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.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Man in the Lobby

            We meet outside the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre on the grass and under the towering trees at Drew University – eight teenage girls and five adult chaperones – 13 of us altogether.  It is a spectacular June evening.  The girls, exuberant after two successful performances of their own play, are thrilled about seeing professional actors perform The Tempest. 

They’re anxious, though, too.  They face the first of their final exams in the morning.  Two of our girls were so worried about finals that they opted out of spending the evening at the theater, one at the very last minute.  While I sat in the car outside her house, waiting to drive her to Drew, she texted that she wouldn’t come with us.  She said she suddenly realized that she just couldn’t afford to take the five-hour break our field trip required.

The girls who do gather with us on the campus are simultaneously stressed out, excited and nervous about finding themselves surrounded by very adult looking theatergoers. Everything about the girls exudes youth. They look gorgeous in their fashionable shorts or jeans and colorful shirts. But they look and act differently from the rest of the audience strolling toward the theatre. They playfully jostle each other, cracking silly jokes.  They’re loud and bursting with physical energy. As I watch their antics beneath the ancient trees, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s great, comedic teenage heroines.  I imagine them as Rosalind and Helena chasing friends, foes and lovers through storybook forests of long ago and far away.

They need to let off steam before sitting for two and one-half hours. We wait as long as we can before we funnel them through the narrow theatre entrance.  As we join the crowd angling for spaces in line a man, clearly in a hurry, brusquely brushes past me, knocking into my shoulder.  As I watch him bypass the ticket takers and make a beeline for the balcony door, I hear him yell, loud enough for everyone around me to hear, “Okay girls, you’re in the theatre now.  Time to be quiet and behave yourselves.”

My jaw drops, my eyes nearly pop out of my head and I flush with anger.  One of the girls hears him and gives me an astonished look.  Another asks me what he said.  I reply, “You don’t want to know.” Who is this sarcastic, narrow minded, judgmental person, I wonder? I don’t know what to make of his rude comment. The girls are chattering, yes, but everybody else is too. They’re not pushing and shoving to get ahead like he was.  They’re respectfully waiting their turn. What exactly are they doing that prompted him to humiliate them in front of other audience members? My guess is that they are doing nothing other than being teenagers.  They can’t help that any more than the rest of the audience can help being (mostly) over 50.

He is labeling them, I realize, and my mind flashes to the girls’ recent performances of their play, Invisible Lines. The play explores the nature of stereotyping.  “Stereotypes,” the play’s narrator begins.  “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 really know whether or not it is true?” she asks. In the scenes that follow, the characters reveal how deep the hurt goes when people feel judged because of their appearance, gender, ethnicity, or religion. Teenagers, the characters tell us, feel so demeaned or isolated that they sometimes resort to drugs, cutting, or other anti-social behaviors. One parent in the audience was so moved by the characters’ stories that her eyes welled up when she spoke to me afterward. “I didn’t realize how much they (teenagers) suffer – underneath everything,” she said. “ It shows you that everyone suffers, some people maybe more than others…but, if anyone tells you they’re not (suffering), or if they look like they’re not, you know that’s just not true.”

I focus again on where I am – at the Shakespeare theatre - and what just happened with the man in the lobby.  I watch the girls take their seats to watch The Tempest.  They check their cell phones and turn them off before they hear the announcement on the loud speaker.  They’re playwrights and actresses.  They understand theatre protocol.  The man in the lobby doesn’t know that about them.  He probably assumes that the three cell phones that go off in the first act belong to one of them, not the well-dressed woman sitting in the third row.  Of course, now I’m making an assumption about him.  It’s easy to do. 

I recall something one of our actresses told the audience after the first performance of Invisible Lines:

“Since writing the play I try not to judge someone by their appearance.  It’s hard.  Sometimes we can’t help ourselves.  People hide behind stereotypes to protect themselves too.  It’s important to know that that is what they’re doing – that who they are on the surface isn’t who they really are.”

I try to feel more charitable toward the man in the lobby. Maybe he hurts, too, somewhere deep inside.  I don’t know him.  Still, he is an adult. No matter what his situation, he should have known better than to yell insults at the girls. It was wrong and immature.

