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, April 28, 2014

Forging On

Carolyn and I were both a little worried about last Thursday’s workshop. We’ve written about the things that need to be done in the little time left before our final performances. These things: finishing a scene; writing opening, connecting, and ending material for the play; blocking and rehearsing the whole play; and getting it all done in six weeks were on our minds as the workshop approached. In addition, we were concerned that it might be hard to get the girls to settle into work. Thursday was our first meeting after the Spring Break and it seemed likely that one or more of the girls would be filled with news that just HAD to be shared. So well in advance of the workshop, we began to lay plans for redirection at every obstacle we thought might arise. Some of our strategies:
-           No check-in. (Check-ins can be important, especially after a break, but they can take
-           Let the girls know that performance dates have been set, and count off the weeks leading up to those dates,
-           No snack until we’ve done some work (snack is a distraction that can take f-o-r-e-v-e-r),
-           Immediately after publishing performance dates, start work on the unfinished scene.

How did it work?
I arrived to find all of the girls flocked around the security desk at the school entrance.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“We’re waiting for food.”
“Carolyn has it,” I said, “and you can have it later. Let’s go get to work.”
“No, we’re not waiting for your food. Someone is bringing dinner for Tina.”
Now, I knew that Tina had just that minute returned from a lacrosse game because she had texted me from the bus on her way back to school, so I understood that she needed some substantial food before she could think about the play. But I asked the others,
“Why do you all have to wait with her?”
“Because we’re starving,” said Liz. “Can’t we just order a couple a pizzas?”
I gave up and headed to the workshop space. When I arrived, I saw that Carolyn and Renee were already there placing chairs. The snack food had been set out on a table. Everything was ready to start on time, but our artistes were still in the wings. They filed in a few minutes later and immediately attacked the snacks. So much for strategy number four.
We did, however, manage to stick to the rest of our plan. As soon as the girls settled in, we reminded them of the short time we had before showtime, and they took the information seriously. Then Carolyn gave scripts to the two actresses who had been cast to play our third scene and they began to read.

The theme of the play is stereotypes, and it explores the ways that preconceived ideas based on prejudices about gender, race, appearance, and social status, affect both those who label and those who are labeled. When we began to develop material for the play, the girls made a list of high school ‘types’ whom they first painted as crude stereotypes before discovering the characteristics that make them three-dimensional, sympathetic people. The two characters in the scene we read on Thursday first appeared as “Pothead” and “Ghetto Girl.” In time, they came to be called “Skippy” and “Demonica’isha,” names perpetuate the labels. As the characters began to come to life through writing and improvisational acting exercises, Demonica’isha confessed that her real name was Monica and that bit of information, along with some other things that came to light at the same time, gave her stature that she had lacked in earlier incarnations.  
Skippy, on the other hand, has not managed to rise above the level of a joke for most of the writers. In the writing done before last week, many of his speeches simply conform to the stereotype. He talks about munchies and paranoia and getting high. When he reacts to the Monica character, his remarks are often mean, but there is little in the scene, or in the character’s backstory, to explain this behavior. Skippy’s shallow personality is one of the things that has made it hard to complete the scene. The girls are so enjoying his humorous potential that they can’t resist writing funny lines for him. The result is that in some parts of the scene, he sounds like a vaudeville comedian.
In an attempt to push the writing into deeper channels and find a satisfying conclusion for the scene, Carolyn and I decided that after the actresses had read the scene as it stood, we would ask them to remain in character in the setting and answer some questions about how they felt about themselves and each other as they were speaking their last lines. Throughout this exercise, the actresses in the roles of Skippy and Monica stayed focused and serious. They didn’t even break character when their troupe mates began riffing on the stoner theme. As the characters’ conversation evolved, it became clear that Monica saw in Skippy some of the traits that had led to life shattering mistakes she had made at an earlier age. Skippy, seen through Monica’s eyes, began to gain flesh. Her empathy gave him substance. For the most part, Skippy’s contribution to the discussion still skimmed the surface (He was, after all, stoned.), but the actress who embodied him had found something that raised him above the stereotype. Her portrayal made him an individual. The writing that followed this exercise was wonderful. Each girl came up with a different ending for the scene and they were all great. And, once again, I am reminded to trust the girls and the process.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Final Push

            How will the girls conclude the last scene of their play?

