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, January 27, 2015

Define Normal

Dick, Jane, et al
In his essay on The Man Who Loved Children, a novel by Christina Stead, Randall Jarrell wrote: “There, in that warm, dark, second womb, the bosom of the family, everything is carried far past plausibility: a family’s private life is as immoderate and as insensate, compared to its public life, as our thoughts are, compared to our speech.”
It has been twenty-something years since I first read Jarrell’s essay but that quote has stayed with me. I’ve thought of it hundreds of times – with respect to my root family (mother, father, and siblings), my trunk family (husband and children), and the branches that have grown from that stem (grown children, their partners and children). When prodded by memories that make me cringe in anger or embarrassment, the quote is a comfort – Everyone has done something like that, or something just ‘as immoderate’ or ‘as insensate.’  Or, when I find myself surprised or disturbed by a revelation of family life from a friend or a student, it keeps me from climbing onto my high horse – my own family behavior is not, after all, a model of moderation. The truth is that every family is happy and unhappy in their own way. Behavior that seems normal in the bosom of one family seems bizarre in that of another.
Jarrell’s insight came to my mind after a recent workshop.

A couple of weeks ago, as the girls were struggling to revise a scene in their current script about parents and children, Linda said, “Some of this is over the top. After all, we’re not writing about child abuse.”
A few of the other girls exchanged puzzled glances before Christine asked, “Child abuse?”
“Yeah,” said Linda. “That stuff about the belt.”
Linda was referring to a line from a dialogue written in the early stages of the girls’ development of the scene. In the dialogue, when an argument between a character and her parents has escalated beyond civility, the character says, “you’re going to decide this isn’t enough punishment so you’re going to go through your belt collection and decide which whipping technique you want.”
The other girls’ reactions to Linda’s comment surprised me.
Christine said, “The belt! The belt isn’t melodrama. The belt is real.”
“You better believe it,” chimed in Shannon. Then she added, grinning at Christine, “When one of your parents mentions the belt, you run to your room to put on your thickest sweat pants.”
Some girls laughed and a couple more shared ‘belt’ anecdotes in a manner and tone of voice similar to that my sister and I affect when we reminisce about certain incidents from our childhood – family interactions that seemed normal to us as children, but that are almost unbelievable from our adult perspective. My impression was that the girls were not relating horror stories, but simply recognizing, in each other’s stories, familiar family behaviors. Never-the-less, when I left the workshop, I was disturbed at the glimpse we had been given into the “warm, dark, second womb” of some of our girls’ families.
Our staff members, both artists and counselors, interact with our girls’ parents and guardians. Carolyn and I talk to them to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs, the counselors meet them when we are concerned about a girl’s physical or emotional well being, and families come to our performances. Although, in past years, we have had encounters that raised suspicion of abusive behavior in the home, it has never been an issue with respect to the girls who were talking about their ‘belt’ experiences. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that those girls are well nurtured.

