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, May 29, 2014

Spring in Bloom

            A year or so ago I planted a Green Giant Arborvitae in my back yard. Arborvitae is a hardy evergreen that easily takes to a variety of soil and weather conditions.  Modest at 6 feet when my husband and I bought it, we enjoyed watching it grow – not too fast, not too slow - filling a lonely corner of the garden.  One day this past winter, though, I noticed it’s fanlike branches beginning to droop and lose their luster.  As Winter slowly turned into Spring, it looked very sad indeed.  Fearing the worst, I took a sprig to a garden center for evaluation.  There, one of the horticulturalists declared it alive but traumatized by the brutal winter snows.  He prescribed slow release fertilization and told me to wait. He said it would take the entire summer and part of the fall to recover, but he was sure it would come back to life.  I followed his instructions and just the other day I noticed a bright green ring forming around it’s base. While this sign of life is no guarantee that it will ever thrive, let alone survive, it gave me hope that it would.
          Helping children grow during the teen years, of course, is a lot more complicated. Still, there are parallels.  When girls first come into the troupe, we have seen those who wall themselves off from others and retreat into themselves.  Some newcomers plug into their music or lock eyes with their computer screens instead of interacting with other troupe members or instructors. They seem frozen in a world of their own, traumatized by the onset of puberty, their growth seemingly stalled.  It’s hard to reach them, encourage them to trust and inspire them to try new things.  We know there are no quick fixes. 

Seeing them on Girls Surviving’s doorstep, though, gives us reason to hope that eventually, they’ll feel comfortable inside.  Shy as they seem, most find a place in our circle. Entering takes courage that tells us that, at the very least, they want to find a way to connect with others. While they may not speak up during our workshops or share their writing, they do write - at least a little.  That provides the opening we need to gently coax greater participation.  When we type all of the writing and circulate copies of it among the girls, their snippets circulate too.  Veteran troupe members, sensitive to the inhibitions of new girls, find something in this writing to admire and include in the play. With that little bit of encouragement, our sensitive newcomers ever so slowly warm to others in the group.

Their greatest hurdle is acting.  No surprise there.  Many adults I know are terrified at the mere thought of speaking in public, let alone walking around the stage pretending to be somebody else.  These adults, however, never would have joined an acting troupe when they were teenagers.  Our most inhibited newcomers do join. Why is that?  Are they secretly intrigued? Do they intuitively understand that, camouflaged as a character, they might be able to share their own thoughts and feelings with others?

Watching them during play rehearsals, the casual observer might think they could care less about performing.  They appear distracted, distant and self-absorbed.  We know differently. While they sit on the sidelines during our acting games or refuse to take a part in our play, we know they’re soaking in everything. We know this because time and again, we see them come to life on the stage.

Every time this happens, it seems like a miracle.  One moment they’re sitting in a corner.  The next, they ever so reluctantly agree to fill in for an actress who can’t make it to rehearsal.  They awkwardly hoist themselves out of their seats and make their way to the stage. But, when they finally open their mouths to speak, they astound us with the truth of their interpretation of the text and the passion of their delivery. And that’s not all. They move around the stage without direction, as if they were born to it.  Paula and I are awed and delighted.  We search each other out from across the room and smile until our jaws drop.  Nothing makes us happier than to see them flowering.  The gentle coaxing, the patient waiting, the encouragement from every member of the troupe nurtures the growth waiting to emerge.  Another girl, perhaps the most reluctant girl, has found her voice.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out in the World