Right now they’re considering three options but can’t seem to make a decision.  Time is running out and they still have a lot of work to do. With only six two-hour workshops to go before performance:

-the final scene must be finished;

-transitions between scenes have to be written;

-the whole play requires polishing;

-this new, collaborative drama needs to be blocked and rehearsed. 

It’s a lot for them to accomplish in such a short time.
          We have several ideas about how they could end their last scene, revise the others and bridge bits and pieces into an interesting artistic whole.   We could tell them how, of course, and give them instructions on exactly what to do to pull the play together and get it on its feet in six sessions. But we want them to do the work, experience the struggle inherent in creating art, and stand tall on the stage during performance, certain that their voices are being heard.  Theirs.  Not ours.

We do contribute to the girls’ discussions about the play, however, opening their minds to a variety of perspectives.  Developing an artistic voice not only involves listening to one’s own true self but also listening to the voices of others. Like all artists, our young playwrights and actresses need nurturing and guidance from mentors.  And, every year, they lean on us to help clarify their thoughts about the structure and content of their play. The question before us now is: how much advice do we offer and how much do we ask them to think through on their own?

The extent of our involvement in their decision -making often depends on the circumstances, and we’re facing difficult choices as we enter the final phase of the program.  Given the time constraints, how do we help bring this play to performance without taking too much control of the creative process?  Is there really enough time left to implement strategies that allow the girls to discover their own path forward?  What kind of a performance can we realistically mount with so few workshops left to rehearse? Do we need to scale back?  If so, how?

While the girls were on vacation last week, we talked about these pressing issues.  We came up with a couple of exercises for our next workshop that we hope will allow the girls to tie up the loose ends of their script by themselves. We also decided that we’ll devote less time to staging during rehearsals than we have in the past. We’ll use movement judiciously, only as it elucidates the text.  By streamlining the production elements, we’ll only need to schedule one extra rehearsal for fine-tuning and confidence building before the girls step onto the stage.

Will the girls rally in the face of a very real deadline?  It will mean less time for socializing, check-in, and important but distracting discussions of personal issues. The girls in the current troupe are young and they’ve needed extra time for those activities this year. Giving them the freedom to take their time to bond may, in the end, motivate action now, when it is most needed.  While young, with few exceptions, they aren’t new to Girls Surviving.  We’ve seen them rally before and we’re betting they will do it again. We’ll just have to see how they respond to what we have planned for the next workshop.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Interim: Watching Things Grow

The Morris School District is on their spring break this week which means that, from next Thursday, we have only six or seven workshops before our culminating performances. The script is not complete. We have three scenes, two of which need revisions or additions, and we haven’t yet decided how to connect these three vignettes. The girls have ideas and they seem to feel strongly about the material, but for some reason, things are moving slowly this year.
About ten days ago, two of our girls read the two most complete scenes to another girls’ group at the high school. The response was good. The audience, who has also been discussing high school stereotypes, clearly connected with one of the scenes, and they gave great feedback on what was unclear in the other. Doing the reading took some courage on the part of our girls. Carolyn and I went to observe and support, and we were impressed by their poise and by how clearly they explained what our troupe is trying to do with this play. I was hoping that the experience might bring some more clarity to the process that is going on in our current GS workshops, but last Thursday, three days after the reading, the girls still seemed to be unsure about what they want their audiences to feel or understand after seeing this play.

The days since that last workshop, the first days of spring break, have been beautiful. The weather has finally turned warm enough for me to spend time in the garden and, as at every spring, I am amazed by how quickly it is coming to life. Plants are sprouting, growing, blooming right under my nose. The pointy red peony sprouts that were still underground when I cleared leafmold away in the morning, are a half-inch tall when I mulch in the afternoon! Daffodils that were in bud at lunchtime, are in fragrant bloom by the time I begin to collect my tools at end of the day! It is a time of great progress with very little effort on the part of the gardener, a time of great satisfaction...

