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, February 20, 2014

What Helps the Girls Grow

             Once again, this school year, we’re witnessing our girls blossom into young adults. For the first time, we’re documenting the transformation in our blog posts.  Our last two posts have described the remarkable self-confidence and maturity we’re seeing in our current troupe members.  They are transforming into young women, right now, before our eyes.  Our written reflections provide insights into how the program fosters that growth and what we can do to improve upon our process. We’re learning a lot with every post we write.
          We started the blog nearly two years ago because friends, colleagues and others who had been observing the program’s successes over the years were urging us to find ways to replicate the program. While we were excited about that idea, we were at a loss as to how to get started.  Then, one day about four years ago, our long-time sponsor and champion, Dr. James Gallagher, sat down with us over lunch and suggested that we write a book or manual that describes our goals and process for teaching artists, educators, organizations, and even parents who might be interested  in creating similar programs for girls in other communities.  We were honored by Jim’s confidence in us to tell the Girls Surviving story. At the time, though, we weren’t sure we really knew how to talk about what we do in our workshops in a way that anyone would understand.  We clearly understood our goals and had spoken and written about them many times before, but we wondered if our process was too dynamic to explain. 

Much of what we do seems too intuitive and fluid to capture in words.  We do plan workshop agendas carefully and have kept detailed records of them.  The problem is that our agendas must shift in response to the girls’ unpredictable needs, scheduling conflicts, fluctuations in attendance, unanticipated interruptions, and unexpected changes in the girls’ perceptions about their play idea. We often have to retrieve other, unplanned, exercises we have successfully used before out of our memory boxes or invent new ones to redirect a workshop that has taken a surprising turn. We also take copious notes about all of our workshop experiences.  Our notes, agendas and materials, though, are meant for our use only. They are first impressions, quick observations, and hastily jotted down ideas for follow-up workshop activities. At the time that the book project was presented to us, we hadn’t yet studied them to see how they might be connected and explained to others.

We were intrigued by the idea of puzzling out our process by writing the manual, as Jim had suggested, and left lunch that day assuring him that we would give it serious thought.  Jim continued to encourage us.  Others did too. The program continued to flourish, and we began to notice specific reasons why, take careful notes, and discuss what we were learning on a regular basis. Finally, buoyed by support and increasingly confident that we would be able to explain our process to others, we decided to tackle the “book” project.  We started with the blog, then began using what we learned from writing our posts to craft a manuscript.  We’ve just completed a second draft of it and are preparing to send it to other professional teaching artists for comments.

During the writing process we discovered a lot about what makes the program work.  Most of it has to do with collaboration.  When Paula and I first envisioned a program for girls, we knew we wanted our process to be collaborative.  I don’t think we fully understood, however, how extensive the collaboration would become and how profoundly it would impact the growth of the program and its participants. Collaboration is the force that sustains and nurtures it and allows everyone involved – girls as well as adult mentors - to grow.

It is what inspired Paula and me to write the book in a way that weaves our individual writing styles, experiences, and thought processes together.  It has transformed us into a writing team as well as a teaching team. Now, when we talk about the book, we do it in much the same way that we work together in the workshops.  When we agree, we finish each other’s sentences.  When we disagree, we listen to the other’s point of view and talk through the issue until we reach consensus. Or, we take a break to think things over and return to the topic at another time. Either way, when we hang up the phone and go back to the computer we feel valued and validated.  And, when we go into our weekly workshops we watch our current troupe members discussing issues and play ideas in exactly the same way.  We’re deeply committed to the collaborative process. It has become second nature to us.

In a single word, “collaboration” is the Girls Surviving process.   Girls Surviving fosters growth by involving all participants in the making of a play.  It invites all to share the work, the limelight, and the fun.  It encourages new voices to join in the conversation.  It reaches out to other artists, educators, community leaders and organizations for support and fresh ideas.  Girls Surviving is inclusive and respectful.  It welcomes all who want to collaborate and are willing to make a commitment to work toward a goal.  It relies on the power of live performance and post-play discussions to expand the dialogue about important issues beyond the confines of its inner circle of collaborators. Collaboration is the process, growth and dialogue are the goals.

