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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Surviving Real Life?

We often write about how much the Girls Surviving program depends upon our community. The program wouldn’t exist without the support of Morris Arts, the Morris School District, our State and County partners, the Gallagher family, and other groups and individuals in and around Morristown. In spite of this, I find that I view the GS workshop as a self-contained space. Sure, there are many outside influences keeping it in place, but the space in which we work with the girls feels sheltered from the world at large. This is the atmosphere we strive to create and, most of the time, we are successful. The girls in our current troupe know that they can talk about anything without fear that their conversations will be repeated outside the workshop walls. They demonstrate their trust by telling us about problems and situations they aren’t comfortable communicating to other adults.
In spite of this, my feeling of safety is an illusion. This was recently brought home to me in a conversation with some of the girls. The events we talked about happened outside of the workshop, but that’s my point. No matter how safe we manage to keep the girls inside our own space, they live in the world, and we can’t protect them from the reality of their individual lives. I never forget this in its ‘big picture’ form; I am reminded every week that many of our girls live in difficult circumstances. However, I often slip into the fantasy that we have some control over the little things. The truth is, we have no control at all over even the tiniest things that can make our girls miserable.

A week or so ago, I was driving some of the girls home from a workshop, when one of them mentioned Charlie, a former student of mine who had spent a season in the Girls Surviving troupe a while back.
“Oh,” I said, “How is she doing? Is she enjoying high school?”
There was a moment of silence before one of the girls said, “I think she gets good grades.”
“And does she have friends?” I asked.
Another silence. Then,
“I don’t really know. I only have one class with her.”
“But….,” began another girl.
“But what?” I asked.
“Umm, she has some trouble with a few of the girls in the class, bullying trouble.”
The girls went on to tell me a fairly typical, but nonetheless horrible, story about how Charlie was treated by some of her classmates.
“Does the teacher know?” I asked. “Is he doing anything to stop the behavior?”
According to the girls, the teacher did know because Charlie had told him, but although he spoke to the bullies about their behavior, the bullying had not stopped. It had become more subtle which made it harder for the teacher to identify as inappropriate. Implicit in the girls’ account to me was the suggestion that Charlie now felt too threatened to follow up on her initial report.
The girl who was telling the story hesitated before saying, “I know we don’t use names when we talk about things like this, but can I tell you who the bullies are?”
“Would it make a difference?” I asked.
“Probably not, but they are Girls Surviving girls,” she said.
An so the story got even worse. At least, it did for me. Two of the alleged bullies were former troupe members; another is a girl who still occasionally attends workshops.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when the bad guy in a situation is someone you know and care about, it complicates things. I want Charlie to feel safe in school; I don’t want a group of bullies to further erode her self-esteem. (To that end, I shared the story with Karen who will follow up with the girls involved and with the proper authorities at the high school.) However, if the story I was told is accurate, I am also concerned about the moral damage their behavior is causing the bullies, themselves. All of those girls have the potential to do something meaningful with their lives, but they are also dealing with forces that can be destructive to character: peer pressure, family misfortune, community violence, the general injustices of life. I don’t know what sends some teens to the dark side while others in similar situations manage to steer clear of destructive behavior. Our artists and counselors try to give our girls tools that will support them in their interactions outside of the GS workshop space, but we can’t underestimate the power of the forces they will be called upon to resist.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Powerful First Scene


            Ten girls started talking at once. They were in the middle of an intense and controversial discussion about what they had just read, the first completed draft of their scene between Brian and Connor.  Brian was the focus of their disagreement. Some lobbied hard to make Brian a more tragic character, the gay son of a soldier killed in Iraq. Others strongly disagreed. Apart from rearranging and revising a few parts of the script, they argued to keep the scene pretty much as it was.
We allow these discussions to flow largely unimpeded. Occasionally we intervene - to set the record straight on a particular fact or reassure newer or less secure girls that their opinions are valid.  We also share our point of view, hoping to use the opportunity to teach the girls more about what makes good theater. We know, though, that our voices don’t hold much sway with teenage girls. That’s why we guide the girls to find a way to resolve these kinds of issues on their own.

Grace, one of the more experienced troupe members and Annie, a newer, but mature member, stepped forward on this occasion, offering opinions that supported ours. Both are knowledgeable about playwriting from their past participation in Girls Surviving and they saw the value in what we said about the scene. With their help we were able to steer the group toward a resolution that allowed everyone to recognize the complexity of writing for the stage.

