Well, then, we can call her Mrs. Rogers!”  And extending her arm to welcome the newcomer, Gillian announced,  “Everyone, let me introduce you to Mrs. Rogers. She’s really very nice, aren’t you, Mrs. Rogers?”  Then, turning to the girls, she added, “See, we can even talk to her.”

By dressing and naming the camera, the girls discovered a creative way to overcome the discomfort they were feeling in front of it:  they invented a ritual to initiate the camera into troupe life.  In much the same way that baptisms or brises welcome newborns into their religious communities, the girls’ dressing and naming ‘ceremony’ invited the camera’s participation in Girls Surviving.  It also helped the girls relax when Gillian finally turned it on.  Humanizing it helped make it blend in.  Less prominent in its corner and dressed like one of them, the girls began to forget about it entirely.

Once again, the girls themselves, without prompting from the adults in the room, took the lead in identifying the first step they needed to take to incorporate the camera into their work. Thanks to Annie’s suggestion to disguise her, Gillian’s decision to name and welcome her into the troupe, and the rest of the girls’ willingness to play along, the girls have let us know that they will have a lot to say about the ways in which they will let Mrs. Rogers participate in future workshops.

They’ve already set boundaries for her involvement and they’re working with us to discover new uses for her.  We’ve all agreed, for example, that she should be turned off whenever we’re discussing personal issues.  That includes our weekly check-in, which provides each girl the opportunity to talk about current joys or concerns and the ‘questions’ game, which allows the girls to anonymously ask questions about especially troubling issues.  At the same time, we’ve also decided that she might be a very effective teaching tool. During our last workshop, we were experimenting with a new improvisational acting technique when we realized that if we filmed the girls doing it, then played it back for them later, they might understand how to improve their work.  The girls had made progress with the exercise, but we thought they might benefit from seeing themselves in action.  We turned on Mrs. Rogers and let her roll. 

We must be ever mindful, though, of her presence.  The last improv that we did that night prompted one of the girls to tell a personal story that we decided to re-enact on our makeshift stage space.  With Mrs. Rogers still engaged, the actresses took their places.  Just before the start of the scene, we remembered to turn her off.   

We’ll continue to be vigilant and carefully consider how and when to include Mrs. Rogers in our activities. We’ll take it one step at a time, as we do with almost everything we do.  What we know for sure is that she is a kindly soul and understanding of our needs.  We’re confident that she won’t fuss if we delete anything that we don’t think should be included in the documentary.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Next Chapter

We have taken a break from posting on this site, mostly because Girls Surviving has been in its usual mid-August – September hiatus. The Girls Surviving summer program ends after the second or third week in August and we like to give the girls a chance to reacclimate to school before starting up again. So, last Thursday was our first fall workshop.
Eight or nine of the girls from our summer troupe attended and the evening became an opportunity for them to reconnect. The majority of girls present on Thursday are freshmen, so we heard stories about their introduction to high school. For the most part, they seem to be enjoying the change from middle school.
“So far, it’s great. No one has done anything mean to me.”
“Yeah, I heard so many stories, but everything has been fine.”
I think that freshman hazing is an urban legend told to eighth graders by their older brothers and sisters. At least, I’m pretty sure that none of our girls have ever been hazed by upperclassmen. (Which doesn’t, of course, mean that our high school is bully-free zone, just that the bullying doesn’t take the form of ritualized practical jokes at the expense of freshmen.)
One of the girls told a funny story about arriving at her first History class to find that it was being taught by her eighth grade social studies who had also ‘moved up’ to the high school.
“And judging by the way the class is beginning, I think he may be going to assign the same projects!” she laughed.

Unlike many of the girls in previous troupes, this group seems to be engaged in extracurricular activities in addition to Girls Surviving. They are playing sports, cheerleading, and signing up to work in the school television station. Jessica, a junior who is mentoring the girls in the TV club, brought a video camera to the meeting because she wants to make a documentary film about the Girls Surviving experience. She is a self-starter – the initiator of our spring bake sale! – who was one of the creators of a documentary that recently won third prize in a town-wide film festival. Carolyn and I have often talked about the (remote) possibility of commissioning a documentary about the program, but we never thought that one of the girls might be able to make it. So, we are excited about the possibility and, I think, a little in awe of Jessica’s energy and initiative. However, the reality of bringing a camera into our workshops could present a problem.
As we’ve said many times on these posts, it is trust that binds the group: trust that what the girls say in workshops will not leave the workshop until it is ready for public attention. That is, that private fears and anxieties, or stories about friends and families will not be spoken of outside of the group unless they appear transformed as theater art. The presence of a video camera could threaten that safety.
When Jessica introduced the idea of the documentary to the girls, they seemed more bothered by the idea that they hadn’t dressed up to be filmed (“Can we start next week? I am not looking my best,” said one girl) than by concerns about invasion of privacy. However, when I think about it, this could be a metaphor for the problem. Our workshops have always been safe places to “come as you are.” Girls show up in sweatpants and bedroom slippers if they feel like it. No one is judged by their clothing or appearance any more than they are judged by their relationship issues or family problems. Any change that might make someone more self-conscious can only be a problem.
When we voiced this fear to Jessica, it seemed clear that, as usual, she was a step ahead of us and had already considered the problem. The film, she said, would be a pastiche of interviews with troupe members, troupe alumnae, staff, administrators and sponsors, interspersed with scenes of the girls engaged in ‘safe’ activities like drama games, script reading, auditioning, and rehearsing. After the meeting, she sent me a graphic layout of the film that illustrated her idea. 
Once the camera becomes part of the workshops, we will have to come up with a protocol for when it can run. I’m sure that, as they always do, the girls will figure out the best way to deal with it. In the meantime, stay tuned for Girls Surviving, the video.