The belt interlude has been on my mind since that workshop. During the discussion, I saw Renee, the counselor who was present, go into hyper vigilant mode while the girls were talking, but she didn’t intervene, either during or after the workshop. When we talked about it later, she said, “It was very apparent to me that Shannon and Christine felt (the belt) was not abusive, rather discipline.” That’s how it seemed to me, too. Also, Linda, who, by her own admission, sometimes chafes under her parents’ very protective nurturing, has probably never been exposed to a family bosom in which some form of corporal punishment is normal.
Which raises the question of acceptable family norms. Currently, in our society, corporal punishment is never publicly acknowledged as an acceptable disciplinary option, but not long ago, parents, and even teachers, used spankings and knuckle raps to keep children in line. In my root family, discipline was meted out with my mother’s hairbrush. Only my mother wielded it and its use was ritualistic. When my sister or I stepped over whatever line Mommy used to determine we deserved a spanking, she would say, “Go upstairs and wait for me.” Sometimes we would wait tearfully, but just as often we would gigglingly conspire to pad our backsides with towels or books. By the time our mother approached with the hairbrush, she was no longer angry and we had had time to think about our infraction (if we were so inclined.) We were never hurt by the beating, but the ritual, whether we took it jokingly or seriously, reinforced our mother’s disapproval and disappointment in our behavior. Could she have used another method to the same effect? Of course. In fact, when we got too old for the hairbrush, she resorted to verbal reprimands which often did cross the line into abuse. In retrospect, it seems to me that the hairbrush kept her in check, much as it did me and my sister.
I am not using my root family’s private behaviors as an argument for corporal punishment. I know that once the belt (or hairbrush) comes out, discipline can easily escalate into abuse. (Although we were both spanked as children, my husband and I didn’t use spanking to discipline our own kids.) I just think that it’s dangerous to jump to conclusions when confronted with any family’s private behavior. Randall Jarrell’s comparison was right on. Teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel should take it as a rule. While we can’t make assumptions about what happens inside a house by how its inhabitants act in public, we must also be very cautious not to apply a narrow definition of ‘acceptable’ to individual family behaviors.
The nature of our work, in Girls Surviving and in other settings, exposes us, artists and counselors, to the most private thoughts and actions of our students and their families, and we try to consider each revelation on its own merit. We do this by treading slowly and carefully through our own prejudices, beliefs, and experiences. In other words, we do our best to empathize with those people who trust us enough to allow us a glimpse of their private family dynamic. When we suspect that a child needs protection, we act immediately. More often, though, the revelations that upset us simply go against the grain of our own private behaviors. In these cases, it’s best to just listen. The belt conversation probably changed perspectives in the workshop that night. Linda realized that happy, caring families aren’t all like her own, and other girls were exposed to the idea that there may be less violent ways to create family order. These are ideas we can explore through further writing and dramatic play.
Jarrell’s “family is womb” metaphor makes sense because development doesn’t end at birth, and continuing development inside the family can be “dark” as well as “warm.” For our girls, the second womb can extend beyond the walls of their houses into our workshop space. They refer to each other as sisters partly because their psyches are also molded by their interactions with each other: writing, talking, performing, and just hanging out. The atmosphere of the workshop lends itself to disclosures that are usually kept private. It’s both an honor and a responsibility when we receive them.  I’m still learning how to handle it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Troupe of Writers

     Who are our parents?  Why did they have us? Do we love them or hate them or both? How can parents and children better understand each other, meet each other’s needs and figure out how to get along?

     Our girls are asking hard questions this year about the relationship between children and their parents.
They have even asked us to share our experiences as parents in order to better understand these issues from an adult perspective.  Before the holiday break they filled their notebooks with feelings, observations and reflections about parents and parenting.  We talked and talked, deepening the dialogue. It was emotionally and intellectually challenging work – the kind that the best adult writers engage in all the time.

     Now that the new year has begun, the girls face the more difficult writer’s task of developing characters for their play that reflect the complexity of their thinking. They started that process last week during our first post-holiday workshop.  As a first step we asked them to re-examine characters they had created early in the season, when the idea about writing their play about parents and children was new and before they had begun to explore their theme in depth.  They re-read and discussed scenes that each of them had written by themselves for these characters.  Review material written in October and early November? To them it must have seemed like ancient history.  There was a lot of it too, much of it repetitive.  They were restless. Side conversations interfered with their focus so often that we could hardly wait to send them off for a break.  When we signaled that it was time, they bolted out of their seats. They didn’t return on their own either.  We had to chase them down. 

     When they finally settled back behind their desks, opened their notebooks and picked up their pens, however, there was sudden and surprising silence. No one glanced at the clock. No one started to pack up and leave at the stroke of 8:00. One girl finally had to go because she knew her mother wouldn’t be happy waiting in her car on one of the coldest nights so far this winter.  Every other head remained bent over a notebook.  The girls were writing.

     Each year our troupe differs.  Some move more easily from discussion and journaling to group playwriting.  Some take so long to complete their play that there is barely time to rehearse it.  Last year, for example, that troupe loved acting much more than writing.  Many of the girls in this year’s troupe were with us last year when the group found it difficult to write.  But after participating in the program for several seasons, they are more skilled and confident writers.  We’re finding some have a unique talent for playwriting. Our newcomers are less reluctant writers and enthusiastically embrace this phase of the work.

     It’s not that they have lost their love of acting.  It helped them rough out two-thirds of a draft by Thanksgiving.  Through acting, journaling and discussion, the girls had explored their theme with a writer’s curiosity and passion.

     After the break, in this first workshop of the year, they examined their first drafts more collaboratively.  During this reading they saw characters who were one-dimensional: the parents were completely unsympathetic and their children were justifiably angry. They knew these were not real parents—or children.

     When the clock struck 8:00, the girls were still engrossed in finding a reality for their characters.  They were writing from the perspective of one of the adult characters in their scene – a parent.  Many teens would not puzzle out the motivations of parents. For them it would be a waste of time.  Our girls are willingly trying to uncover the mysteries of parenthood. They are writers.