            With so many people speaking at once, it’s hard to recall exactly how the conversation unfolded, but it went something like this:

“I think Brian should be gay.  Did you see my dialogue – the one where he uses a pink screwdriver to fix the elevator,” asked Sara, one of our younger and relatively new girls.

Another voice promptly agreed.  “Yes, in mine, he’s gay because his Dad died, he spends time with his mom, and he has no male role model.”

 “That’s not why people are gay, by the way,” Paula interjected, to dispel that misconception about what causes homosexuality.

“Having his father die and making him gay is over the top,” countered Grace.
“It’s melodramatic.”

 “What? Are people afraid of making him gay?” persisted Sara.

“We’ve written about this topic before…in several plays,” we answered simultaneously.

“I didn’t mean to start World War III,” said a new girl who seemed to feel a little guilty for adamantly stating her opinion.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Really, you can do anything you want.  I have to say, though, I like the scene the way you’ve written it.  Brian’s claustrophobia is serious and real, but the way it is revealed is funny too.  As is, the scene is a genuine comedy.  If Brian’s dad is dead, it will take a tragic turn.”

“And keep in mind,” added Paula, “ you’re also writing another scene – the one about Brittany and Belle, who are very troubled characters.”

            “We’d have to re-write a lot of the scene if we decide to have his dad die. Not much of what’s there now would work,” said Annie.

            “But he could still be gay.  He says in the scene that he’s shy around girls.  When we made up his back story, we said he is a poet,” argued Jeanna.

            “Just because he’s a poet, doesn’t mean he’s gay,” I heard from another corner of the room.

            “Actually,” I said, “he’s complex and interesting the way he is now.  On the surface, he’s a typical jock – athletic, smart, good-looking.  Underneath, he’s sensitive and vulnerable. I've known a lot of men in my life who you might look at and assume are jocks, but really aren’t. I think it’s terrific the way you’ve shattered stereotypes.”

            “What Carolyn is saying is so true,” said Annie. “There are a lot of guys like that.”

            There was a pause in the conversation as everyone considered how to reconcile differences and find a way forward. Grace came to the rescue.  “He could be gay,” she said, and paused.  “But I think it would be good not to make his homosexuality obvious…leave it ambiguous…to let the audience to make up their own minds about whether or not he’s gay. “

            Annie agreed. “Yeah…leave it to the actor to decide how to play the part…like the way he says he’s shy around girls.”

            “Yes, then it will depend on how people in the audience label others – their own tendencies to stereotype, how they’ll view the characters,” continued Grace.

            The room quieted down after Annie and Grace spoke. Everyone knew without saying it that they were right. The conversation allowed the girls to see the effectiveness of what they had already written. To close the conversation, I praised their efforts:  “You know, the fact that this scene has brought out so many strong feelings in each of us confirms that it works theatrically.  When a play is over, you want your audience to talk about it. This has been a terrific discussion.”

Powerful plays ask more questions than they answer.  Our post-scene reading discussion allowed us to explore how people, sometimes unconsciously, replace one stereotype with another – in this case, to replace the jock with the gay guy. Like the audiences that eventually will see this play about stereotypes, we left our workshop asking a lot of questions about how and why we have a tendency to label.  The girls had written a powerful scene, thanks to the insights provided by Grace and Annie and the willingness of everyone else to actively participate in the discussion.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why We Tell Stories

For the past couple of weeks, I have been telling Trickster stories to fourth graders, and we have been discussing and writing about how telling and hearing stories about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit, High John the Conqueror, Raven, Jack, and the peasant’s clever daughter empower people who are oppressed. Today in class, a little boy said, “I think these stories are empowering because talking about the things you wish would happen makes you feel like they could happen. It gives you power inside yourself, even if you don’t have any other power in your life.”
After he spoke, everyone was quiet. It’s not often that we hear such profound truths articulated so clearly, and I think the boy’s statement momentarily took away our collective breaths. I asked him to repeat himself, and this time his teacher typed the words into a document that appeared on the SmartBoard at the front of the classroom. As students read the words and began raising their hands to add their own thoughts to the document, I was still floored by how simply the first boy had managed to describe what happens when a person is given the opportunity to tell his or her own story. Although as soon as he spoke, I recognized something I’ve know for a long time, I’m not sure I could have said it, myself.

Stories, like dreams, give shape to our wishes. We gain power over our fears and problems when we cloak them in story. In her poem, Why We Tell Stories, Lisel Mueller says,

“We sat by the fires in our caves,
 and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill…

and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees.”

