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.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Blank Stare

            We’re sitting at my dining room table and pulling up documents on our laptops to finish the proposals we’re sending out to potential publishers of our book about Girls Surviving. But we’re thinking about something else.  

          In just a couple of hours we’ll be teaching another workshop and how we handle it seems more pressing than our longer range publishing project.  We’re puzzled by the blank stares we saw on the girls’ faces at our last workshop when we asked them what moral issues they were struggling with. We had just finished reading a scene from the Jean Anouilh version of Antigone and had been discussing the moral dilemma raised in the scene.
          Did they understand the scene? We thought so. We had prepped them before the reading, and Paula told the Oedipus story to make sure they understood the characters’ back story.  Plus, the dialogue in this1956  version of the play is more contemporary than that of the original, by Sophocles. The author’s presentation of the conflict is straightforward too: Antigone asks her sister, Ismene, to help her bury their brother, Polyneices, who has been denied burial by their uncle, the king, as punishment for opposing him in battle.  While Ismene wants to honor their brother with burial, she does not want to suffer the consequences of breaking the king’s decree.
          Maybe they just couldn’t relate to it?  That didn’t make sense, though. We had used the scene as a writing prompt successfully with another troupe just few years ago. Besides, this year’s troupe already had read and understood a more nuanced scene from The Diary of Anne Frank.  Since then, they had been discussing questions like:  What is the meaning of life?  Do we really have a choice or do circumstances dictate our decisions?  What are the intangibles we cling to during the rough times? Their writing about these philosophical questions had been thoughtful. The timing seemed right to introduce the Antigone scene as a prompt to begin dialogue writing between characters with opposing views on a moral issue.
          Were they afraid to explore real-life moral controversies?  Maybe. They wouldn’t be the only ones. The art of discussing controversial subjects with respect and good will seems to have been replaced with shouting matches in the media, on college campuses, in political debates and in many other sectors of our society.
          Before we turn our full attention to the publishing project, we come up with a plan to address our concerns about the workshop.  We decide to read a different scene from Antigone, this time from the original Greek version. We want to give the girls an opportunity to explore the issues of civil disobedience and familial duty from another perspective and in more depth. We also decide to ask the girls if talking about moral issues - their own or others - makes them feel uncomfortable.
          As it turns out, our planning is unnecessary.  Girls who had not read the scene or discussed Antigone’s and Ismene’s struggle, turn out for this workshop and sit beside those who did. Because we hadn’t seen some faces in a while, we offer everyone a chance to check-in.  For some reason they all open up.  Ironically and unexpectedly, they talk about the moral dilemmas and life-changing decisions they currently are struggling to resolve within themselves or with their families or friends.
          Were the fresh faces the catalyst for the change?  Perhaps that was part of the reason everyone opened up.  It’s also possible that the girls who had stared at us blankly the week before simply needed time to think before they spoke. 

I wonder if as a society we’re expecting instant feedback too often  When we send a text and don’t immediately get a reply, we worry or check the phone repeatedly until we do.  In a matter of seconds, the internet supplies us with answers to almost all of our questions, from the mundane to the profound. We’re so used to getting instant responses when we text, phone or do research on the web that I wonder if we’re losing patience with the thinking process.  Thinking takes time and complicated moral questions require mental processing of the highest order. We can misspeak when we respond without thinking through our answers. Silence is a lot less risky.  Only when the time is right do we know how to talk confidently about that which is most personal and complex. The blank stare may indicate that all we need to do is wait.
          Reflecting about why the girls filled the room with silence when we probed them about their struggles has paid off too.  We still plan to read the other scene from Antigone in upcoming weeks and ask them if controversy makes them feel uncomfortable.  It will be up to us not to expect instant feedback, and we hope that reading the scene will take their conversations and their writing to a deeper level.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Knot in the Thread

Last week, we continued to pursue the girls’ discussion about fate, free will, and the threads that bind us in our common humanity with a scene from Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone. In the scene we read, Antigone and Ismene argue about whether or not to flout King Creon’s law and bury the body of their brother, Polynieces. The two characters take their traditional sides: Antigone for honoring the gods’ law; Ismene for obeying the man’s, but Anouilh has realized the sisters as twentieth (or twenty-first) century girls who, at least, in this scene, fall into the stereotypes of wild sister / mild sister.
Antigone admits that, as a child, she was “a miserable little beast” for flinging mud at and putting worms down the neck of Ismene, then adds condescendingly “How easy it must be to never be unreasonable with all that smooth silken hair so beautifully set around your head.”
Ismene agrees that she is the one who “thinks things out,’ while Antigone wants “her own stubborn way with everything.” She also admits that she is afraid and, in what are for me the most believable words in the scene, describes the death they will meet at the hands of the mob if they disobey the king.
The picture she paints is familiar. It is the slaying of Priam, the persecution of Christ, the medieval tortures of heretics, the lynching of Emmet Till, the beheading of Daniel Pearl, and countless other scenes of fear or hate instigated violence. Her words bring into focus the immediate personal consequences of Antigone’s intentions and they are terrifying. It is not a picture of the death to which Antigone is ultimately sentenced, but to the French audience who saw its first production in 1944, it was an uncomfortably real picture of the times.

