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.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Teach Your Children

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by,
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well; their parent’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you’ll know by.

It’s hard being a parent. There is no good way that I ever found for figuring out how to do it right. You spend your children’s youth trying to figure out the rules as you go. To some extent, all of life is like this, but for parents there is more at stake. The souls of innocents are in our care; we are responsible for nurturing them, helping them grow strong and healthy, and providing them with defenses against the cruelties they will encounter in their lives.
In Girls Surviving, we have been talking and writing about parents and their teenage children. The girls created parent and child characters and wrote scenes of confrontation between them. While the scenes contain moments that feel true, they mostly read like soap opera or broad comedy. For this reason, after the girls wrote and shared their individual writing, Carolyn and I have put off asking them to craft collaborative scenes. Instead, we’ve encouraged them to come up with new family units and new conflicts in the hope that they would hit upon something that took their writing to a deeper place. Two weeks ago, we begin to get somewhere.
After reading some character monologues that had been written the week before, some one suggested that we just write about parents.
“Can we do it anonymously?” asked Cheryl.
There was a murmur of approval from the circle, and everyone began to write. At the end of the workshop, the girls tore their writing out of their notebooks, folded the pages, and tossed them into the center of the room. Carolyn and I divided the pages and typed them to be read aloud at the next workshop. The writing was powerful. And it was full of anger.

“Parents... It’s like no matter what you say, it’s not okay. Or no matter what you do or how hard you try, it’s just not good enough. If only they would take a minute to ask how I’m doing and not how well I did on my last test.”

“(My parents) are what people would call bipolar or ticking time bombs.  Extremely nice one second and ferocious beasts the second.  When I say ferocious beasts, I mean screaming at the top of their lungs, saying the most hurtful things that you would only hear bullies at school say. Heck, bullies are made seen as decent people next to my parents’ harsh side.”

“… my parents over react and take things out of proportion. When they’re angry, they get too angry; if they’re playing around, they play too much.”

“Parents are incredibly stupid. Why bring kids into this world if you don’t care about them?”

When I read these comments, I began to think about what I would have written about my own parents if, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I had been similarly prompted. Then I wondered what my kids would have written about me and my husband. In both cases, the sentiments might have been similar. There are still moments when I feel disdainful of my parents. And, when they were teens, there were certainly times when one or the other of our kids hated one or both of us. And, when I think back on the circumstances, I can understand why.
In last week’s workshop, after we read the pieces quoted above, I told the girls about the Graham Nash song that I quoted at the top of this post. After I sang a bit of it, Carmen asked the staff members in the circle, “What about you guys? You’re the only ones who know what it’s like to be a parent. Do you have any regrets about how things went down with your own kids?”
I do. Most of the ‘do overs’ I would wish for if given the chance have to do with how I responded to problems of or things I said to, one of my children. I wasn’t a bad parent, but no matter how much I know I did right, I am haunted by things I did wrong. As I have watched my children grow to adulthood and see them react to difficulties, I wonder if my mistakes made things harder for them, if my words or actions irreparably scarred them.
In most cases, whenever I have broached the subject with my children, the child in question doesn’t even remember the event I regret. Now that three of my five children are parents, themselves, they empathize with my insecurity about the process. We are all aware of “becoming ourselves” through our parental trials and errors. I bear my own parents no grudges for their parenting mistakes. In fact, I think that dealing with them probably helped me become a better person and a wiser parent, but although I know that my own past mistakes should be left by the side of the road, I can’t seem to let the memories go.

Good or bad, our parents parenting informs our own. Last week, we asked the girls to write advice for parents. The writing was, again, anonymous, and we prompted them with “If I were a parent…” Here are some of the things they wrote:

“At least once a week I would just sit down with each of my children and just talk.

“I would:
- Try to give them good advice.
- Ask how school was.
- Drop them off at school if they missed the bus.
- Attend all their school functions and congratulate them.
- Say “I love you” every time they leave the house.”

“Instead of constantly saying, “You could have done better” to my child, I’d say “good job; I’m proud of you.”

“This is what I would do differently: always, always, without exception, count to 10 when I’m angry – maybe 20 – then speak or leave the room.”

“But, no matter what, I will be sure to give my children all the love and support that my parents have given me.”