Mueller is, of course, writing about folktales, those stories that were made up by someone long ago and have been passed through the generations because they so accurately address experiences common to every human soul. However, on my way home from work, as I continued to speculate on the very first tellers of the trickster tales I have been telling the fourth graders: the African slave who told the first High John story or, perhaps, the overworked maid servant who invented Clever Manka, I began to think about the storytelling we do in Girls Surviving.

For the past eighteen months, Carolyn and I have been writing and revising a book about the Girls Surviving program. The project, which is being funded by Dr. James Gallagher and his daughters, was first conceived as a way to help other teachers and artists replicate the Girls Surviving writing and performance program, but as we continue to refine the manuscript, the process is giving us a unique opportunity to reflect on our work with the girls. This past Monday, as I prepared a third draft of the manuscript to be read by some of the people who are monitoring the project, I reread the entire text from beginning to end for the first time in several weeks. One of the ideas that, understandably, repeatedly comes into focus through the pages is the idea that the program gives girls a safe place to be heard, that is, a safe place to tell their own stories.
Whenever we begin the writing for a new Girls Surviving play, the first stories that emerge are personal stories about the girls’ real-life experiences. Eventually, through the writing process, these personal stories are cloaked in fictional trappings so that, by the time they appear in public on a stage, they are not recognizable as the story of any individual girl. However, much like the folktales, the deep human truths they reveal are clarified and intensified by the same artistic process that disguises their source.
The stories that our girls tell are not usually wish fulfillment stories. Telling them does not, as my fourth grade student said, make our audiences feel that they could happen, partly because most of the people telling and hearing them know that they have happened, that they are, in fact, happening all around us as we see them played out on the stage. What telling these stories does do, I think, is, to paraphrase the fourth grader, give the tellers “power inside” themselves, even when they feel they don’t have any power in their lives. Like the bones of lost sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, that are given wings and voices in Mueller’s poem, the Girls Surviving stories testify to and, consequently, affirm the experiences of their creators.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Scene: Brian and Connor

            It’s the start of our last workshop, almost a week ago Thursday. The girls immediately begin to work on the scene they’re creating between Brian and Connor.  The monologues and dialogues they’ve written about these two characters are spread out on the desks in front of them.  The girls need to decide which segments from all of the writing will be included in their final version.
           There is a lot of writing to consider.  The first dialogues involving these characters emerged in mid-December. At that time, the girls had decided their play would be about stereotypes. Their initial writing consisted of hastily sketched conversations. Brian and Connor weren’t fully developed characters.  They were referred to by their stereotypical names: the Jock and the Asian, respectively. The girls described a typical jock as “dumb but athletic” and an Asian as “nerdy and brilliant. “

To help the girls begin thinking about the characters as complex people, we asked them to create a follow-up scene in which one of the characters faces an unexpected problem requiring immediate action and the other, acting against type, figures out a solution.  One girl, Christa, wrote a conversation that reversed the stereotypes, making The Jock the straight “A” math student and The Asian the failure. In another girl’s reverse stereotype scene, when The Jock and The Asian find themselves stuck in an elevator, it is the Jock who makes repairs with the screwdriver he always carries in his backpack while the incompetent Asian looks on, helpless.
             These first two writing exercises provided a springboard for the girls to further develop the characters into individuals and make decisions about how to expand the scene.  By the middle of January they had given the characters their names, created personal histories for them and agreed upon the setting:  the elevator. By physically trapping the characters, the girls hoped to force intimate character revelations that would shatter the stereotypes “Jock” and “Asian.” But how could Brian and Connor, guys who travel in very different social circles, end up in the same elevator, they asked. A school elevator, they reasoned, would be the most believable setting.  Used by physically challenged students and visitors, the school elevator would be perfect, they thought, especially if Brian, the athlete, had been injured.  With those basic elements settled, the girls began to write extensions of the two previously written dialogues. Time ran out before they could bring their scenes to a climax. We told them they could finish up at the next workshop.
          As we usually do, we took their hand-written scenes home, typed them, and made copies for the girls to read the next week.  But, snow days prevented us from meeting until sometime in February.  By the time we finally came together, the girls had completely forgotten about Brian and Connor. They needed to re-read all of the writing that had come before. In the discussion that followed it, they realized that something else needed to happen in the scene to round out the characters and provide incentive for them to open up to each other.  They decided that Brian, while handy with a screwdriver, should also be claustrophobic.  His vulnerability would allow the laid back Connor, whose laissez faire attitude interfered with his success in school, to reveal the heroic side of “chilling.” After agreeing on this tactic, the girls set out to finish their scenes.