As the lights go up on the set of The Tempest, lyrics from the song that starts the play Invisible Lines filter through my brain:
“what can i do to prove it to you
I’m actually a nice person
Once you get to know me
So get to know me instead of judgin

It’s ok though you are free to speak your mind
All I ask is that you get your facts right

cuz nothin really pisses me off more
than when people think they can throw my heart out the door

                                    did we all forget that one rule
think before you speak
don’t be rude”

When the Girls Surviving troupe was asked by an audience member if writing the play Invisible Lines changed the way they view people, the girl who wrote the lyrics for her song said this:
“I try not to say anything about somebody right away, when I first see them.  I hold back.  Before (writing the play), I might say the first thing about them that came to mind. It’s like what the song says…”

My mind returns to the man in the lobby. Maybe he could learn something from seeing the girls perform Invisible Lines. For now, though, we’re at the Shakespeare Theatre. I watch Prospero, the central character, wave his magical staff and summon a terrible storm to the shores of the island where he lives. As lightning flashes and thunder rolls around me, my anger with the man in the lobby subsides.  I glance down the row of seats at the rapt faces of the amazing young women I brought to the theater. I feel proud to be seated next to them, to work with them, to know them.  And I’m very glad I’m not sitting next to the woman in the third row or the man in the lobby who disappeared into the balcony.  I smile, settle back and enjoy the storm on stage.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Making Art

There is an old Jewish joke that my husband and his brother have been telling for years. I heard it several times before I understood why they tell it. It’s not funny. But there is something to it. It goes like this:
A little boy was terrified of kreplach (a kind of stuffed dumpling) so, to allay his fears, his mother decided to deconstruct it for him. She had him watch while she made the dough. Then she showed him that the stuffing was made of ordinary ingredients, things he ate every week: meat, onions, spices. The boy was calm through the whole process. He watched his mother roll out the dough and spoon the filling in its place, but when she folded it over and crimped the edges to make the dumpling, his eyes grew large, he gave a shriek of fear, and ran from the kitchen crying, “Help!! Kreplach!”
The end. That’s the joke.

On Thursday evening, the girls gave the first performance of the play they have been writing and rehearsing for the past nine months and, yes, it did feel a bit like giving birth for all of us. We spent much of our third trimester plagued by worries and weariness. In fact, it really wasn’t until our last rehearsal that Carolyn and I were sure the girls had a play that would hold an audience’s focus from beginning to end.  In the end, all of the pieces worked together to form a product that was much more than the sum of its parts.
The girls were nervous before the show. I could tell that right away because they all showed up early for the pre-performance workshop. Carolyn coached them through the opening of the play, something they had rehearsed only a couple of times. We were missing an actress and had to double cast another in her role which caused a slight change to the movement in the opening, and it seemed like every time the girls replayed it in rehearsal, they became more confused. However, once the curtain went up on the real thing, they were perfect.
Every actress gave her best performance. The girls were focused in their characters and scenes in a way they hardly ever were in rehearsal. The movement of the play, and the power of its theme built from scene to scene, until the final words of the two characters in the last scene seemed like an epiphany.

Brit:           I never really realized
Belle:         that my problems
Brit:           although unique to me
Belle:         could be so similar to another’s.
Brit:           I’m a slut.
Belle:         and I’m a good girl.
Brit:           I just want to fit in  with everyone.
Belle:         I just want to be able to go home.
Brit:           My home should not be my only escape.
Belle:         My school should not be my only safe haven.
Brit:           If only people would stop judging me.
Belle:         If only people saw the truth.
Brit:           Maybe then I could be free
Belle:         Of this everlasting pain

The audience was silent in their concentration. More than one person wiped away a tear. At the curtain call, the girls were soaring, conscious of their success. It was a good evening.
Perhaps because I’ve been working in the program for such a long time, I’ve gotten used to hearing the girls say or write things that are startlingly wise and perceptive. They do it all the time, but I’m frequently caught up in the logistics of getting successfully through one workshop, or preparing for the next one. The girls’ writing becomes just another part of the process. Carolyn and I do our best to initiate it, to nurture it, and to help them organize it into its final form, but even when the pieces began to take shape as a script with realistic characters speaking truths that reflect the girls’ lives and thoughts, the repetition of typing them, rearranging them, and hearing them spoken week after week, makes them seem mundane. It takes the spectacle of performance to remind me that the words are often profound.