Don’t you ever ask them why. If they told you, you would cry. Just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Small Offers/Big Steps

“Hey, Claire!” Janella called out when she first saw Claire enter the classroom.
            “Hey,” Claire replied casually, as she walked toward her usual seat in the circle.
            “I’ve been noticing,” continued Janella gently “that you’ve been sitting way over there.  Would you like to sit here with us?  There’s an empty seat next to me.”
            “Sure!” Claire’s answer came swiftly, unequivocally, joyfully.
            Janella signaled for her to come over and Claire, smiling broadly, made her way across the circle that had been separating them since Girls Surviving workshops began two months ago.
            We smiled too. We were proud of Janella, a long-time participant in Girls Surviving, for reaching out to Claire, one of our most recent additions to the program.
            Sarah, Janella’s best bud in the troupe and another experienced participant, leaned into me when she saw that I was smiling. “Psst,” she whispered into my ear.  “She’s been eating lunch with us in the cafeteria too.”
            There were smiles all around. A giant step had been taken toward bridging the gap between “veteran” troupe members and “newcomers” during this brief exchange.  Small acts of kindness like these are making a huge difference in the way all of the girls are communicating.  New members for whom language is still a barrier have begun to write volumes because our bi-lingual counselor offered to translate anything they wrote in their native language into English.  They also seem much more comfortable speaking in our workshops now that our veterans are beginning to understand how hard it is for them to articulate deep thoughts and feelings in English and how embarrassing it is for them when they make a mistake.

A couple of weeks ago we did an improvisation to illustrate the point.  In it, one of the girls in the troupe who loves French and has been studying it for a couple of years described our classroom in French.  She described it in detail – the desks, the wall art, the chalkboard – as if it was the most beautiful room in the world.  She exulted at the room’s beauty, pointing out its finer points. The contrast between the drab reality and her florid description made the scene very funny.  Occasionally she paused to allow her acting partner, a non-French speaker, time to translate, as best she could, so that all of us could understand. And, of course, we couldn’t. But, using the same inflections and facial expressions as our French-speaking tour guide, the non-French speaker stumbled on, making one mistake after another.  Her misinterpretation of what was being said was hilarious.  Having lived in a foreign country myself, I know how amusing it can be for native speakers to listen to non-natives speak their language.  It’s not always funny, however, to the non-natives, especially if they’re talking about serious issues. I think our veteran girls, each fluent in English, began to learn that lesson during that improvisation.  Since then, they have made a point of encouraging our new English speakers. They ask them questions about their lives prior to moving here, praise their writing and wait patiently for them to respond – in English.
            Last week we were all rewarded when one of them contributed for the very first time in our check-in.  She blushed and laughed to cheers and applause from around the circle.  The circle is beginning to feel unbroken.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Girls Surviving Wins the Day, a Thanksgiving Tale

          Listed below – out of context and as they come to mind: responses to various points of view expressed in a political discussion during the Thanksgiving break.

          “That’s ridiculous.”

          “People are sick of hearing about ….”

          “It’s absurd.”

          “She’s right.”  (implication? You’re wrong)

          I left the discussion abruptly, before it was over.  It wasn’t the political disagreement that bothered me, but the way in which everyone, including me, had been talking to each other.  

          “Nobody was being malicious, just passionate, “I told myself.  “It doesn’t matter how we were speaking to each other.  Underneath it all we know we care about one another,” I said to myself on my silent march to an empty room. “Everyone is just overstuffed with turkey and overtired from all the holiday chaos.”  I walked into the room and shut the door. I needed space to think.

          “I suppose,” I rationalized, “there’s a place for this kind of conversation – a debate, really, in which someone feels so strongly about an issue that he tries to convert others to his way of thinking. It’s okay.  It’s a debate.”

          No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that there had been nothing wrong with the win/lose nature of the discussion, I continued to feel disturbed by it.  My mind wandered to Girls Surviving and all that we do in our workshops to encourage listening, understanding and tolerance even when we disagree. Paula and I had just finished writing an article about the techniques we use with the girls to help them develop enough confidence in themselves to listen without judgment to a variety of points of view but also speak out when an issue is particularly important to them. If we told the girls that what they have to say is ridiculous or flat out wrong, we know they would shut their mouths tight like clams and speak no more.

          Unlike insecure teenage girls, most adults bounce back after having been shut down, as was the case during our Thanksgiving discussion.  But wouldn’t everyone be better off if we took a lesson from the Girls Surviving experience?  Wouldn’t we stand a better chance of changing minds if we allowed others the opportunity to speak their minds without interruption or labeling and they allowed us to do the same?  Maybe we would learn something from the effort that we didn’t know before, see the issue in a different light, feel inspired to research it in more depth, and, most important, know that we had contributed something meaningful to the conversation.

