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, October 29, 2014

More Doors

When they re-read their ‘Door’ writing from the weeks before, the girls decided that characters were emerging. Some of them were:

-       The girl whose ‘door’ is language. Her lack of English fluency is closing her in.

-       The girl whose ‘door’ is parents. They don’t give her enough freedom to grow.

-       The girls who needs a job. Her door is literal: the door of businesses that close her out because she’s too young to work, but she and her family could use the extra income.

-       The girl whose door is ajar. This is the door to adult, and sometimes, dangerous behavior. There is someone standing just inside, beckoning.

-       The girl whose door is opportunities for college and career. This door is illusive. Every time she thinks she’s got her hand on the knob, some one or something steps in between.

-       The girl whose disability, and other people’s ignorance about it, can sometimes close doors.

Once we had this list of characters, I suggested that we select one for a character interview. Veteran girls agreed that this was a good idea and they described the activity to new girls (we currently have four girls who are new this season.) The girls chose to interview the character whose parents keep her behind closed doors and Anya (who is still the ‘baby’ in spite of the fact that she is now an experienced troupe member) demonstrated the activity by playing the role of the character being interviewed.
In this activity, the character is developed through her answers to questions asked by her interviewers, the other girls in the group. Anya named the character “Steph,” short for her real name, ‘Stephanie,’ which she hates. On questioning, she described Steph’s home situation and some of her feelings about her parents and their rules. After about ten minutes of interview, I asked if anyone else would like to try being Steph so we could build on Anya’s beginning. Without hesitation, one of the new girls volunteered.
Three actresses were interviewed and we finished the evening by writing monologues for Steph or someone in her life.

I just typed up my notes on the character interview and, in doing so, realized how much the girls reveal about themselves in their interpretation of the character. There is no direct reference to anyone’s life in their answers to questions, but it’s easy to see how the distance provided by talking about an imaginary character provides a comfortable space for articulating one’s own frustrations and desires. The monologues further develop these ideas, but they are even more removed from the reality of the girls’ lives as they work to create a reality for Steph.

This is not a new insight for me, but a reminder of how the program works.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Opening and Closing Doors

During our second workshop, the girls continued to write about doors. Some of them wrote about doors to opportunity: doors to jobs, college, new friendships. Others wrote about doors that are sometimes closed to them. Here are some samples:

Doors in my house don’t let me out. They are pushing me away.

The door that doesn’t let me out sometimes could be language.

I guess the door is not blindness itself, but my lack of skills, and that other people don't know how to teach or include me.

As I approach the door, something seems to be blocking it on the other side. I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look around. It’s my father. “It’s too expensive to go to college out of state. You must stay.”

After reading their writing in the days before last week’s workshop, I decided that the door metaphor could be mined once more. This time, I thought we could think about the doors to our own inner resources.  After the girls shared and discussed their writing from the previous week, I told the girls the Grimm story called The Three Feathers. The story is about three brothers, the three sons of a king, who are in competition for their father’s kingdom. As is often the case in these stories, the older two brothers are described as clever, while the youngest is called a fool. However, when the father sets tasks for the princes to help him decide which will succeed him, it is the foolish son who prevails.
After the storytelling, one of the girls said, “I knew that was going to happen as soon as you described the sons. That’s what always happens in fairy tales.”
She was right, but the formulaic nature of these tales helps us focus on the parts that might provide insight into our own psyches. In this case, the unique part of the story is how the king sets his sons to the task. He takes them to a place outside the castle where he blows three feathers into the air, telling each son to choose a feather and begin his search by following its path. One feather flies to the east; another to the west; but the third simply falls to the ground. Of course, the clever sons follow the first two, leaving the fool, it seems, with no where to go.

But when the youngest son looked at the place where the third feather had fallen, he saw a trapdoor that he had never noticed before. When he opened the door, a found a staircase leading down into the ground. At the bottom of the stairs, there was another door that opened into a chamber.

