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, January 30, 2014


The week before last, we began character interviews to develop some of the characters who emerged from the “I don’t want to go to school” and “I don’t want to go home” monologues. In a character interview, an actress assumes a role and answers questions in that character’s persona. On the night in question, two writers read their own monologues and performed the follow-up interviews. Some of the topics raised by the monologues were serious and dark: family dysfunction, internet bullying, depression, and drug use. These issues are a pervasive part of teen life and even troupe members who are not dealing with any of them personally know someone – a friend, a family or community member – who is.  
We had a guest at the workshop that evening. Alice is a young adult who was a member of one of the first Girl Surviving troupes. After the workshop, as Alice and I reminisced about her days in the troupe, talk turned to the activity she had just observed.
“Lisa’s interview made me a little uncomfortable,” she said. “It always makes me feel defensive and protective when I hear an adult questioning a teen about their behavior.”
“Well,” I responded, “that means Lisa was doing a great job representing her character. If it made you uncomfortable, she was believable in the role.”
Alice hesitated, as if she were trying to find the softest way to let me down.
“Why do you think she was acting?” she finally asked.
“Because she’s been in the troupe for at least a year and she knows the drill.”
“Yeah, but she was being interviewed about her own monologue. Some of it was probably about her.”
That gave me pause. I have known Lisa for several years and, during that time, have met and heard her talk about her family often enough to have some understanding of the family dynamic and home situation. So, though I know that teens are master secret keepers, I had not thought that Lisa’s monologue revealed her own secrets. Of course, I couldn’t say any of that to Alice without breaking the workshop privacy rule. All I could say was,
“I’m pretty sure she was acting. It’s not the first time she’s done the exercise.”
Alice shrugged. “Maybe something in the interview was a trigger for me,” she said, and dropped the subject.

The more I thought about this conversation in the days that followed, I realized that it was possible that some of Lisa’s monologue was personal. Although I have no inside knowledge of Lisa’s experience with the aspect of the interview that disturbed Alice, I know that the girls tend to base their writing on personal experience, especially in the early stages of our script development. Alice has always been a very intuitive person and, being so much closer in age to Lisa than I, she may have been able to pick up verbal and nonverbal cues that passed me by.
I also remembered that at one point in the character interview, I had felt the need to remind Lisa that there were no ‘wrong’ answers to the questions her character was being asked. “You’re acting,” I had said, “making it up.” Had she hesitated or seemed confused at that point in her interview because a question had become too personal? I will probably never know.

In retrospect, I realized that we should avoid asking a writer to perform an interview about her own work. Last Thursday evening, we interviewed the characters again. This time they were portrayed by different actresses. The information that we gleaned from the second interviews led the focus away from some of the issues in the original monologues, but that’s fine. It’s one of the ways we can help the girls turn their life experiences into fiction. The characters who spoke the original monologues now have personal histories that separate them from the writers who created them and, although they most certainly will reflect some aspects of several girls’ lives, the revelations of the final play will be specific to a fictional person, not one of the cast members.

We are always asking the girls to take risks in the workshops and performances. Many of those risks are intellectual or artistic, but sometimes a girl can find herself risking the exposure of something that goes to the core of her being. Although we would never consciously push a girl into that place, there are times when our discussion questions or writing prompts or theater games land her there. Because we never know when this may happen, we try to be vigilant to the types of cues that Alice thought she picked up during Lisa’s character interview, so that we can reach out and bring the girl back to safe ground. Do we miss cues? Of course, but I think we have managed to create a wider safety net that will catch anyone who falls through the cracks of our first defense. The net is woven of the trust and respect Carolyn wrote about in her last post. If a girl founders, the troupe is there to hold her up.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Respect and Trust

            Our first meeting after the holiday break was last week.  It was supposed to have taken place the week before, but school activities were cancelled that day because of the threat of snow.  Because the break was longer than usual, we knew we had to begin the first workshop with a check-in.  After that, we planned to have the girls read aloud all of their writing from December.  Paula and I had typed and copied it during the vacation, and we anticipated that the reading would generate ideas for play scenarios. 
          While we did talk some that night about the play before we took a snack break, we never returned to it afterward.  Instead, we needed to listen to a couple of girls who had inadvertently found themselves in a crisis a couple of days before our workshop. Our counselor, Karen, was fully involved and suggested more mature ways to handle similar problems in the future. Between the three of us, we were able to calm the girls and ask questions that allowed them think about the situation differently.
           This is not the first time that we’ve needed to allow personal experiences to take precedence over playwriting.  We expect that to happen. One of the goals of the program is to create a safe environment for girls to talk about issues they can’t talk about anywhere else. We encourage candid, in-depth discussions because we’ve seen the way they help girls create characters for their plays and give them voices that speak from the heart. We also recognize that how we respond in these situations impacts them as people. While we look to the counselors for guidance during crises, we know that what we say and how we say it matters.
           Over the years, girls have gotten increasingly comfortable talking to us. In the first years of the program, some of our inquiries and writing prompts met with total silence. We’ve come a long way since then, and the current troupe is entirely different.  In this group, private concerns spill out from around our circle. Our discussions and the girls’ writing, more often than not, are serious and intimate, even though they say they want to write a comedy. Some of the writing they’ve done so far this year hasn’t been fictionalized enough yet to posted on the blog.  Figuring out what is appropriate to share about our discussions and writing, with whom, and under what circumstances is always on my mind. Knowing so much about the girls’ lives carries with it the responsibility to keep confidences.