          The Thanksgiving discussion was dying down when I re-entered the scene. People were tired. The long weekend was coming to a close and we all were ready to go our separate ways. Before we disbanded, however, I told the others what I’d been thinking about.  They were surprised and apologetic.  They had focused on what we were debating, not how.  They understood.  We agreed that we all could have done better.  I urged all of us to listen and speak more respectfully.  Future holiday conversations with my friends and family, I believe, will be more thoughtful as a result of passing along the wisdom gained from years of working with the Girls Surviving staff and troupe members.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Slow Steps

So far, this year’s troupe is the most diverse we have had since we began the program. Although our troupes have always been made up of girls with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, those differences have been trumped by their shared experiences as girls, teens, and students. This year, after seven workshops, these similarities seem less important than their differences.
On a large scale, the group divides into veterans and new girls, but there are subsets in both groups. Most of the new girls struggle with issues that, by their own accounts, present them with social difficulties that make them shy about entering a new environment. In some cases, the problem is English language fluency; in another, it is a physical disability. There are also subdivisions among the veterans. The oldest is a senior, the youngest a freshman. Two are heavily involved in high school sports, one is an artist, another a musician with a passion for song writing. Three of the long-standing troupe members have formed such close friendships that they spend much of their free time together. And, of course, each girl has her own day-to-day trials.
The issue of the group’s diversity came into focus for me two weeks ago when the girls were writing dialogues. Looking up from my own writing, I watched two close friends passing notes and drawings back and forth, a group of three giggling as they shared writing with each other, and still another group whispering in Spanish. These groupings made the single girls who were still writing on their own seem lonely. When the girls began to share their writing aloud to the group, three of the newer girls who had written their reactions to the night’s activities instead of dialogues voiced their fear that they had “done it wrong.”
“There’s no wrong here,” one of the veterans assured them.
“Just read what you wrote,” said another. “We want to hear it.”
After each girl read her piece, the more experienced girls praised the work and connected it to the focus of the evening workshop, encouraging the new writers to disclose more of their own thoughts and ideas. This is a skill our veteran troupe members cultivate. They all remember what it was like to be the new girl in the group and they take every opportunity to help new members feel part of the process. Still, the picture of the pre-sharing cliques stayed with me.

Later, during the week, when Carolyn and I typed the writing from that night, we realized that the new girls had, indeed, contributed by offering material and points of view that helped us focus on a possible theme for this season’s play: that of relationships between teens and their parents. Some of the girls have experienced long separations from parents who emigrated years before their daughters were able to join them. Others wrote about parents whose plans for their daughters’ future is in conflict with the girls’ own dreams. They wrote about the confusion they feel about being their parents’ ‘baby’ and, at the same time, becoming a ‘young lady.’ Still others wrote about the strength and support they get from parents.

At last week’s workshop, we suggested this theme to the girls. They discussed it and began to brainstorm a new character, based on the writing in one of the pieces from the week before. The discussion was raucous. Girls talked over each other, had side conversations, moved out of the circle to find a pen or grab a snack. Although they were clearly interested in the topic, there was no progression toward writing. We took a break and when we came back together, I suggested that maybe we could try a playback theater activity. Carolyn asked for a volunteer to share a personal story about her parents for the troupe to ‘play back.’
One of the new girls volunteered. She told us about times she feels despair about her future and about how her father reassures her that he will make sure she is safe. When asked to select actresses to play herself and her father in the scene, she chose our newest member and one of our veterans. It was clear to Carolyn and me that these girls were chosen for their sensitive and empathetic vibe. However, once the scene was set, the new girl, understandably, felt uncomfortable in her role. She wasn’t sure what was expected. Carolyn quickly and quietly took her place and began to speak in the character of the narrator of the tale.
The room fell silent. Girls leaned forward in their seats, straining to hear every word, see every nuanced gesture of a seasoned professional actress. Carolyn was wonderful but when the girl who played the father entered the scene, she was fabulous, too. We all watched and listened to this intimate moment taken from the life of one of our troupe mates. It was stunning. When it ended, we wiped our eyes and the girls began to talk.
“That was awesome!”
“I was about to cry!”
“Carolyn is so good!”
“But so is Angelina!”
I asked the narrator of the story how it felt to hear her own story played back.
“It was pretty accurate,” she said. “It was like that. I don’t know how he does it, but my dad always makes me feel better.”

It is moments like these that will bring the girls together: girls taking risks, girls listening to and empathizing with each other. By the end of the evening, I felt confident that this group will be okay.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Welcoming Newcomers

            There are 30 minutes left in the workshop, enough time for all of the girls to share their writing. Ten of them sit in our circle finishing their work or, if they’re satisfied with what they’ve written, checking their cell phones for messages or quietly chatting with their neighbors. Those who aren’t working behave respectfully. It seems like a compatible group. 