So, destiny forces the youngest son to pause and look more closely at the territory with which he is familiar. When he does so, he finds resources that were previously hidden to him. In fact, the underground chamber supplies him with everything he needs to meet his father’s challenges. His older brothers, clever though they may be, are too self confident. Because they assume their wits will help them prevail, they don’t make any effort to do their jobs well. Even after seeing their foolish brother best them time after time, they don’t learn to try harder or to take a new tack.

When the story ended, the girls didn’t seem to know what to say. As the comment above might indicate, they had been lulled by the simplicity of the story. They have never learned to analyze fairy tales and, at first, they didn’t understand why I had told it.  Renee and I reminded them of the symbolic nature of doors in dreams and stories, and when I asked them why the fool’s door led him underground, they began to talk.

“He had to go deeper.”
“Below the surface.”
“But the door had been there all the time.”

They also talked about the two clever brothers. How could they not see that they were making the same mistakes time and time again?
Finally, Chania said, “We all do that. This story is about how sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.”
These two ideas: the repetition of mistakes, and the importance of the journey, opened the door to the evening’s writing.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Crossing the Threshold

Girls Surviving began last week, after what seemed like a longer than usual three-month summer break.  All of us who walked through the door into our “home” classroom for the Fall wrote about what it was like crossing the threshold from our busy lives into this special program for the first time this year.  We described the activities, feelings, places or people we had left outside the room and the discoveries we were making about ourselves and each other as we sat together in a circle. 

And of course, we shared our writing, as we always do. There was a poem, a rap, and several prose pieces.  Some wrote sentence fragments and elaborated on their bits and pieces verbally when it was their turn to share.  I marveled at the diversity. Each person wrote and spoke in a style that reflected her unique personality and talents.

Each voice sounded a different note, but the theme was constant.  This was the refrain: “I’m glad I made the decision to walk through this door.” Some veterans said it felt like coming home.  Others seemed starved for the creative outlet provided by the program and were bursting with creative energy and ideas.  There were those, too, who quietly observed the two newcomers and made a point of including them in the conversation. All of our experienced troupe members were especially appreciative of the courage it took for one girl, blind since birth and relatively new to the school, to try us out. With the welcome from their troupe mates, it didn’t take long for both new girls to shed any anxiety they were feeling and relax with the group. By evening’s end their comments showed that they were willing to trust the process.

What I found most remarkable as we went around the circle sharing our writing was the disarming candor of every voice. The writing expressed concerns about family matters, the different but equally demanding roles played in  complicated lives, responsibilities, stresses, a sometimes crushing work load, needs. The writing topic – crossing the threshold – granted permission to shed some of those burdens.  It also focused attention on the evening and the program - the role Girls Surviving plays in providing a safe environment to explore personal issues and concerns, creatively, through writing and performing.  

Below are a few of the thoughts I scribbled into my notebook as part of the writing exercise.  It is my attempt to capture some of the excitement everyone was feeling about starting a new season of Girls Surviving.  We – and by that I mean the adult mentors, two teaching artists and the school counselor - always write and share along with the girls.  It is one of the ways we encourage the girls to find their creative voices and speak out.

“I left my stuff at the door, the stuff jammed into the corners of my life, smiled and walked into the familiar classroom: Room 209. I was alone in it. Memories of past Girls Surviving workshops flooded my mind as, one by one, I rounded up the desks into our circle.  The rectangular carpet we had used as a makeshift stage was gone, revealing more of the freshly waxed linoleum floor.  I noted other changes too. New fake plants decorated the windowsill.  The bulletin board along the back wall was awash in blue designs.  When I turned my head to check out the rest of the room, I saw a familiar face in the doorway, a veteran member of the troupe.  She was carrying her guitar.

“I’ve written a new song!  I thought I’d play it tonight…if that’s all right,” she blurted out, brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

“Of course it’s all right.  How exciting!” I cried, all the while thinking to myself:  “We’re starting with music!  What a delightful surprise!  So many more of those to look forward to in this very special place.”