Although we had prepped them by setting the scene in the story of Oedipus and his children, I don’t think the girls understood what it was about. That may have been because, even adaptable as it is to the sensibilities of teenage girls, the text was difficult and unfamiliar. Or, perhaps, the problem of Antigone is too far outside the consciousness of American teenagers to be comprehensible to them.
“Did any part of the scene particularly strike you,” asked Carolyn. “Is there anything you can relate to?”
“I kind of liked the part when she talked about how she liked to play in the mud when she was little,” said Gina.
“And what about their argument?” one of us asked. “Is it ever okay to break the law?”
Jill answered immediately. “I think that in some places it’s okay, if the law is bad, but in this country our laws are good so it’s not really an issue.”
Her words hung in the air as we waited for someone to point out one of the many examples of ‘bad’ American laws that have been disobeyed or overturned over the past two hundred some years. No one spoke, so I finally said,
“What about slavery? Or the Civil Rights movement?”
“That’s was I was thinking,” Karen, our counselor, remarked.
“Or votes for women,” added Carolyn.
“Yeah,” agreed Jill, “votes for sure and Civil Rights is really important, but I have a problem with how Martin Luther King was unfaithful to his wife.”
“Wait,” said Cheryl, another girl in the troupe, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Are you saying Dr. King cheated on his wife?”
I was annoyed by Jill’s remark and I could feel myself gearing up for a lecture. “If he did,” I said, “does it change anything about the good he did? for the country? for all of us?”
“No,” Jill replied, “it’s just that I have a problem with someone who is good to the world but treats their family badly.”
“No one is perfect,” I said, getting on my roll. “I would hate have any good I’ve done in my life put in balance with my mistakes.”

This hardly ever happens to me. I can’t remember the last time I let a remark by a student or colleague shake my equilibrium. I argue with my husband, my children, and my friends, but in the classroom, I try to remain calm and lead students to think about both sides of an issue. At the moment, I was having a hard time with that. I’m not sure why Jill’s words were so offensive to me. Perhaps they would be to anyone who, like me, grew up in a segregated society and watched real people struggle to change it. Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights is not a history lesson for my generation. Like the Parisians who listened to Ismene’s words in 1944, we witnessed the courage and suffering of the defenders of those rights, and we witnessed the sacrifices they made to do the right thing. We also witnessed the hateful words and acts of those wanted to maintain the status quo and we witnessed all of these things through the eyes of children. I was only ten when Dr. King was murdered, but his fight made me aware of the daily injustices that took place in my community.
Whatever the reason for my feelings, I needed to get off my roll and, happily for me, Carolyn got that. We’ve been working together for so many years that we’ve become like the proverbial old couple who complete each other’s sentences. She knew I needed help.
“Well,” she said, “Jill has brought up something that we could talk about. There are at least two sides to her query about how to interpret people’s public and private actions.”
Things went back into balance. I listened as the girls began to imagine characters who disagreed about something, trying to understand an argument from both sides of the issue The objectionable specific became general, something we could explore by inventing characters and improvising or writing a scene. There may have been a lost teaching moment that evening, but if so, I wasn’t up to it. Sometimes that’s the way it is.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Family Time

Dr. James Gallagher’s name has appeared often on this blog because he has been a great (actually, the greatest) supporter of Girls Surviving from its first year. It was Jim’s vision of how the program could develop that inspired Carolyn and me to keep it going during our rough early days, and over the years, his input and advice have helped us articulate a program mission and clarify our objectives for the girls and for the program. In addition, he has granted program funds and provided wonderful learning opportunities to our girls. He has, for example, taken the troupe to live theater performances at the NJ Shakespeare Theater, invited us to bring senior troupe members to gala evenings at the NJ Performing Arts Center, and introduced us to Phyllis Hassard who has been a great inspiration to both GS actresses and staff.
One of Jim’s objectives for the program is growth. He believes, and we agree, that girls everywhere could benefit from participating in long-term arts programs like Girls Surviving, and that the process we have developed for improving teen literacy and emotional well being is unique. To that end, he encouraged Carolyn and me to write a book about the program, and he introduced the Girls Surviving program to three of his daughters, Maryanne, Moira, and Serena, the trustees of the Gallagher Family Fund.
For the past three years, Carolyn and I have communicated with these women by email and phone, but this past Saturday, we, along with Gina Moran, the director of development at Morris Arts, were invited to attend a Gallagher Family Fund board meeting where we met Jim’s daughters in person. We spent the morning talking about our progress in publicizing the program and our plans for future expansion. Then, we brainstormed possible venues for new GS programs, audiences for training workshops, and what to do about the book. What a great experience! To sit around a table with like-minded people who believe in what we’re doing and who have the experience and expertise to advise us was wonderful. The discussion gave me a new way of thinking about how to move forward.