A "selfie" of the girls with Dr. Gallagher at NJPAC
As Carolyn recently wrote, for the past three years, Jim Gallagher has invited us to bring some of our girls to a benefit for Covenant House. Attending this event has been a wonderful experience for the girls for several reasons. It offers them a fun and elegant evening at The NJ Performing Arts Center. It is, as Carolyn wrote, the kind of party you read about the next day in the paper. One enters the venue to be greeted by characters who introduce the theme of the evening, making it clear that, for a few hours, the door has closed on the mundane world. (This year, the theme was “New Jersey” so we were met by boardwalk hawkers, beach bums, and bathing beauties from Atlantic City, circa 1950.) The girls entered with stars in their eyes. And then they got down to business. The first order of the evening is a buffet dinner and, as we’ve mentioned before, our girls are always hungry! Dinner is followed by a show, a musical revue performed by Broadway musicians, singers, and dancers.
This year we were able to take four girls to the benefit. One of them, Jessica, has been a dynamic member of the troupe for several years. The other three were among our youngest members, although they have all been in the troupe for at least a year. In past years, we’ve taken our oldest girls, but for various reasons, those girls haven’t been able this year to attend as many workshops or shown the same commitment as the three ninth graders we chose to invite.
The girls giggled and gossiped on the ride to Newark and, once we were in the venue, Jessica took it on herself to chaperone the younger girls as they explored the culinary offerings on each level of the theater. The show began with a vintage pop song performed Broadway style by a powerful singer. Knowing that it was not the kind of music with which the “little” girls are familiar, I wondered how they would receive it. When I looked down the row for a glimpse of their faces, any misgiving I had instantly vanished. Their expressions were beatific, like the faces of child actors in Christmas movies. It was almost more fun to watch them than to watch the business on stage. After the show, the Broadway stars mingle with guests for dessert and coffee. As we were leaving the theater, Jessica showed me the performers’ headshots in her program and said, “Scavenger Hunt!” She then proceeded to get a photo of the girls with every one of the performers. On the ride home, they looked photos on their phones and gushed over those of the youngest of the male performers. It was a good night.

Girls Surviving troupers with Broadway star and Covenant House board member, Capathia Jenkins

Experiencing the glamorous aspect of the evening is definitely beneficial to our girls. The place, the people, and the activities are completely new to them, yet they always manage to negotiate the new territory with poise and grace. The exposure helps build the confidence they will need to negotiate the future outside of their comfortable home ground. This novelty, however, is not the most important thing our girls see at the Covenant House benefit. The thing that makes the strongest impression and, I believe, will continue to have a profound affect on them is Covenant House, itself.
During the show, in between musical numbers, there are stories and testimonies by members of the Covenant House board of directors and by people who have benefited from their interaction with Covenant House. These stories are the best part of the evening and I believe that they change the way our girls see the world. Through them, the girls discover a real world in which some teens have, literally, no place to go and no one to fall back on at their times of greatest need. They also learn that there are people who, like their beloved Dr. Gallagher, dedicate a lot of their time, attention, and money to helping those less fortunate than themselves.
Teenagers are, by nature, solipsistic. They need reminders that they are not the center of the universe, that their problems are not the heaviest in the world. It would also do them some good to discover that one way to improve their own situation is to try to improve the plight of others. These are lessons you can’t teach by talking. They need to be learned through real life experience. The Covenant House benefit and their association with Jim Gallagher give our girls this kind of experience and broaden their horizons to help them see the world outside of themselves.

At last week’s workshop, the week after the Covenant House event, the girls were discussing how they should use the last of their bake sale money. Last year, they used it to buy hoodies for the troupe; this year most of the funds went toward tickets to see The Tempest at NJ Shakespeare, but they have about ninety dollars left in the till. It was at the beginning of the workshop and I was about to run out to rescue a girl from the pouring rain, but as I grabbed my car keys, I suggested that they might want to consider donating some of the money to Covenant House. As I left the room, I heard the “little” girls saying,
“What a good idea! That place is awesome!”
Small steps, but definite forward movement.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Adding Song

With our performance dates looming, the girls are stepping up to the plate. Carolyn wrote about Deana who was thinking about and writing for the play during the Spring Break, but she’s not the only girl who has taken an initiative in the last couple of weeks. All of the girls in the troupe are making an effort to get to workshops on time and to spend their time working on the play: learning blocking, practicing their lines, and writing text that will weave the scenes together.
One girl who has worked independently on creating a unity between scenes is Luz. She is a relatively new troupe member, having joined the program last summer, and she brings a unique set of talents to the mix -- she’s a song writer who sings and plays guitar and piano. The week before the break, Luz told the group that she had written and performed a song to embellish her social studies project. When Carolyn and I heard that, we both jumped up at the same time.
“Could you write something for the play?” we exclaimed in the perfect unison our actresses never quite manage to achieve in performance.
Luz said she would try and that she would email one of us with the results of her efforts. When Spring Break came and went and neither Carolyn nor I had heard from her, I assumed she had forgotten her offer, but she showed up at the first post-break workshop with a recording she had made: a song about the play. The song, which she sang with guitar accompaniment, had been recorded on her phone and was played through a tiny “bullet” type speaker, but her voice came through pure and strong in spite of the less-than-optimal sound tech. It provided quite a thrilling moment in the workshop.
Much like Deana’s offering, Luz’s song presented the girls with a starting point. Some of the verses were too explicit, retelling or summarizing the information that is presented in scenes, but the bridge and chorus lyrics included lines that touch the essence of the play’s theme.