The girls in recent troupes have trusted our judgment about confidentiality.  Why has that happened? I wonder. Is it because they know from the outset that it is the norm to keep private conversations private?  Or because they know their voices are free to speak in the workshops and will form the foundation for a play?  Is it about what we say to them or how we handle delicate situations that inspire their confidence?  Is there something to be learned about helping girls break their silence by trying to figure out why these girls feel comfortable talking with us?

The answer is that I’m not sure, but I’m going to try to puzzle it out.  One reason I think the girls have come to trust us is that we demonstrate our respect for the group’s cardinal rule: what is said in Girls Surviving stays in Girls Surviving. One night in the early Fall, one of the girls suggested that we do an exercise that required us to write down on a slip of paper a secret that someone had entrusted us with, then gather the anonymously written secrets into a hat that would be passed around the room.  Each person in the group was to pick from the hat, read what was on the paper and begin a discussion about an issue or concern based on the secret.  Listening to the description of the exercise, I was worried that doing it would tempt us to focus on the identity of the writer and that of the person whose secret was being revealed rather than on the content of the secret. I didn’t keep my thoughts to myself. Instead, I reminded the girls about the importance of keeping confidences.  They heard me out and agreed that they would stay focused on issues, not identities. Given their assurances, we proceeded with the exercise.  By raising the trust issue with them, I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to respect their privacy.

The responsibility I personally feel to keep their confidence stays with me every day. As I sat down to write this blog post, I experienced two impulses: to describe and analyze the personal discussion that became the focus of our last workshop and, simultaneously, to refrain from divulging personal information that I believe would jeopardize the trust the girls have placed in me. The blog is an invention of the internet, and I’ve learned a lot about the marvels and dangers of the internet in recent years, most of it from the girls themselves.  I treat it warily and use it judiciously.

The girls know that we take the rule about keeping confidences seriously.  They also know that the responsibility we feel to respect privacy is matched by the responsibility we feel to act on their behalf if we learn that one of them is in serious trouble. They have seen us call on counselors for help when a girl breaks down during a workshop. They’ve heard us ask counselors to follow-up during the school day with girls who seem fragile or have been exhibiting uncharacteristically negative behaviors. They’ve also seen us manage other kinds of difficult conversations on our own. In other words, they’ve seen the way we use our judgment to distinguish what is really serious from what is not.  And, they respect us for knowing when it is appropriate to reach out for help.

The respect is mutual.  We value what the girls offer us.  It is a great gift that they share so much with us, and we understand the courage it takes for them to open up. We acknowledge and affirm their courage by sharing some of our own deepest concerns, by recounting appropriate examples of our personal struggles. We do not shy away from difficult experiences. Meeting courage with courage, candor with candor is one of the ways we show our respect.

What we do most often, though, is simply listen to them and find something in what they say to validate.  For example, if they tell us about a problem that they’re attempting to handle on their own, we might not agree with everything they’re doing to correct the situation, but we look for something in what they did that says to them, “ You’re okay.  You are not a bad person. We respect your efforts to correct a bad situation. We believe you will ask for help if you need to.”   We let them know that we are human beings too, who, like all of us, can be fallible.

We do not pretend to be anything other than who we are: two older white women, experienced teaching artists, and mothers, who work with them because we want to help them gain confidence in expressing themselves in ways that can be heard.  We aren’t their peers, their mothers, classroom teachers, school principals, or even their grandmothers.  They don’t have to worry that we’re going to “blab” what they say, ”text” about it or ” twitter” it. They may find it amusing, too, that they have to explain their slang to us. Perhaps they find comfort in that which distances us from one another.  That which separates us may, in the end, actually bring us closer together.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Muddling Along: Timing is Everything

The last time we met was the week before winter break. As I wrote in my last post, there were several break-throughs in the girls’ writing that night, so it was a fruitful workshop. It also presented a paradigm of the kind of thing that happens when teenagers are working in their socio-emotional zone of proximal development. That is, when they are talking or writing around something about which they are just beginning to gain a mature understanding. The girls were certainly in the zone during that workshop. Their teenage neurons were getting little zaps of adult understanding as they struggled to write through their stereotypical stereotyped characters, and some of them, like Hannah, seemed to have had real epiphanies. Others seemed to be tottering on the edge of the dark side. Neither situation is surprising. Not only are both normal to the process, but on any given day, roles could be reversed: the Hannahs might be lost in the fog and the other girls bathed the light.