We stayed on after the meeting to share lunch and a different kind of conversation. The sisters talked about their family and their work, and in the process, Carolyn and I felt we were getting to know the women who have been so generous to us and to GS over the past few years. Then they told us a little about the Gallagher Family Fund.

“It started as a family investment group, then Dad suggested that we allocate a portion of our profits to charitable causes.”
“Instead of thinking of the philanthropy as giving away money, we thought of it as another kind of investment which, of course, it is.”
“Ours is not a large foundation that can fund huge projects, but we can do a lot of good by focusing on smaller goals.”

These are paraphrases of some of the things that were said, but I think they are accurate statements, the gist of a conversation that helped us understand more about a father whose commitment to making positive changes in people’s lives extended to his own children, and a family committed to doing their own bit of good in the world. Our main feeling as said our good-byes to Jim and his daughters was that this was a family who truly enjoyed each other’s company. That’s what we talked about on the drive home.
But the meeting also left us with a lot of things to think about. Like their father, the Gallagher daughters have given us confidence that we have something important to say and they have encouraged us to write about it and tell it to anyone who is willing to listen. In other words, they have done for us what we hope to do for our girls – freed our voices.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Girl Time

Last week was teacher conference week at Morristown High. Wednesday was a half day and schools were closed on Thursday and Friday, so we didn’t have a Girls Surviving workshop. Even so, we got to spend some girl time. A week earlier, Irma, one of our senior troupe members mentioned that she had an opportunity to spend the day at one of the colleges she’s thinking of attending after graduation.
“I could shadow a student, go to classes with her, visit the dorms…but I don’t have any way to get there. My parents will be working,” she sighed.
“I’ll give you a ride,” said Carolyn.
“And I can pick you up when it’s over,” I added.
Irma’s parents were consulted, arrangements were made, and the college visit took place last Thursday.

This is an example of why Girls Surviving works. The program is more than a weekly arts workshop. Each season’s troupe becomes a little support group. Many girls stay in the program for three or four years, and the nature of the work we do builds bonds of trust between the girls and with the staff. Carolyn and I live in the community, so we see our girls out around town, we get to know their families, and we often stay in contact with girls after they graduate. Sometimes, we get opportunities to help them out in other small ways, like the college visit.

I was busy all morning on the day I was scheduled to fetch Irma from her visit. When I left home to pick her up, I was feeling the stress of having too much to do in too little time. In addition, my Google directions were confusing; it seemed to be taking too long to get to my destination, and I was concerned that Irma would worry if she had to wait. My fears turned out to be groundless. When I pulled up in front of the student center, I saw Irma sitting on a bench, chatting with another girl. When she saw me, she waved and ran smiling to the car.

“Whew!” she said, “That was so much better than I thought it would be. I actually had fun!”
“You didn’t want to go?” I asked.
“No, I did. But this morning when I was getting ready I started thinking, Oh no! All those new people!
She laughed. Her shyness has become a joke between us – a joke because of the way she has learned to overcome her it.

I met Irma seven years ago when, as a sixth grader, she entered my middle school storytelling program. In those days, she was very quiet. She hardly spoke in class, but when we were tete-a-tete, during writing conferences or before the class convened, she talked freely. She is a voracious reader and we bonded over the realization that books are a lifeline to us both. In storytelling workshops, we talked about books, and in the process, talked about life. Over the years, I have come to know Irma in the best way a teacher can know a student, through her literary insights, her writing, and her drawing. I knew a bit about her family life, but because her parents are not fluent in English and I know no Spanish, all of my interactions with them have been through Irma.