Girls Surviving has developed a loyal and enthusiastic group of supporters over the years, and we’re very grateful to all of those who have helped us grow. Among them are our funders, Morris Arts, the Morris School District and other local and state, organizations. School counselors, teachers, and administrators, as well as parents, Girls Surviving alumna, and others in the community who have seen the value of the program continue to recommend it to girls who they believe would benefit from it. The girls who participate now are committed to the program’s goals and process and generally stay engaged in troupe life for several seasons. These girls change in remarkable ways. Over time, they read aloud with improved fluency. They develop confidence speaking in public. They interact comfortably in groups, large or small. They learn to ask for adult help if they find themselves face-to-face with personal situations they can’t handle by themselves. They exhibit self-control when they’re angry or upset. They treat people of many different ages, races, economic circumstances, and genders with increased understanding and respect. After high school, most complete college. As the program has grown and matured, so have successive groups of girls. And so have we.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Old Girls, New Girls

Over the past few weeks, we have added three girls to the troupe. Actually, two of the girls are past members who have rejoined. Both girls were active in the program for sustained periods of time. One of them was a long-time member who dropped out because her family responsibilities made it difficult for her to participate regularly. The other, who was with us a couple of summers ago, left abruptly with no explanation after school began the following fall. The troupe has changed quite a bit since these girls were in it. They returned to find familiar and unfamiliar faces in a group that has knitted tight bonds in recent months.
The week that Jen, who had been away for over a year, returned, I watched the girls’ reaction to her appearance. The most veteran troupe members, girls who had previously worked with her, greeted her with screams and hugs.
“OMG! You’re back?”
“Are you going to stay?”
“We missed you!”
The newer girls stood back and observed, wondering, perhaps, how Jen’s participation might change the group dynamic. As I watched them sizing her up, most likely making the inevitable judgments on her affect, her clothes, and her overall appearance, I wondered, too, if her insertion into the group would set us back a week or two until she became familiar to and with everyone. However, as soon as the work of the workshop began – reading monologues, interviewing and analyzing characters – it was clear there would be no problem. Jen’s own insights and ideas, and her respect and enthusiasm for the opinions and ideas of the other girls, assured a seamless transition across the months she had been away. In spite of her long absence, she proved herself to be a Girls Surviving troupe member who knows the routine and has assimilated the process. It was as if there were no gap in her attendance between workshops.
A week later, Carrie, whose irregular attendance had dwindled to a prolonged absence from the program, asked Karen if it would be ‘okay’ for her come back and attend whenever possible. Unlike Jen, who had burst upon us the week before, Carrie entered the workshop space hesitantly, as if she wasn’t sure she had made the right decision in returning.
“Oh, thank god you’re back!” shouted the girl who first saw Carrie in doorway. “We need you.”
“Yes!” said another one, “you arrived at the perfect time.”
“She’s the best writer,” the first girl said one of the new girls.
This week, the girls who didn’t know Carrie welcomed her warmly and introduced themselves at once. I think there are two reasons for this change. Jen’s easy re-entry the week before had definitely increased their confidence in the strength of the group and of their own place in it, but I also think that Carrie’s initial shyness appealed to their instinctive kindness. Again, in no time it was as if Carrie had never been away.

Last week, a ‘real’ new girl joined the group. Tina is not only new to the program; she is also new to the area. She is not familiar with our town or with the high school. Because I had talked with her about the program a couple of weeks before, and she arrived with a piece of writing to share with the group. We began the workshop with a check-in, which we thought we be a comfortable way to introduce everyone. As we went around the circle, giving each girl a chance to say her name and tell a little about her week, I though Tina seemed wary. When it was her turn to speak, she just said, “I’m Tina, and my week was fine.” As the check-in continued, the girls joking about and sympathizing with their friends’ weekly trials and triumphs, I sympathized with Tina, remembering how hard it is to be the new girl in a group of old friends.
Last week we had quite a bit of transcribed writing to review because Carolyn and I, reluctant to take time away from the writing process in recent weeks, had been saving it up. Before we began reading and discussing this material, we asked Tina to share the piece she had written.
“I don’t know. Could somebody else read it?” she said.
Lisa volunteered right away, and as she read the piece, the other girls listened respectfully. When the reading was over, they began to talk at once.
“That was deep.”
“I really liked it.”
“It fits with the scene we wrote last week.”
Tina visibly warmed under the influence of this praise, and as the workshop continued, she took part in reading, discussion, and even volunteered to perform an improvised scene. At one point there was some disagreement in the group about a character in one of the written scenes. When someone asked Tina what she thought, she began,
“Well, it’s your play, so I’m not sure I should say –“
“No!” Lisa interrupted, “it’s your play, too. You’re a part of this now.”
“That’s right,” the other girls agreed. Tina smiled and joined the discussion in earnest.