from Arthur Rackham's Sleeping Beauty

We stayed late that night because the girls were so excited about what they had written that they couldn’t wait to share. When one of the “I don’t want to go to school” monologues mentioned a twitter site that was outing “thotties,” the other girls giggled and the reader blushed and looked up to check adult reactions before sharing the rest of the piece. The adult faces must have looked blank. I, for one, who had never heard the expression “thottie,”, wasn’t sure that I hadn’t just misheard her saying “hottie.” After the reading, however, the room exploded into a burst of giggles and jokes. When we adults asked for clarity, we were informed that “thottie” was a variant of the acronym T.H.O.T. which stands for That Ho’ Over There.
From what the girls said, I gathered that someone in their school or in our town had created a twitter account that named girls who have a reputation for being sexually loose. When I asked, “Who is doing the judging on this?” I got a flutter of answers.

“The guy who made the group.”
“But everybody knows about those girls.”
“Well at least the ones from (one town) and (another town).”
“Oh, please, they got it right about this town, too.”

from which I gathered that none of our girls’ names were on the site. As the conversation continued, it was clear to me (and to Carolyn, as I learned when we debriefed on the topic a couple of days later) that, although the girls knew that the twitter site was, technically, a inappropriate and mean use of social media, they also found it exciting and, to some extent, justified. In fact, their righteous indignation at girls who “fool around” was unnerving.
Before we broke up for the night, I gave the speech I always give when the topic of ‘sluts’ or ‘ho’s’ come up.
“Although I don’t condone promiscuity, if a girl decides to be promiscuous, it’s her business and she doesn’t deserve to called those names. And, as you well know, there are other reasons a teen girl may have had a sexual experience that have nothing to do with her own decision.”
Karen added, “How many girls are listed on the site just because someone wants to hurt them, whether they are sexually active or not?”

The girls have heard it all before. I’m sure our comments made even a slight dent in their thoughts. When one of the girls added,
“I hear they’re going to make a facebook page with girls from Morristown High and the middle school,”
it began a new wave of excited speculation. No names were mentioned, of course (The girls know that public naming of victims or alleged perpetrators is taboo in GS workshops.), but most of the girls seemed to have ideas about which of their classmates’ names might appear on the page.

After the workshop that night, and all through the next day, I worried about this discussion. My main concern was the girls’ reaction to the situation. In their talk, they seemed to have no sympathy for the victims of the social media bullying that was going on under all of our noses. The only suggestion that, individually, they might have other ideas was in one of the monologues that prompted the discussion. That monologue began:

“I hate going to school so much. Everything at school is depressing. People judge me all the time.  They say “ohh.  She a thot,” Like what did I do?  They call me  a slut because I have a big chest and butt. Me and my ex-boyfriend used to be chill but then he sent around that one picture that I sent him, but that was when we broke up…” 

As I dwelt on the information revealed in the workshop, my worries became fears. Did any other adults know about this? What was really on the twitter site? How many girls might be suffering as a result of it? I remembered the stories of worse-case scenarios that appear in the news, the suicides that are mentioned at every anti-bullying assembly I’ve ever attended, and I realized that I had to make sure that someone with the authority to stop it knew what was going on.
On Saturday morning, I consulted my daughter, Lizzy, who is an alumna of GS. She knows much more about social media than I (who am not really sure what ‘twitter’ is), and, at my request, she looked up the site. When she came to tell me about what she found, I could tell from her face that it was something much worse than I had imagined.
“Ma, we have to call the police,” she said. “This stuff is child pornography.”
She went on to tell me that, although she hadn’t had the stomach to look past her first glimpses, those had been enough to show her that the information on the site consisted mainly of nude photos of teenagers. Some of them were probably ‘selfies,’ like the photo alluded to by the character in the monologue. Others… who knows? At any rate, it was out of our hands. I called our GS counselors to make sure that they agreed with Lizzy’s conclusion. Their first suggestion was also, “call the police.”
So we did. A young officer from our town’s police force stopped by to interview us and to get the information from Lizzy that would allow the police to access the site. He told us that his report would be sent to the County District Attorney, and he left.

That was over two weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything else. Our first workshop after the break was canceled because of snow, so I don’t know if the girls know more about the situation. And I’m not sure how much to tell them about my own follow-up. To them, it might seem like I broke the cardinal rule of our workshop discussions, “What is said in GS, stays in GS.”  The girls need to know, and we tell them this, that the exception to the rule is, “unless keeping it secret might hurt someone.”

When Carolyn and I talked about it after the workshop, we decided that we needed to bring an expert to talk to the girls about the dangers of social media and about the dangers of labeling girls and women by their perceived behaviors. So, when we find the right person to present that information, it will be our next step. In the meanwhile, we’re back on stereotypes. We’ve never really left them.