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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Seeking Balance

About a week and a half ago, Girls Surviving had a bake sale at Morristown High. This was the second fundraising project that the girls have organized and carried out on their own. One of our amazing summer interns, Jessica, served as liaison to the school administration to schedule and make other arrangements for the event. Four or five of the younger girls posted signs around school to advertise the sale. These girls also stayed up late the night before making cookies, cupcakes, and brownies. Karen helped Jessica coordinate passes for girls who needed to leave class early to set things up. All Carolyn and I had to do was bake something and bring it to school.

At the bake sale

When I arrived with my brownies on the afternoon of the sale, I was surprised to see several girls who hadn’t attended workshops since the spring. In fact, one of the girls behind the table was a veteran who had left the troupe nearly a year ago. Although I was glad to see these girls, I was puzzled by their presence. As far as I knew, they were no longer in the program and, consequently, should have been in class at that time of day.
My confusion must have been apparent because Carolyn, who had gotten to school before me, said, “Oh, they say they’re coming back.”
The girl who quit last year smiled and nodded. “But I probably won’t be at tonight’s workshop,” she said.
By this time, the freshman girls who had planned and baked for the sale arrived. As they laid out the treats they were offering for sale and discussed how to price them, Carolyn and I backed away. This was their sale and we were proud of the ownership they were taking of it. In time, Jessica, who had been held in class by a teacher, arrived with a video camera and the money box. The dismissal bell rang, and students began to crowd around the table. Carolyn volunteered be the video recorder so Jessica would be free to run the sale.
During the most frenetic part of the sale, I was distracted. I had brought my two-year-old grandson, for whom I was babysitting that afternoon, and he was overwhelmed by the high school scene. When I made the decision to bring him along, I didn’t think it would be a problem because when I attended the girls’ first bake sale last spring, my presence was completely extraneous. The girls in charge had everything under control. However, when most of the goodies had been sold and the crowd was dispersing, I saw a couple of things that bothered me. At one point, a student I didn’t know walked up to the table and took a soda. When I realized that she wasn’t going to pay for it, I called to her, but she continued to walk away.
“Did that girl just steal a soda?” I asked.
The only GS girls remaining behind the table were the freshmen who been working the sale. They were huddled in conversation, distracted from what was going on around them and clearly upset by something. They looked up when I spoke and began talking at once.
“Someone said everything that was left should be free,” said one girl.
“No, I didn’t,” said another, “I said it should be half price.”
“Did you see how X just took those brownies from Molly?” asked a third. “It wasn’t fair. She didn’t help with anything.”
Just then, Jessica, who had been counting the take walked up. “We made just over $100.00,” she said, handing me an envelope.
A security guard came over to ask the girls to clean up and move along, some old students of mine came over to say hello, and before I could follow up with the girls, everything was over. I did manage to catch a couple of the ninth grade troupe members long enough to say, “Don’t worry about anything, You did a great job. If we made mistakes, think of them as lessons for the next time do this.”
But as I walked my grandson back home, I was troubled. I was sorry that the younger girls may have had a bad experience, and I felt responsible. Because, based on my experience with last year’s bake sale, I assumed that everything would run smoothly, I hadn’t reflected on the difference between the two events. Last year’s sale was held in the spring when even the youngest troupe members felt comfortable in the high school environment. In addition, there were more upper classmen involved in last year’s sale. The majority of girls in this year’s troupe are freshman and, at this time of year, they are still new to the school. They don’t feel comfortable confronting older students or confident in their right to take command of an event, even if, as in this case, they owned it. They needed a stronger adult presence and I wasn’t there for them.