I have seen teenage girls unsuccessfully negotiate similar social situations more times than I can count. Girls may ignore or gang up on the newest member of the group, the outsider to their clique or club. They may let their own insecurities dictate their behavior, creating more discomfort for the newcomer. But in all of the situations I described in this post, our girls made it their priority to keep everyone comfortable. I’m proud of them, but I’m not surprised. It’s the Girls Surviving way.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Story of Two Bake Sales - or - How a Group Became a Troupe

            There comes a special time during each recreation of the troupe when the girls seem to hit their stride and become writers and performers.  We notice changes in behaviors and attitudes that tell us the girls feel comfortable enough to move beyond a preoccupation with personal revelation in their writing and discussions and focus instead on creating fictional characters and scenes for their play.  They seem to transition from an initial, and essential, “bonding phase” into a “playwriting/performing phase. “

We never know exactly when this transformation will occur, but the signs of it are unmistakable. Check-in takes less time.  No one interrupts when another person is speaking.  Everyone returns to the room on time after our break.  Policing of the hallways by adult leaders is unnecessary.  The girls’ reluctance to give up side conversations or mute cell phones when it’s time to turn to work disappears.  Instead of sighing, staring at blank notebook pages, or leaving to go to the bathroom when we segue into a writing activity, everyone plunges into it. Hands shoot up when we ask for volunteers to participate in improvised interviews of characters.  We can’t predict when this transition will occur.  It’s almost as if the girls are telling us that it is time to move on.  “Okay, we trust you” they seem to be saying.  “We know each other really well and no longer need to spend a lot of time talking about ourselves.  What’s next? “
            We noticed the change in the current troupe during the workshop following the Girls Surviving January bake sale.  A similar sale the girls held in late October when the group was just beginning had been unsettling.  Everyone involved had assumed that planning was unnecessary because the bake sales held the year before had been tremendously successful. Many of the same girls had worked on those sales. As a result, when the October bake sale rolled around, we weren’t prepared enough to manage some of the problems that interfered with its success.  Girls who hadn’t been part of the troupe for several months appeared at the sale table as if out of nowhere and began selling. To current troupe members, it seemed like they were running things. There weren’t a lot of baked goods to sell, and variety was lacking.  There were too many brownies and not enough cupcakes.   “Customers” took food without paying for it. Girls who had spent their own money buying supplies and devoted a lot of time to baking felt let down by those in the troupe who didn’t make anything or took food that should have been for sale.  Many felt that we should have confronted past troupe members about taking control at the counter. Since the girls had previously demonstrated their competence running bake sales, we assumed that including past participants had been part of their plan. We had no idea they had not been invited.  Unfortunately, the girls didn’t tell us or ask for help during the sale. When it was all over, everyone felt confused about what had gone wrong.  Understandably, girls were disheartened by the miscommunications, disorganization and lack of revenue.

All of that changed in the January sale.  Thanks to a couple of brave troupe members who brought all of these sticky issues to a candid discussion in the Fall, the girls were able to organize and implement a dynamite bake sale in which each one of us played an essential and important role. In advance of the sale, everyone signed up to bring something.  Another list was made of the current troupe members who would be dismissed early to set up for the sale and participate in the selling.  No one outside this troupe, we decided, would be allowed behind the counter. Paula and I arrived early to supervise and guarded the table when hordes of students descended upon it.  When the girls arrived, they stood their ground when puppy-dog faces begged freebies.  We asked veterans to support the troupe with purchases but not to conduct business. We also encouraged them to return to workshops and join us for the next sale.  At the end of the day, the girls packed up what hadn’t been sold to bring to our meeting the next night for a celebration. The girls had doubled the amount they made in October.

When they walked into the workshop after their successful sale, they were confident and proud. They warmly welcomed a newcomer into their circle and greeted two girls who were rejoining the troupe after long absences with hugs and laughter.  Responsive to the changing group dynamic – with three new people in their midst - they immediately suggested we start the workshop with a check-in. During the sharing, each girl generously offered something personal about her life but refrained from turning the exercise into a prolonged discussion of personal issues. Many girls ended their check-in with words that made each new person feel valued, especially the girl coming into the group for the first time.  “It’s really nice to have someone new here,” said one, “I know it feels kind of awkward…it’s really hard the first time, but it’s really great.”

Each girl who had started with us in the early Fall, who had struggled through the mistakes of the first bake sale, and walked triumphantly away from the second, seemed comfortable in her own skin. These girls were trusting of us and each other, sensitive to the needs of others, generous, and eager to work.  Each in turn took a leadership role.  When I suggested a couple of writing options, one girl jumped right in with a perfect answer.  She knew exactly what to do and the order in which to do it:  “Let’s start by interviewing (actresses playing) characters for the scene we want to write.  That way when we write the scene, we’ll know what to write.”  We knew they were learning to create, as well as discuss.  The transition had begun. 

The story of the two bakes sales illustrates how a Girls Surviving group becomes a cohesive troupe.  We’re confident that the skills learned from successfully working together to sell cookies, cakes, and other goodies will guide this troupe throughout the rest of the semester.  Success will build upon success…trust will breed increasing trust…problems will arise and the girls will help resolve them…confidence will grow…a play to be proud of will be written and performed…and this troupe, like those before them, will take a well-earned bow.