... so different from our last couple of GS workshops. It is frustrating for me when the work of the script is so close to being complete because I begin to want to shape it to my own purposes. In each of the vignettes that will make up the core of this year’s play, a pair of characters, each different from the other and each based on a blatant stereotype (male jock, Asian nerd, perfect girl, pothead, ‘ghetto’ teen mom, etc.), find themselves stuck in a small space. In the ensuing action and dialogue, the characters are revealed to be individuals who belie the stereotype. One of the questions the girls have been struggling with is: do the characters recognize the commonality of their shared human experiences, or do they leave the situation with the same prejudices with which they entered it? At this point, it would be easy for Carolyn or me to tell the girls what to do. As writers, they are struggling to create a meaningful text that will deeply affect their audience and, because the muse can be stubbornly elusive at those times when the artist needs an epiphany as a deadline approaches, the girls might even be relieved for us to tell them how a scene should end, or which of their early writings they could use to tie things together. However, if we were to take the situation in hand and guide the script to completion, it wouldn’t be the girls’ work, and they would lose by that – lose whatever it is an artist gains through creation. So, for the next weeks, we will be biting our tongues as we encourage them to pull the script together. We, as Socrates advised, will be midwives to our students’ labor.

Play Reading for Teen Group

I stepped into the classroom and the scene was familiar: a group of girls sitting in a circle.  But this was not a Girls Surviving workshop.  It was a meeting of Teen Pride, a well established and successful girls’ group at Morristown High School that offers activities, discussion and counseling. Girls Surviving, by contrast, focuses on writing, performance, and sharing the girls’ voices with the community.

Every year we connect with the leaders of Teen Pride to discuss ways to bring our groups together. In the past, Paula and I have led writing and acting workshops for Teen Pride, and Teen Pride groups often come to Girls Surviving performances.  When they do, they bring pizza.  That always helps spark discussions that allow girls from both groups to get to know each other better.

This year three of “our girls” also joined Teen Pride.  We decided to take advantage of this unique situation.  Why not engage the girls involved in both groups – and anyone else in Girls Surviving who wanted to join them – with Teen Pride in a reading and discussion of our play-in-process?  A joint afternoon like this, we thought, would benefit everyone.  It would allow the girls in Teen Pride to better understand what is involved in writing the play they usually see only after it is finished and fully rehearsed. And, the feedback would help our young playwrights with final revisions.  Even more exciting?  This year’s Teen Pride group is discussing stereotypes, the very same topic Girls Surviving is writing about. We hoped the reading would deepen and broaden all of the girls’ discussion of the issue.

While “our girls” were excited about the idea, they were initially a little worried about reading for a very small audience made up almost entirely of their peers.  They’re still inexperienced performers, and, like all adolescents, worried about being judged by people their own age.  From their perspective, acting in front of peers in an intimate setting is a lot riskier than sitting at a table and talking with them. We completely understood their concerns and told them they didn’t have to do the reading if they didn’t want to. We assured them that it is our policy never to put our girls in situations that make them feel uncomfortable.  And we meant it. We gave them some time to think it over, and encouraged them to talk about it with the Teen Pride leaders, or simply discuss it among themselves.

In a couple of weeks, they told us that they wanted to move forward with the reading.  Unfortunately, one of them couldn’t participate because she had a Lacrosse game that afternoon.  But the other two, Ceci and Meryl, were ready and waiting for the scripts when I entered the classroom on the appointed day. And, they felt terrific about the experience when it was over.  The Teen Pride girls were receptive, attentive and appreciative throughout.  Unlike our current outspoken troupe members, some were reluctant at first to speak up and whispered their names during our round of introductions. Their silence, however, did not seem to bother Ceci and Meryl. Other, less confident teenage girls might have taken the silence personally, interpreting it negatively.  Not Ceci and Meryl.  No sooner were the introductions over than they sat themselves down on top of the teacher’s desk at the front of the room and asked for volunteers to read a couple of extra parts. Hands went up immediately and, with that show of enthusiasm, Ceci and Marie took charge of all that followed.