           I say ‘seems’ because I don’t really know yet how well this year’s troupe will jell. Of the ten participants, five are new to Girls Surviving this Fall, one of whom is trying out the program for the first time tonight. Because I’ve recently returned from a two-week absence, I haven’t had many opportunities since we started in October to observe how well the new girls and our veteran troupe members are getting along.

         I watch and listen for clues. Clustered on one side of our circle sit three of our veterans; they chat comfortably while they wait to read.  Three new girls sit together, too; they all know each other outside of school.  In the middle of their threesome sits our newest member.  She was nervous before her friends came into the room because she didn’t know any of the other girls. She looks happy now. On the opposite side of the circle, one of our veterans forms a tight twosome with another new girl. The two live in the same neighborhood but didn’t know each other well before Girls Surviving brought them together.  I see a fast friendship developing there. This pair is bookended by two of the three adults. Also sitting between adults but apart from her peers, is another new girl. While she knows a couple of the others from school, she hasn’t developed close ties with any of them yet. Each girl seems to have gravitated to a safe seat within the circle. I wonder if or when they will risk finding a spot outside of their comfort zones. To some extent, that will depend on the actions of those of us who have learned how to welcome newcomers to the troupe.

            I have reason to be optimistic. In past seasons, I’ve seen how tolerant, understanding, and compassionate some of our veterans can be toward newcomers.  Remembering how insecure they felt during their first few workshops, they make a special effort to reach out. We’ve found ways, too, to encourage the girls to be more inclusive when we observe  two or three-person friendships turning into cliques.  We play silly acting games that get all of the girls laughing.  Or, we ask them to pair up with someone they don’t know well to write a scene or do an improv.  And, if the seating pattern within our circle doesn’t change after several weeks, we mix things up by taking different seats ourselves.

           On this night, I wonder if the new girls will feel shy about sharing their writing and, if so, how the veterans will respond. Everyone is writing a scene based on an improvisation a couple of veterans have just enacted.  In the scene, a 15 year-old character named Steph tries to convince her over protective parents to let her go to a Halloween party that night.  A long-time member volunteers to read first.  Great, I think to myself; she’s modeling the process she knows so well. If a couple of other veterans read after her, the new girls might grow confident enough to share as well. I’m encouraged.  All of the veterans do read first, and a couple of new girls don’t hesitate to follow in their footsteps.  A few newcomers, however, insist that they have done the exercise ‘wrong.’ We try to convince them that there is no such thing as ‘wrong’ in Girls Surviving.  They don’t want to hear that from us, the adults.  They need reassurance from their peers.  It isn’t until the experienced girls echo our refrain and start to beg that they agree to share.

             They’re still uncomfortable, though, and interrupt their reading to explain and expand upon the text.  Even though the writing needs no clarification, we understand why they believe it does.  It is different. They haven’t written scenes. Unlike the veterans, they have little or no experience writing dialogue for the stage.  They probably have never stepped on a stage.  Schools rarely offer their students the opportunity.  Girls Surviving does, and girls who have participated for several seasons develop into skilled playwrights and actresses. Tonight's veteran's have just demonstrated how much they have grown as writers and speakers. Now they demonstrate just how much they have matured.  They encourage the newcomers to continue to share. 
            The writing we hear doesn't focus only on Steph and her restrictive, insensitive parents. It explores new territory too – other types of parent/child relationships.  In their monologues and prose pieces the new girls describe lovingly protective parents who shield their children from harm. They speak of single parents struggling to raise their children on their own. And, they show us parents who absent themselves from their children entirely. What they express through their prose is invaluable to our process.  They provide us with fresh perspectives - insights into alternative family situations.  Most important, they decide to share thoughts and feelings about issues they care about with people they don’t know very well at all.  They take a risk.

          We’re appreciative of the risk the girls are taking and excited about incorporating their perspectives into the play. So are the veterans.  The girls seem to be talking all at once, suggesting ways to develop new characters and scenarios based on what we’ve just heard. It's almost time to go when one of our veterans speaks up: "I think we're done with Steph and her parents for now and should work on something new next week." Everyone agrees. 

          What a terrific group, I think as I pack up leftover snacks, put the classroom back in order and turn out the lights.  The veterans are taking the lead.  They're modeling the acting and playwriting process, coaxing the newcomers to voice their thoughts and opinions and inviting them to join the chorus. I watch newcomers and veterans mingling as we walk out the door into the cold November night. Smiles, laughter, energy, enthusiasm warm the air.