On the way back from college, Irma said, “I’m exhausted. I wish I could sleep when I get home.”
I admitted that I was also tired and, just then, we passed a Starbucks. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of the highway.
“If we pass another one, I’ll pull in,” I said, but we got almost back to Morristown without seeing even a Dunkin Donuts. Just before our home exit, I remembered a coffee shop in a bookstore right off the highway. “I know where we can get coffee,” I said, taking the exit.
“Wait,” said Irma, “there’s a Starbucks in Barnes and Noble. Are you taking me to Barnes and Noble?!?”
I nodded.
“Oh,” she sighed, “my favorite place in the world.”

So we went to Barnes and Noble. There, Irma pulled me into the fantasy section and began to point out her favorite authors and series. She was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, looking everywhere at once, pulling books from the shelves, reading me the descriptions on the back or inside the covers. When she told me that she had never read Neil Gaiman, I bought her a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, one of my personal favorites. Then we went to get our coffee.
As we sat eating cheesecake and sipping our drinks, Irma called home. She spoke to her mother and then to one of her siblings who needed help with homework. I listened as she moved seamlessly between Spanish and English.
“Do your reading now and I’ll help you with math when I get home. Your teacher said you should read twenty minutes a day, chica.”
When she got off the phone, she said, “They call me their second mama because I’ve been taking care of them since they were born. I don’t know what they’re going to do next year when I’m in college.” Then she told me about her family.
“We’ve always shared a bedroom, my parents and my siblings and me because we live with extended family. My bed is my only real personal space… My mother says we would have more money if, as many of her friends do, she had sent us away to live with my grandmother, but she just couldn’t stand to part from us.”
Later, back in the car, she said, “This was nice. I wish I could do something like this for you.”
Without really thinking, I replied, “Irma, you’ve already given me more than I could ever pay back in books or cheesecake.”
“What do you mean?”
And then I had to think and I realized how much my students enrich my life. Carolyn and I are so fortunate in our opportunities to become acquainted with kids like Irma. Through their eyes, we see worlds that we might have overlooked or ignored if we had taken another path in life. The privilege of watching them grow from shy or sullen or silly little girls to mature, insightful young adults is truly priceless.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Power of Play

           We always walk into a workshop with a mutually agreed upon lesson plan in mind. And a mutual understanding that we may not use it. We often change our minds at the last minute or switch things up during a session to follow the girls’ energy and guide it toward the goal.

Some of the girls’ most powerful writing has come out of workshops in which they’ve watched us play off each others’ ideas. Our spontaneity gives them permission to be creative. At the same time, our affirmation of each other in those “off the cuff” moments encourages them to respond to each other respectfully as well.

That’s what happened at the workshop that yielded some of the "thread" writing Paula discusses in her last blog post. It all started when I called Paula a couple of hours before we left to teach that night.

"Hi, I’ve been thinking…,” I began.  That’s how these exchanges often begin: with a new thought that surfaces when one of us is cleaning the house, walking to the bank or taking a shower.

“The girls’ writing from last week is so good, I think we should do more than just read it.  I mean, each piece is unique…has something special to say about the Stafford poem we read.  What about asking the girls to share some lines they loved from their writing with the group?”

“Yeah. I really like that idea,” she replied without a hint of hesitation.

“And if we go around the circle reading those different lines, we might come up with an opening poem for the play,” I continued.

“That sounds like the whole workshop. Why not postpone reading the scene from Antigone until next week?”

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but, yes….”

“And after they write the collaborative poem, they could pick a favorite line from all of the writing to use as a starting point for their own writing.”

Before long we had hatched an entirely new plan.  Instead of reading a scene from a play to inspire dialogue writing, we would expand upon ideas generated by the previous week’s writing prompt (The Way It Is, a poem by William Stafford) and write both collaborative and individual poems. 

We fleshed out the details until we completed our step-by-step workshop agenda. We even came up with a physical exercise to demonstrate how the girls could write a single poem together using many different lines.  It involved creating a web from a ball of yarn. 

It was an exciting plan.  But almost as soon as we got started, we sensed an opportunity and began to explore it.

After the initial reading of the previous week’s writing, Paula said, “So…” Then she paused, looking in my direction with a question mark on her face.

“We’re going to underline our favorite three lines from three different pieces of writing, right?” she continued.

I laughed.  “Well, that’s what we talked about, but hearing the writing again, I think we should underline our favorite line from each one of the nine pieces. Every piece is terrific.”

We both laughed as the girls’ heads bent over the documents, pens scratched on paper and the room went silent with concentrated effort.

Our little exchange was just the starting point of what turned out to be a full two hours of improvising. For the rest of the session we reworked almost every aspect of our scripted plan.  The girls got into the rhythm of our riffs and relaxed as one activity flowed into the next. By evening’s end the work had moved forward in ways that far exceeded our expectations.  The girls wrote brilliantly. As it turned out, they never wrote a collaborative poem.  They worked independently the whole time, and each girl’s poem or prose piece read like a fully realized creative achievement. 

