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.”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Slow Steps

So far, this year’s troupe is the most diverse we have had since we began the program. Although our troupes have always been made up of girls with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, those differences have been trumped by their shared experiences as girls, teens, and students. This year, after seven workshops, these similarities seem less important than their differences.
On a large scale, the group divides into veterans and new girls, but there are subsets in both groups. Most of the new girls struggle with issues that, by their own accounts, present them with social difficulties that make them shy about entering a new environment. In some cases, the problem is English language fluency; in another, it is a physical disability. There are also subdivisions among the veterans. The oldest is a senior, the youngest a freshman. Two are heavily involved in high school sports, one is an artist, another a musician with a passion for song writing. Three of the long-standing troupe members have formed such close friendships that they spend much of their free time together. And, of course, each girl has her own day-to-day trials.
The issue of the group’s diversity came into focus for me two weeks ago when the girls were writing dialogues. Looking up from my own writing, I watched two close friends passing notes and drawings back and forth, a group of three giggling as they shared writing with each other, and still another group whispering in Spanish. These groupings made the single girls who were still writing on their own seem lonely. When the girls began to share their writing aloud to the group, three of the newer girls who had written their reactions to the night’s activities instead of dialogues voiced their fear that they had “done it wrong.”
“There’s no wrong here,” one of the veterans assured them.
“Just read what you wrote,” said another. “We want to hear it.”
After each girl read her piece, the more experienced girls praised the work and connected it to the focus of the evening workshop, encouraging the new writers to disclose more of their own thoughts and ideas. This is a skill our veteran troupe members cultivate. They all remember what it was like to be the new girl in the group and they take every opportunity to help new members feel part of the process. Still, the picture of the pre-sharing cliques stayed with me.

Later, during the week, when Carolyn and I typed the writing from that night, we realized that the new girls had, indeed, contributed by offering material and points of view that helped us focus on a possible theme for this season’s play: that of relationships between teens and their parents. Some of the girls have experienced long separations from parents who emigrated years before their daughters were able to join them. Others wrote about parents whose plans for their daughters’ future is in conflict with the girls’ own dreams. They wrote about the confusion they feel about being their parents’ ‘baby’ and, at the same time, becoming a ‘young lady.’ Still others wrote about the strength and support they get from parents.

At last week’s workshop, we suggested this theme to the girls. They discussed it and began to brainstorm a new character, based on the writing in one of the pieces from the week before. The discussion was raucous. Girls talked over each other, had side conversations, moved out of the circle to find a pen or grab a snack. Although they were clearly interested in the topic, there was no progression toward writing. We took a break and when we came back together, I suggested that maybe we could try a playback theater activity. Carolyn asked for a volunteer to share a personal story about her parents for the troupe to ‘play back.’
One of the new girls volunteered. She told us about times she feels despair about her future and about how her father reassures her that he will make sure she is safe. When asked to select actresses to play herself and her father in the scene, she chose our newest member and one of our veterans. It was clear to Carolyn and me that these girls were chosen for their sensitive and empathetic vibe. However, once the scene was set, the new girl, understandably, felt uncomfortable in her role. She wasn’t sure what was expected. Carolyn quickly and quietly took her place and began to speak in the character of the narrator of the tale.
The room fell silent. Girls leaned forward in their seats, straining to hear every word, see every nuanced gesture of a seasoned professional actress. Carolyn was wonderful but when the girl who played the father entered the scene, she was fabulous, too. We all watched and listened to this intimate moment taken from the life of one of our troupe mates. It was stunning. When it ended, we wiped our eyes and the girls began to talk.
“That was awesome!”
“I was about to cry!”
“Carolyn is so good!”
“But so is Angelina!”
I asked the narrator of the story how it felt to hear her own story played back.
“It was pretty accurate,” she said. “It was like that. I don’t know how he does it, but my dad always makes me feel better.”

It is moments like these that will bring the girls together: girls taking risks, girls listening to and empathizing with each other. By the end of the evening, I felt confident that this group will be okay.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Welcoming Newcomers

            There are 30 minutes left in the workshop, enough time for all of the girls to share their writing. Ten of them sit in our circle finishing their work or, if they’re satisfied with what they’ve written, checking their cell phones for messages or quietly chatting with their neighbors. Those who aren’t working behave respectfully. It seems like a compatible group. 