We were so proud of them. Before they started to read, they explained how the troupe had come up with play idea and the characters. Once they began to act, they were in their element.  They fully embodied the characters, lost themselves in the script, and seemed to forget they were performing. When it was over, they led the discussion in a way that invited the Teen Pride girls to share.  

The group was a little hesitant at first, but one-by-one the girls started to talk about the parts of the play they liked best, providing valuable feedback for us to take back to the other girls in our troupe.  More than anything, though, they expressed their appreciation for the way the play explores stereotypes.  So much of what our troupe had written seemed to resonate for them. As they applauded Ceci and Meryl, they seemed to be saying “thank you, thank you for saying what all of us know to be true but are too scared to say in real life about what it feels like to be trapped by a stereotype – to be labeled a ‘geek,’ a ‘pothead,’ a ‘slut.’” The play and the girls’ performance gave voice to something everyone in the room had experienced.  And because our girls found the courage to follow through with the reading so confidently,  we all left the room that afternoon understanding each other a little better.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thriving in Real Life

Last week the girls had another ‘real world’ experience, but this one was all good. In lieu of a regular workshop, we took the troupe on a field trip to Morris Arts’s annual Celebrate the Arts event.  This event is held to honor individuals who have made a major impact on the arts in our community. This year, one of the honorees was Dr. James Gallagher.
We have mentioned Jim quite frequently on this site because he is one of our staunchest supporters. He has provided us with funding, advocated for the girls and the program, and given us all good advice and feedback since the program’s earliest days. He has also managed to make a personal connection with the girls by observing workshops, attending performances, introducing the girls to his friends and family, and sponsoring field trips to the theater. In the words of Jessica, a long time member of the troupe,

“It’s special when you can be thankful to someone and actually know their face! Dr. Gallagher is no stranger to the group because we know who he is in person and he treats us with such care. Thanks to him, I’ve experienced so many great events. He’s given the group opportunities of a lifetime.”

When the girls learned that Jim was to be honored by Morris Arts, they were all eager to be there with him. They are, after all, living proof of his commitment to the arts and his empathy for others. So, last Thursday evening, we collected eight girls at the high school, and ferried them to the celebration venue. The girls all wore their Girls Surviving t-shirts and, because the present troupe is are girls who have been with us for a varying number of seasons, the shirts were a collection of many bright colors, all with the words, “Girls Surviving” on the front and back. It was a nice metaphor for the troupe, itself: a diverse group connected by shared goals and dreams.
The girls who, like all teen girls, can be a handful at our regular workshops, were, as they always are at special events, perfectly poised. They were gracious to everyone they met at the opening reception and incredibly calm and patient through long award and acceptance speeches. When it was Jim’s turn to be honored, a screen at the front of theater flashed large photos, taken at performances and rehearsals, of several Girls Surviving troupes. When the girls saw photos of their own faces among those of past troupe members, and when our seventeen-year-old girls saw their own fourteen-year-old faces on the screen, it strengthened their sense that they are a part of something lasting, and that they will leave their mark on the troupe and the community.

To my mind, Jim’s speech stood out among the others at the ceremony. It must be hard to find the words at such an occasion – to be appropriately grateful, humble, and sincere in the spotlight, but Jim had no problem knowing just what to say. After his thanks and a few humorously self-deprecating remarks, he spoke to the audience, not about his own achievements, but about what they could do to support the arts in our community and to make a difference in the lives of individuals, young and old. It was a moving and motivating speech. We representatives of Girls Surviving felt proud that it was made by our friend.
Some people who have the means to support groups like ours never know the impact that their generosity has on the individuals it touches. Jim Gallagher gives our girls more than financial support through the three or four years they get to know him. Gianna, another girl who has been in the troupe for multiple seasons, expressed this to Jim in some remarks she wrote for the event,

“You have made us one big family. Throughout the years I have been involved with Girls Surviving, an amount of security, comfort, and confidence has been built back up in my life. My childhood was rough and growing up is even harder, especially when you don’t have anyone to give you advice and help during the bad times. Girls Surviving has given me the support and encouragement I need to make it through my teen years.”

Dr. Gallagher and Phyllis Hassard with some GS troupe members at NJ PAC