I really don’t like it when people are mean
People don’t know what happens behind doors
We all have problems
I know it’s okay
Just sit down and behave
Don’t let these stereotypes get to you dear
Just smile and wave

People don’t really deserve these comments
Just cuz I look like this doesn’t mean my insides are different
I’m just like you
You just gotta look through
Yea I’m exactly the way you are

So, the girls could make suggestions about how the song might fit around the scenes that are currently being rehearsed, but most of them can’t rewrite it in the way they revised Deana’s text because, in this case, the words don’t stand by themselves. They are part of a song. This is new territory for our troupe, but they will work together to figure it out.

The Covenant House Story

I was half asleep when I reached for the Star Ledger last Friday morning. (Yes, I confess.  I still read print.) The night before, Paula and I had taken four of our girls to the 25th anniversary celebration of Covenant House New Jersey at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and didn’t get home until almost midnight. The event was awesome.  Groggy as I was the next day, I was excited to read about it in the paper.  I was disappointed when I couldn’t find an article.  Possibly the reporter missed the deadline?  Or, maybe it was tucked away on a back page and my tired eyes skipped over it.  It certainly wasn’t on the front page that day or the next or the next.  With so many more important stories to cover, that’s not surprising.  Still, I wondered, why not coverage - front page coverage?

At a time when the world is grieving for 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, wouldn’t an article about Covenant House NJ offer hope that they might be found? Every day the front pages of our papers describe the military’s desperate efforts to “bring back our girls.”  I know the Covenant House event has been covered in past years, but this was a milestone: the 25th anniversary celebration for an organization dedicated to finding and nurturing children who, for any number of reasons, find themselves with no place to call home. 

Covenant House NJ opened its doors in 1989 with a staff of three.  According to Executive Director Jill Rottmann, it set out with a “simple but profound mission… to rescue homeless kids from the street and give them love, respect and support they need to begin again.” Today a much larger  organization rescues scores of homeless children who roam the cities of our state. Night after night Covenant House staffers climb into vans and comb our bridges, tunnels and doorways looking for lonely, frightened kids.  But that is only the beginning of the story.  Once rescued, Covenant House offers food, clothing, safe shelter, counseling and educational opportunities to them until they’re ready to assume responsibility for themselves. That can take years.

“Covenant House NJ has become, above all else that we do,” writes Jill Rottmann, “a force of love…unconditional love.” In testimonials offered last Thursday night by some of those rescued years ago, we heard stories about the ways in which Covenant House has helped so many grow into adulthood.  Because of the unconditional love and support they received when they were kids, they told us, they have become educated and skilled workers, loving fathers or mothers and responsible citizens.  I feel privileged to have been in the audience and bear witness to their stories. 

We were invited to the event by dear friend and long time supporter of Girls Surviving, Dr. James Gallagher.   In addition to helping Girls Surviving grow and thrive over the years, Jim has generously donated his time, energy, talent and resources to Covenant House.  Jim also spoke that night, in a pre-recorded video, about the importance of giving to causes we deeply care about. His message was, like the mission of the organization he serves, simple but profound:  we can, he said, always do something. His unassuming, soft-spoken presentation style made his words all that more persuasive.  Sometimes less is more. I’m sure Jim moved at least a few in the audience to donate to Covenant House that very night.

The four girls who attended the celebration with us will describe what they saw and heard to the rest of the troupe at our next workshop. I wonder what they’ll say.