That evening at our workshop, one of the freshman girls, Hannah, introduced the topic of the sale.
“I don’t mean to cause trouble,” she said, “but I don’t feel right about what happened.”
The other freshmen who had been at the sale chimed in.
“Right, it was so wrong.”
“It wasn’t fair.”
“But what were we supposed to do?”
When Carolyn and I asked them to be specific, they said that they resented the presence of girls who hadn’t been active in the work of the troupe, but that they had been reluctant to stand up on the spot and criticize the behavior of older girls.
“They only want to be part of the troupe when there’s something fun going on. They don’t want to do the real work,” said one.
“They don’t care about the group,” said another.
“How did they even get passes to come?” asked Hannah
As the girls talked, it became even clearer to me that we adults should have taken a larger supervisory role in the bake sale. We should have planned for it in workshops. We should have helped the girls set a protocol for who could participate and how to handle potential problems at the site. In our enthusiasm to give the girls independent ownership of the project, we forgot that teenagers still need the scaffold of adult support and protection.

We all learned lessons from the bake sale. The girls gained experiential knowledge of some of the problems that may arise at a school fundraiser: problems caused by last minute planning or by underestimating issues of crowd control. We adults were reminded that even the most independent teens still need our presence and guidance. However, we also learned a little more about the strength and resilience of the girls in our present troupe. Hannah’s willingness to revisit her discomfort was courageous, and the other girls’ ability to talk things out reaffirmed their trust that troupe mates won’t betray confidences.

Also, the problems at the end of the process don’t diminish the girls’ success in planning and carrying out the sale. A colleague of mine who directs a very different after-school program, a program that tends to draw a more privileged group of students, has had to cancel two scheduled bake sales because the kids didn’t show up to help or bring things to sell. The Girls Surviving staff members know that we can rely on our girls to take responsibility and carry out the things they plan. In fact, they do this so well, that sometimes I need to be reminded that they still need my help.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

To Write or Not to Write

            “This is a writing and performing troupe,” I heard myself say, laughing.  We had just asked the girls to write after what had been a very long check-in.

In response, Cara cried out, good-naturedly, “The thing is, writing is okay, but talking is soooo much better!”
            The check-in had been great and Cara’s comment reflected the bond that had been created as each girl talked about what was on her mind.  Some of the girls’ stories were hilarious.  Others were disturbing, but everyone spoke with disarming candor.  The girls hadn’t seen each other for two weeks and they seemed to be full to overflowing with the desire to reconnect. The sympathetic part of me wanted to let them continue in the same vein for the rest of the evening.  The teaching artist in me wanted to get them back to work.           

Fall traditionally is a bumpy ride for Girls Surviving – a time of false starts. Continuity is a problem because we lose so many school days to the Teachers’ Convention and fall holidays.  Attendance, too, ebbs and flows as our freshmen adjust to their new academic and social environment and our juniors and seniors juggle myriad obligations.  Because we don’t see the whole group consistently, the girls do need time to catch up.  That can leave little time left over for writing.

We’ve written often in our posts about the disruptions that interfere with our writing process.  It’s true that fall presents a unique set of circumstances that exacerbate the problem, but it’s also true that the girls love to talk no matter what the season.  Part of our mission is to provide them with a safe place to air their concerns, fears, and joys.  We’re happy that they feel comfortable enough with us to speak freely about their experiences and that a counselor is present to help guide our discussions.

What they have to say is important too.  Their stories often fuel ideas for our plays.  Their sharing also reveals problems within the troupe that need to be managed. Troupe life is like any other relationship.  It depends on ongoing, open communication.

We put a lot of trust in our girls because most often we see them make responsible decisions.  They are, nevertheless, teenage girls who can get into mischief.  Sometimes we discover that our trust is misplaced.  As one girl explained, we adults “get played.” Appearances can deceive our trusting eyes. We’ve been in situations with the girls when they have seemed to be getting along, but below the surface has lurked resentment and anger.  We’ve been able to head off those kinds of problems before they’ve reached crisis proportions because at least one of the girls has stepped forward to tell us about them.   Because they know that we value open communication, girls trust us enough to speak out when something is going on in the troupe that could weaken the ties that bind us together.  Negative feelings between people who care about each other that simmer below the surface threaten their relationship.  The same principal holds true for our troupe members.  Allowing enough time and summoning the courage to talk through problems as they arise within the troupe helps strengthen our bond.