Once again, we typed and copied what they wrote that night in preparation for last week’s workshop. While typing, we noticed that, after weeks and weeks of writing, the girls were expressing a variety of opinions about how the scene should progress.  That made last week’s decision making difficult. To help the girls choose which segments to include in the final version, we gave them time to read again aloud all of the writing they had done about Brian and Connor since December. Afterward, we opened the floor to discussion about their options. No sooner had they begun talking, however, than it became obvious they would have trouble arriving at consensus.

One of the disagreements centered on figuring out the most believable way to get Connor onto the elevator.  Brian had school permission to use it, but Connor did not. Some thought Connor should be assigned to help Brian with his books.  Others thought he would simply sneak a ride. In Christa’s version of the scene, Connor is the helper, and goes to the office to get the elevator keys immediately after the boys’ math class. As so often happens during this part of the process, Christa didn’t want to let go of her idea, and she lobbied to keep it in the final script.

“I think Connor isn’t aggressive enough to jam his foot into an elevator when the door is closing,” she said. “It’s more logical for him to get the keys.”

Andrea offered a compromise. “I like that he stops the elevator door from closing.  What if he’s late to class and runs onto the elevator before Brian has time to stop him? He doesn’t like school.  He would do that.”

The girls didn’t solve the problem.  Instead, they segued into a discussion about the characters’ personal revelations in a couple of the scenes.  The girls knew that what the boys say to each other would determine the tone of the play. Most of the versions dabbled around the edges of seriousness. One scene, however, took a decidedly tragic turn. Another was more lighthearted. Here are parts of both.

Dialogue #1:
(whispering to himself) Alright. I can do this. Do it just like my old man taught me to…
Can you stop talking about your damn dad and fix the elevator already?
Dude! Don’t you ever talk that way to me about my dad, ever again. You got me?
Get the hell off me! Yes, I heard you. Damn, can’t you just call him since you miss him so much? (whispers) Cry baby.
Ha! No, I can’t. Wanna know why?
Uh, sure? But I have…
Dude, stop. He’s dead.
Oh, man… I’m so sorry. I—
Nah. It’s cool. Sorry for putting my hands on ya like that…
It’s alright. Do you mind telling me what happened to him?
He was deployed to Saudi Arabia and my dad was one of the three people that were held hostage. They killed him three days after. He’s my Hero. When  my mom got the news, she wasn’t really sad….Well, I think I’ve said too much.

Dialogue #2:

(Brian realizes he can’t fix the elevator)

C’mon work!  Ugh, why isn’t this working!
Hey man, calm down.
No!  This elevator isn’t working and I can’t seem to fix it.
Okay, don’t worry.  There’s no need to panic.
We need to get out!  (Bangs on elevator door)  Someone help us!  We’re stuck in the elevator!

(He starts breathing heavily)

Look, I’m pretty sure someone is going to notice we’re stuck in here.  Might as well just sit and wait it out.
No dude!  I’m freaking out!  I can’t stand being restrained in small places. 

So you’re claustrophobic…too bad I’m not a hot girl who could take your mind off that….haha.

(Brian just looks at Connor)

Um…sorry not funny.
We’re never going to get out of here!  What if the elevator crashes!  What if the lights completely turn off.  What if a demon did this to possess us and kill us.
Okay man, let’s be realistic here.  I thought you were the smart one.
You’re right.  We’ll most likely die from lack of oxygen, if not from starvation.  I calculate, considering the volume of the elevator and how much oxygen was let in between the time it opened and time you came back from returning the keys.  You definitely saved us a few hours or so….we also have to consider the rate of which the oxygen is being consumed keeping in mind the large quantity I consumed from my mini panic attack.
Dude!  I think it’s time for you to shut up!  We’re not gonna’ die!

Faced with these choices, the girls began to get confused about how to continue their discussion. When they reach an impasse like this, we usually ask them to work individually.  Given time to review all of the writing by themselves and reflect on how to integrate it in a way that allowed the scene to flow according their vision, they calmed them down and avoided controversy.  They busily got to work underlining and circling lines they liked and made notes indicating how to incorporate them into the script.  They left the workshop pleased with their decisions.

When they see the scene again next, it will combine as many of the segments they have selected as possible. Between now and then, we’ll compile the girls’ requests and organize them as best we can into a single, coherent scene.  That will still need work.  There will be gaps. Other problems will come to light during rehearsal.  But, it will be a real scene about complex characters that can be revised.  And, this difficult passage through our collaborative process will be finished, until, that is, it’s time to piece together Scene 2.