I know that I came away from the experience filled with hope and more committed than ever to do my part to make the world a better place. But those feelings are mine, not theirs – thoughts belonging to the idealist in me who thinks that the Covenant House story should be in the headlines:  for 25 years an organization right here at home has successfully rescued dozens of young people.  In my opinion, that’s newsworthy.

What will the girls have to say? How have they processed the experience? Did they discover any connections between what they heard that night and the play they’re writing now? I’m excited to find out.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Individual Initiative and Collaborative Effort

Paula and I aren’t the only ones thinking about all that needs to be done to get this year’s play ready for the mid-June performance.  Our girls are too.

Imagine our surprise when we received an email from Deana telling us she got so bored during Spring vacation that she decided to take a crack at writing a play introduction.  How impressive was that?  What teen spends Spring break thinking about a school-related activity unless it’s mandatory?  Not only were we wowed by her initiative but also by the thoughtfulness of the writing that came to us as an attachment.

When the troupe scattered for vacation, writing an introduction seemed like something we could only hope would happen in the distant future because the play wasn’t finished.  Without a resolution to the play, the message was fuzzy. How could anyone write an introduction without a clearly defined message, we wondered. Reading Deana’s paragraph, we realized that she had tackled what no one else had tried: to puzzle out the meaning of the play in writing. We had talked a lot about our theme, stereotypes, but Deana was the first to take the time to reflect on it by putting pen to paper. In her introduction, she expresses a lot of different ideas about the meaning of the word “stereotype” and takes a risk by stating what she thinks the play is about.

It was impossible, of course, for her to capture the essence of a play that was still in process, but she provided the girls with a terrific starting point.  Hers was a document they could rework into an introduction that reflects all of their views on the subject of stereotypes audiences will see in the play. We decided to hold onto Deana’s paragraph until the girls concluded their third and final scene. They finally did at last week’s workshop.  Amidst the chatter, the rush for snacks, the comings and goings to the bathroom – and, after weeks of indecision – they somehow settled on the scene’s resolution.  Hallelujah! With all three scenes written, the play’s theme came into focus and we knew it was time to pull out Deana’s introduction and ask the girls to read it.  Here is what they read:

Stereotypes.  We can’t help from looking at someone and guessing who they really are and what they are like.  But what happens when we all start sharing this belief before we know whether it is true or not?  What happens when we all gang up on someone they aren’t?  In the short skits to come we address stereotypes through a commonality of people looking like one thing and really being another.  We all have preconceived notions of certain genders, ethnicities, and sexualities but rarely are these assumptions right.  We will never be able to get past these stereotypes unless we address them head on.  These are the harsh realities of the stereotypes that not just teens face on a daily basis.

The girls really liked what Deana had written.  Some thought we should use it, in it’s entirety, to open the play.  We asked them to take a closer look before making a final decision, reminding them that Deana’s personal views, written when the play was incomplete, might not entirely encapsulate what the troupe, as a whole, wanted to say in their play.  

“Deana says a lot about stereotypes in this paragraph.  It’s packed with her reflections.  They’re terrific, but they’re Deana’s, “ I said.  “Are you sure all of them fit the play?  Remember, the play belongs to all of you.”

The girls got quiet. They hesitated, thinking about what to do next.  I suggested we read the introduction line by line. “Why don’t we look at each sentence,” I said, “to see if it really fits with what you’ve written?” 

What happened next was remarkable. As the girls slowly worked their way through the paragraph, they not only clarified for themselves what their play is about, but they learned how to create drama in their introduction. They realized that they don’t want to make too many statements about stereotypes or tell the audience what they are going to see before they see it.  They want to keep the introduction vague by asking questions rather than answering them.  And, in the process of examining Deana's text, they discovered that the play itself asks more questions about stereotypes than it answers. This is what they came up with:

We can’t help from looking at someone and guessing who they really are and what they are like.  But what happens when we all start sharing this belief before we know whether it is true or not? Stereotypes.  We all have preconceived notions of certain genders, ethnicities, and sexualities but are these assumptions right? 
          We’re very grateful to Deana for going where others feared to tread and supplying the rich material that would form the basis of the play introduction.  And, we’re equally thankful to be working with a group of young women who are willing to rise to the challenge when we raise the bar.