Allowing enough time to write is equally important.  Writing gives the girls an opportunity to reflect on what they say in our discussions.  It enriches their shared experience and provides a creative focus for their thoughts and feelings. The girls’ written product gives them a sense of pride in accomplishment and a lasting reminder of the time they’ve spent together. 

Without writing, there would be no Girls Surviving.  That’s why we will devote the next workshop to it.  We have one more chance to work on the play before Thanksgiving. When we meet again after the holiday, we’ll need to check-in, and it’s likely that reconnecting will consume a lot our workshop time.  But we’ll return to writing, reminding the girls that the writing will be their play, their opportunity to share what they talk about with the community.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Another Counselor Role: Guiding the Artists

We have had adventures since our last high school workshop. Carolyn wrote about our trip to Atlantic City and, since the Thursday before last was Halloween, we spent the time celebrating by telling ‘true’ ghost stories. Even with all of this activity, I’m still thinking about our 10/24 workshop, the one I wrote about in my last post.
On the Monday following that workshop, Carolyn and I met with Karen and Kim, two of the Morris School District counselors on the GS staff, to debrief and decide how to handle any potential fallout from the workshop. Even though the evening had ended on a positive note, there were some things we needed to follow up. The workshop discussion and its ensuing drama had revealed details that gave everyone who was there, girls and staff, new insight into the girls’ lives and thoughts. This is a good thing for the group. The fact that the girls are willing to engage in revealing discussions about sensitive issues is a sign that they are comfortable with each other and with us, that we are meeting our objective of creating a safe space for them to talk about whatever is on their minds. In addition, the topics that come up in these discussions provide grist for the girls’ creative mill. The germ of an idea for many of our scripts has come from just the kind of conversation we were engaged in during that workshop.
 So, although I think that sharing very personal information within the group is essential to our process, it’s also important for all of us to find the right balance in the workshops between the kind of discussions that are more appropriate for a therapy session and the kind of academic discussions that might take place in a regular high school writing workshop. We want our talk to fall somewhere in between. There have been several times over the years when Kim has reminded one or other of the girls that “Girls Surviving is a playwriting and acting program, not a therapy group,” and each time I have heard that, it has been a reminder to me, too.
All of the adults in the program listen to the girls’ stories with open hearts and minds, and it can be emotionally draining to be the recipient of some of the things we hear. I think it might be harder for us, as adults, to walk away from an evening of personal sharing than it is for those girls who have also been listeners. Unless they are, themselves, a party to it, human suffering isn’t quite real for them. Most of them are affected by sad stories, but even the most empathetic teen finds the drama exciting. We adults, who have seen or, perhaps, experienced the longer term consequences of the matters discussed in some of our workshops, see the potential problems up the road, and it’s hard to know what to do with that knowledge. After all, our forebodings may never come to be. We’re not actually sure that the stories we hear are completely true. Teenagers often embellish for dramatic effect. So we leave these sessions a little shaky, and in the days that follow, we worry about what we’ve heard.
That’s why we met with our counselors after the 10/24 workshop – to retell the stories, get each other’s perspective on what we actually had heard, and come up with a plan to move forward. The counselors guide us through this. Their experience, expertise, and knowledge help us put things in perspective and figure out how to prioritize our next steps. Sometimes we decide that we need only be vigilant in workshops to notice changes in the appearance or behavior of a girl about whom we’re concerned. Sometimes we contact a girl’s parent or guardian. And sometimes the counselors use their resources to provide extra help, in the form of group or individual counseling, for one or more of the girls.

Talking and planning with Kim and Karen helped me reset my focus. Perhaps because I’m a storyteller, I have a tendency to get wrapped up in other people’s stories. When I listen to the girls’ stories, I extrapolate and make connections to my own experiences or those of other students from other times and places, and I begin to lose the distance necessary for objective listening. I need to be reminded that my job is teaching writing and performance. Once I get back into the role I know how to play, I can get back to the work of the program. For me this cycling is another part of the GS process. Each time I complete it, I know a little bit more about myself and my craft.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