As for the exercise with the ball of yarn?  Well, we didn’t discard it when we realized that we no longer needed it to stimulate a collaborative writing project.  We used it to help the girls create characters and speak in their characters’ voices through monologue writing.  Whether the girls develop those characters further for their play or create new ones is irrelevant.  The exercise planted ideas for potential characters and allowed the girls to experiment writing in a voice other than their own.

Our evening of improvising energized the group, jump-started the playwriting process, gave all of us a chance to play with ideas and brought out the strongest writing we’ve seen so far this year. Below are a few lines taken from two of the poems.

From Sara:

Alas, what is the thread in our lives?
Passion, Integrity...
I had a point, but I lost it.

From Nanci:

I won't lose myself.
Everyone can choose to stay or go.
I'm here though
All me.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Way It Is

The Three Fates by Henry Moore
The girls have been talking about very heavy issues, issues that are distant from the problems of their day-to-day lives: the Holocaust, the Dustbowl (Some of them are reading The Grapes of Wrath in English class.), the loss of a loved one – in other words, circumstances that can make one wonder about why people cling to life. After one such discussion, they wrote about the meaning of life or, as they phrased it, “the bigger picture.” Their answers to the question “What is the meaning of life?” ranged from the starkly biological:

Living organisms are defined by eight things – reproduction, cells, the ability to react to the environment, the ability to move, obtaining/using energy, evolution, growth/development and genetic material.  If the world threw me into a catastrophe, I’d keep these meanings of life in my thoughts and actions.  I cannot guarantee survival nor immediate death, but I can say I won’t die without trying.

to the philosophical:

If we all knew the ultimate answer, I think some people would just give up on life. However, when we are first born and we know nothing about the world, it’s the joy we feel in the things we do – the “happy” emotions that we feel doing different activities.

to  practical humanism:

To help somebody else, to know that you did what you could, knowing that you tried, that you got the most out of everything – I mean, there’s no better feeling than knowing that you helped somebody. 

Two weeks ago, after reading the pieces excerpted above, we prompted the girls’ writing with a poem by William Stafford called The Way It Is.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it, you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

With the poem, we introduced the question, “what is the thread?” The girls wrote thoughtful, mostly optimistic, replies to the question: that the thread is a constant in one’s life, the thoughts and beliefs that keep a person going no matter what. However, they also wrote that it can be difficult to follow the thread. Rosa wrote, Sometimes it will affect you in a negative way, but even if it is killing you, it will be hard to let it go. No one questioned Stafford’s assertion that holding and following the thread is part of the human condition, simply “the way it is.” They all affirmed the importance of believing in something bigger than one’s self and most of them implied that the thread connects each person to his or her deep humanity.

Tupac Shakur also wrote a poem called The Way It Is. In it, he writes about the hopelessness and immutability of lives lived in poverty amid violence.

I see no changes
I wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth livin' should I blast myself?
I'm tired of bein' poor and even worse I'm black
My stomach hurts so I'm lookin' for a purse to snatch.

Given the tragic reality of the scenarios the girls have been discussing, one might think that these words are a more realistic echo of the voices of those who are forced to live in unbearable circumstances. Yet, the girls have made the point over and over that hope finds its way into even the darkest places: the attic where the Frank family spent their last months, the camps of those driven to desperation by natural disaster, the hearts of mourners.

All of the girls in our group live with circumstances that make their lives hard: poverty, disruptions in family life, violent and petty crime in their neighborhoods, emotional and physical challenges. Sometimes I am amazed by how well they manage. They are brave and thoughtful and hopeful for their futures. If they ever ask themselves, is life worth living?, they ultimately answer affirmatively. This has been the thread in their conversations and writings over the past month.
I think that participating in Girls Surviving has helped give our girls confidence that they can be successful in their endeavors by helping them know themselves. One of the most important things we do in the program is give the girls time and space to talk about anything that is on their minds. We guide their conversations, but mostly we listen and let them figure out for themselves what they think. On some level, we teach them how to think. We’re not alone in this. Their teachers and guardians, the books they read and the movies they watch give them things to think about, but I believe that it’s the freedom to discuss and write and share their writing that allows them to make sense of the ideas they encounter. I think it probably also helps them keep hope alive.

(The thread) gets crushed, and stretched far out with multiple loops but it never breaks… it stretches out for endless opportunities that I can decide on and move forward with.

                                                                            from Irma, a senior member of GS