           I say ‘seems’ because I don’t really know yet how well this year’s troupe will jell. Of the ten participants, five are new to Girls Surviving this Fall, one of whom is trying out the program for the first time tonight. Because I’ve recently returned from a two-week absence, I haven’t had many opportunities since we started in October to observe how well the new girls and our veteran troupe members are getting along.

         I watch and listen for clues. Clustered on one side of our circle sit three of our veterans; they chat comfortably while they wait to read.  Three new girls sit together, too; they all know each other outside of school.  In the middle of their threesome sits our newest member.  She was nervous before her friends came into the room because she didn’t know any of the other girls. She looks happy now. On the opposite side of the circle, one of our veterans forms a tight twosome with another new girl. The two live in the same neighborhood but didn’t know each other well before Girls Surviving brought them together.  I see a fast friendship developing there. This pair is bookended by two of the three adults. Also sitting between adults but apart from her peers, is another new girl. While she knows a couple of the others from school, she hasn’t developed close ties with any of them yet. Each girl seems to have gravitated to a safe seat within the circle. I wonder if or when they will risk finding a spot outside of their comfort zones. To some extent, that will depend on the actions of those of us who have learned how to welcome newcomers to the troupe.

            I have reason to be optimistic. In past seasons, I’ve seen how tolerant, understanding, and compassionate some of our veterans can be toward newcomers.  Remembering how insecure they felt during their first few workshops, they make a special effort to reach out. We’ve found ways, too, to encourage the girls to be more inclusive when we observe  two or three-person friendships turning into cliques.  We play silly acting games that get all of the girls laughing.  Or, we ask them to pair up with someone they don’t know well to write a scene or do an improv.  And, if the seating pattern within our circle doesn’t change after several weeks, we mix things up by taking different seats ourselves.

           On this night, I wonder if the new girls will feel shy about sharing their writing and, if so, how the veterans will respond. Everyone is writing a scene based on an improvisation a couple of veterans have just enacted.  In the scene, a 15 year-old character named Steph tries to convince her over protective parents to let her go to a Halloween party that night.  A long-time member volunteers to read first.  Great, I think to myself; she’s modeling the process she knows so well. If a couple of other veterans read after her, the new girls might grow confident enough to share as well. I’m encouraged.  All of the veterans do read first, and a couple of new girls don’t hesitate to follow in their footsteps.  A few newcomers, however, insist that they have done the exercise ‘wrong.’ We try to convince them that there is no such thing as ‘wrong’ in Girls Surviving.  They don’t want to hear that from us, the adults.  They need reassurance from their peers.  It isn’t until the experienced girls echo our refrain and start to beg that they agree to share.

             They’re still uncomfortable, though, and interrupt their reading to explain and expand upon the text.  Even though the writing needs no clarification, we understand why they believe it does.  It is different. They haven’t written scenes. Unlike the veterans, they have little or no experience writing dialogue for the stage.  They probably have never stepped on a stage.  Schools rarely offer their students the opportunity.  Girls Surviving does, and girls who have participated for several seasons develop into skilled playwrights and actresses. Tonight's veteran's have just demonstrated how much they have grown as writers and speakers. Now they demonstrate just how much they have matured.  They encourage the newcomers to continue to share. 
            The writing we hear doesn't focus only on Steph and her restrictive, insensitive parents. It explores new territory too – other types of parent/child relationships.  In their monologues and prose pieces the new girls describe lovingly protective parents who shield their children from harm. They speak of single parents struggling to raise their children on their own. And, they show us parents who absent themselves from their children entirely. What they express through their prose is invaluable to our process.  They provide us with fresh perspectives - insights into alternative family situations.  Most important, they decide to share thoughts and feelings about issues they care about with people they don’t know very well at all.  They take a risk.

          We’re appreciative of the risk the girls are taking and excited about incorporating their perspectives into the play. So are the veterans.  The girls seem to be talking all at once, suggesting ways to develop new characters and scenarios based on what we’ve just heard. It's almost time to go when one of our veterans speaks up: "I think we're done with Steph and her parents for now and should work on something new next week." Everyone agrees. 

          What a terrific group, I think as I pack up leftover snacks, put the classroom back in order and turn out the lights.  The veterans are taking the lead.  They're modeling the acting and playwriting process, coaxing the newcomers to voice their thoughts and opinions and inviting them to join the chorus. I watch newcomers and veterans mingling as we walk out the door into the cold November night. Smiles, laughter, energy, enthusiasm warm the air.