The NJEA Experience

            We didn’t meet with the girls last week because school was closed for the annual New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) convention.  We still led a Girls Surviving workshop, however.  This one was not held at our local high school but in Atlantic City, and it was not for teenage girls but for teachers attending the convention. It was a much longer drive than usual but well worth it.
             We weren’t sure that it would be.  Like the workshop we had presented for teaching artists in September, we planned this one for about 20-30 participants who we wanted to engage in the same kinds of activities we use in a typical Girls Surviving workshop and experience first-hand the collaborative process that leads to the writing and performance of a Girls Surviving original play. The plan had been successfully tested and we were looking forward to trying it again in another setting. Our only problem was that NJEA assigned us a room with capacity for 250 participants. We’re still not sure how that happened, but when we got the news, we immediately requested a 50-person enrollment limitation.  The convention, however, is a big and complicated event; understandably, NJEA couldn’t promise to accommodate us. Our only recourse was to come up with a contingency plan, walk in prepared, and hope for a much smaller group.   

While we didn’t really think our workshop would attract that many people, we were a little nervous as we set out on our adventure. Seeing the room didn’t ease our minds.  It was an enormous carpeted square, lined on three sides with straight-backed chairs that could not be separated or moved. Lining the fourth wall, opposite the entrance, were a podium and a long table covered with a black cloth.  Entirely filling the corner next to the podium was a floor to ceiling white screen for showing power points. The room was so big that one person who poked a head in to see what was going on asked if we were conducting a square dancing workshop. Needless to say, it wasn’t conductive to a process-oriented workshop in writing and performing.  The only good news was that a sign on the entrance door stated that NJEA had limited enrollment after all – to 85.

As it turned out, 85 people were not interested in a workshop entitled: Teen Girls Speak Out Through Writing and Performance. 50 people weren’t either.  Not even 20 or 30. Only four showed up. Far from being a disadvantage, the low turnout enriched the experience for all of us. Most important, it gave us extra time to get to know each other.  And, as we’ve learned from leading Girls Surviving workshops with teenagers, feeling comfortable in a group is a necessary precursor to any theatrical collaboration.  Because we had enough time at the outset to establish a good working relationship with our participants, they were increasingly willing to take risks as we moved through the agenda.  They participated in improvisations and had fun doing them.  They talked about sensitive issues that impact the teens they work with. They wrote monologues and dialogues based on our discussion and improvisations about political correctness.  They even risked sharing their writing out loud.  Finally, they came up with creative ideas about how to integrate all of their writing into a single performance piece. Because we had only four participants, we were able to fully explore our collaborative process. As we got more involved in making art together, the room shrank and seemed almost intimate. Our 90 minutes together disappeared in a flash.

We did not stint on discussion time either.  Candid conversations about difficult issues that have no perfect answers help the girls in our troupe bond and often produce ideas for our plays.  We wanted the people in this workshop to experience something similar. There were three teachers and one school counselor in the group, and they had unique stories to tell about the important issues their students grapple with every day. “The seniors at the Vo Tech where I teach,” said one,  “are scared to graduate from high school because they don’t know how they’re going to find work and live on their own.”  Younger children, according to another, are confused about school policies regarding bullying and political correctness. Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, forces them into silence, she explained. Rather than be wrong, they don’t speak out at all.  The school counselor who was part of the group told us that many of the troubled teens who pass through her office seeking advice don’t like themselves, aren’t happy, and are afraid to take time “to smell the roses. “  

Our in-depth conversation revealed how much these educators care about their students’ well being and explained what drew them to our workshop.  When one of the participants complained that she felt like the fun had been taken out of the lives of her students, the others nodded agreement. This group of women came to our workshop looking for creative ways to put the fun back into learning and help their students come to grips with their fears.  The words “Speak Out” in our workshop title must have caught their eyes as they scanned through the convention booklet looking for a session that would meet their needs.  They used the workshop as a forum to give voice to the voiceless, scared, lonely kids they pass in the school hallways day after day.