I think the kreplach joke is about making art. Art, like kreplach, is made through a series of simple, ordinary, even monotonous tasks, but when it’s finished, when all the pieces are in place and pulled together, it’s something new. It’s a kind of miracle the way a group of words or movements or musical notes or glops of paint can be made into something with the power to move people, to change their minds and, sometimes, their lives.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The End?

            The girls rehearsed their play for the last time a few days ago.  They did a great job and they’re looking forward to performance.

As with all of our rehearsals, there were problems. One of the principal actresses couldn’t be there because of a scheduling conflict.  It was a hot, sticky night and the cafeteria where we perform isn’t air-conditioned.  A couple of girls who haven’t been attending rehearsals regularly showed up, looking for ways to be included.  We also had to figure out how to block in a song that one of the girls had just finished composing for the show.  We hadn’t heard the final version and weren’t sure how well it would fit into the scheme of things.

Through it all the girls stayed relaxed and focused.   They didn’t seem to recognize these issues as particularly challenging.  If any of them felt the heat, we didn’t hear about it. No one complained. The understudy for the missing actress was marvelous in the role.  In fact, when we saw how easily she stepped in at the last minute, we realized we could count on her to replace any cast member in an emergency on performance day.  The girls who hoped for roles despite their sporadic attendance graciously accepted small parts.  And we all broke into spontaneous applause when our singer/songwriter finished performing her original song for the very first time.  She was awesome!

We were really proud of the girls.  As we went our separate ways at the end of the night, we chatted about them.  We praised their patience, concentration, generosity on and off the stage, and unique talents. We were pleased and a little surprised by how much they had matured during the rehearsal process.  It seems to me that I was just blogging about their lack of focus a couple of weeks ago and worried that they wouldn’t be ready to perform by the deadline. Now I know I needn’t worry. 

Why then do I feel a little sad as we approach the end of the year?  We have lots to be proud of and celebrate.  Everyone feels confident that our two performances will go smoothly.  To close out the season, we’re taking the girls to see a production of The Tempest with money they earned at the three bake sales they organized this year. What an exciting way to say our good-byes after a fulfilling year of Girls Surviving.

The sad part is that the girls won’t have the opportunity to continue to grow and learn through Girls Surviving this summer. Funding isn’t available for the summer program this year.  When I asked one of the girls what she planned to do on vacation instead, she said, “Oh, just hang out I guess…..” She didn’t sound happy about the alternative.

I understand the value of down time.  It’s important to break the routine, visit unfamiliar places, see new faces, read books just for the fun of it, or enjoy the luxury of napping. But the summer is long, and too much free time can get boring fast, especially if you’re a teenager.  How will our girls channel their talents and energy when they get restless watching TV, surfing the computer, tweeting and texting with their friends? Or, if they have to work, as many of them will, what will they do with their free time?

Paula and I will take the summer to work on the book we’re writing about Girls Surviving, put together a publishable article taken from a part of it and do some creative writing of our own.  We hope the change of pace will help us come back to the program in the fall with renewed energy and fresh ideas. While we’ll miss the excitement of the six-week intensive version of Girls Surviving, we won’t be completely disconnected from the work.  Our girls will be unless we find ways to keep them involved.

It’s important for their continued growth that we reconnect with them and engage them somehow in the ongoing work of the program over the summer.  As we near their upcoming performances, we can tell that they’re ready to take the work to the next level. Setting them adrift for three months at a moment in time when they’re poised to experiment with what they’ve learned so far about writing and acting seems like a missed opportunity. I don’t think we’ll be able to let that happen. 

We’ll be talking about it before long, once the season wraps up and we can catch a breath. Now…we could plan a mid-summer reunion – a chance to share food, act out scenes from the anthology of Girls Surviving plays that has materialized over the past ten years.  Or, maybe we could ask for the girls’ help in selecting scenes to reproduce in the book? Or…? The ideas are already beginning to brew, before we’ve settled in to talk over tea.  Time to stop. Thinking about the girls makes it easy to get carried away.