As the workshop drew to a close, they expressed their gratitude for what they had learned, and we expressed ours for what they had contributed to the process.  Just as working with small numbers of girls in our Girls Surviving workshops allows us to get to know and trust each other, working with this small group of dedicated teachers allowed us to establish relationships that may well extend into the future. When we parted, we exchanged email addresses, and the counselor gave us a signed copy of her book of original poems, written “…to Heal the Heart for Adolescents and Their Parents’Guardians”.  It was the only copy she had brought with her, but she took addresses and promised to send the other participants copies in the mail. Her book, titled Afterthoughts, is dedicated “to a special someone who was afraid to stop and smell the roses.” 

 If we provided every one of our workshop participants with teaching methodologies and exercises that help their students give voice to their fears, engage in meaningful dialogue with each other, their parents or guardians, and their communities, and have fun in the process, then we reached a lot more than four people. In fact, we may have reached as many as 250.  Maybe even more.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Cornerstones of Girls Surviving

            A couple of weeks ago we met with some of our staunchest supporters to talk about what we’ve been doing in Girls Surviving and how we’d like to see the program grow. Two long-time friends of the program, Dr. James Gallagher and Barbara Reuther, the education director at Morris Arts were part of the group.  Morris Arts’ executive director, Tom Werder, and Gina Moran, director of development at Morris Arts, also joined in the discussion.  It was incredibly beneficial for us to hear from members of the community who know and value our program but who aren’t caught up in the day-to-day implementation of it. Their insights into possibilities for expanding the program enriched our ongoing conversation about how we move Girls Surviving into the future.  Since the meeting, I’ve been taking stock of what makes the program work as a way to clarify our path forward.
          What are the cornerstones of Girls Surviving? The first is community involvement.  The meeting I described is just one example of the ways in which people and organizations have helped us throughout the years.  There would be no program at all without the in-kind services provided by the Morris School District and the financial support we receive from our generous donors.  Countless others, too, have lent us their time and talents.  Because we live in the community, we’re able to connect on a personal level with many of them. Living and working as one community has nurtured the program and helped it grow.
           Also essential to its success is the participation of a school counselor in every workshop. Without the expertise of the counselors who have worked with us, we would be at a loss to manage delicate situations that sometimes arise out of our discussions with the girls. Paula described a recent incident in which our counselor, Karen, successfully calmed the group following an emotional reaction to a discussion question. Only a trained social worker or counselor could have so deftly transformed that moment into a positive learning experience.  What happened during that workshop demonstrates the necessity of including an objective expert adult voice in the work we do with adolescent girls.  The volatility of the age demands it.
          Collaborating with each other, as well as with members of the community and the counselors, also has strengthened the work.  Putting two experienced teaching artists from separate disciplines, one a storyteller and the other a playwright/director, in the same classroom to help girls write and perform plays allows for the creation of deep and powerful scripts and performances.  Our partnering extends well beyond the classroom, however. We’re currently planning a presentation for the New Jersey Education Association convention in Atlantic City this week, for example.  And, during the past year we’ve undertaken other projects to expand the reach of Girls Surviving.  Blogging was one of the first.  We hoped that parents raising adolescent girls or educators and artists who work with them might find our ongoing reflections about GS workshops helpful.  Simultaneously, we started writing a training manual for the same audience that details the strategies and techniques we’ve found to be effective in the work we do with girls. Now that the first draft is completed, we’re discussing the revisions we’ll need to make in order to bring the book to publication.

We’ve worked on all of these expansion efforts jointly.  As we’ve moved from one project to the next, we’ve found new ways to give each other the opportunity to share individual talents and skills and allow each other room to grow.   What drives us is our passion for the work, our respect for each other, and the support we’ve received from the girls themselves, their parents or guardians, our alumni, and the professionals and friends who have followed the program since the program started eight years ago. 

As we consider new ways to replicate what we do in other communities, it’s essential for us to be mindful of what has contributed to the current program’s success. Over and over again, people who know the program tell us it ‘works’.   And, over and over again, we seem to come to the conclusion that collaboration with the community, the school, with our supporters, and with each other lies at the heart of that success.  Other elements deserve credit as well, and they will be the subjects of subsequent blog posts. First, though, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which so many people have joined forces to create, sustain, and grow Girls Surviving and express gratitude for their time, energy, and support.