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.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Food for Thought

          When I saw strawberries on sale last week, I was momentarily deluded into thinking it was Spring.  I scooped up a couple of boxes for the ten girls I expected to turn out for Girls Surviving.  But bitter cold nighttime temperatures, sickness, and schoolwork kept half the troupe trapped in their homes.  Those who did venture out grinned when they saw all those berries. They happily worked and ate for a full two hours.  And again, their work blew us away.

          We decided to backtrack – return to the agenda we had abandoned the week before to help the girls over a hurdle about the characters in another scene.  We explained that this week we would review the girls’ individually written pieces about Hank’s troubles with his Mom and find ways to stitch them together into a single, coherent scene. This is time-consuming and tedious work, but it ensures that every voice will be represented in the final scene.  The girls read aloud all of the scenes, monologues, poems, and narrative back stories related to the conflict and decide what they want to include in the scene.  Decision-making requires flipping through pages and pages of material over and over again. 

          It gets really confusing. Each writer provides a unique perspective on the conflict.  Opinions differ about which pieces contribute to the overall picture the troupe wants to paint in their scene.  Reaching consensus about which character traits and plot twists to include or discard becomes difficult. 

          The final step -organizing their selections into drama - presents the greatest challenge of all.

          Sometimes, the girls get frustrated and lose focus. We do too.  Everyone gets lost in a sea of white paper, and no one can see a clear path through the mess on the desk.  But usually the girls stick it out.  They busily underline or bracket the material they think will fit until the useful pieces emerge.  At the end of these sessions, Paula or I normally collect the scripts and each girl’s notes about her choices, take them home, spread them out on a table, and patch together a draft for the girls to review the following week. When the troupe consists of several experienced writers and actresses – as it does this year - we turn over this final step to the girls. 

          Last week we decided the time had come to ask this year’s veterans to take on the task and help the new girls learn the ropes. I had assembled the prior scene.  Both the process and the product were familiar to them and the recent scene provided a good model.  Besides, they’ve been astounding us lately with their knowledge and maturity.

          The group was small.  We knew the task would be easier with fewer opinions to consider, but we were surprised at how compatibly the girls worked together.  They comfortably bounced from one creative idea to the next, and when someone noticed a problem, they rallied to solve it.  Even disagreements helped clarify and further the work.  No single voice dominated the conversation or insisted that her unique vision of the scene prevail.  Disagreements helped rather than hindering. The give and take was remarkable. As a result, within a half an hour they had sketched out the beginning, middle, and end. 

          We watched from the periphery of their mini-circle, offering only a few suggestions. At points, it was hard not to jump into their conversation.  Munching on cheez-its helped me hold my tongue, and I’m glad I did.  Our patience paid off.  At the end of the workshop I wanted to yell “Brava!”

          Afterwards – as I reflected on what had happened - I wondered if Paula and I should encourage every troupe – whether the girls are experienced or not – to take control of this important part of the process. We’re always diligent about honoring the girls’ choices when we cut and paste a scene together.  We also always ask the girls to revise anything they don’t like about what we present to them.  Nevertheless, once we put our pens to paper, we’ve determined the direction of their scene, and the way in which a play goes carries it’s meaning. 

          By taking on that final task ourselves, are we preventing the girls from learning to make the hard choices about what they want to communicate in their play?  Often, if we’ve done the patching, the girls simply nod their approval.  They may add or subtract a few lines, but, generally, they agree with our organization of their material.  We’ve given them reason to trust us, but is that in their best interest? 

          Should every group be challenged, I wondered?

          We know it’s not easy.  We’ve done it.  Conscious of the trust the girls place in us to get it right, we agonize over the process. 

          Would the girls learn more if we trust them with the agonizing? After watching them collaborate last week, I believe the answer is yes.

          I do know it might be hard for us to relinquish the role and sit on the sidelines, mostly silent.  In fact, I may need to buy more cheez-its  - or switch to strawberries.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Stepping Back

It’s easier for everyone when Mommy does the work. That’s how I felt when my children were growing up. It was really hard for me to let them take charge in the kitchen, the garden, and the laundry room, even though my teacher-self knew that was the only way they would learn how to cook, grow things, and wash their clothes. Because I’m a little obsessive about things like clean counters, organized shelves, and neat borders, it was hard for me to let go and just deal with it when I found the can opener in the wrong drawer or the spice shelf in disarray. However, by the time the fourth child had learned to do her own laundry, I was working full time and it was a relief to know that the kids could start dinner, vacuum the rugs, and take care of their own rooms and clothes.
It’s been nearly ten years since my fifth, and youngest, child left home and I think I may be falling back into old habits. Without thinking too hard, I can count three times in the last couple of weeks when I had to consciously restrain myself from telling students how to do something instead of just letting them do it. One of those times was last Wednesday in Girls Surviving.

It was a freezing night. One of the girls was sick, another had to attend a swim meet, and several just didn’t show. Carolyn and I had planned to start the workshop by asking the girls to brainstorm ideas for a new scene based on the improvisations they had done the week before, but half an hour into the workshop, when we finally decided stop waiting for late comers, there were only three girls in the room. Not even close to a quorum. So we moved to plan B: put together the ‘Hank’ scene for which dialogues and monologues had already been written. The girls began reading the material aloud, trading roles and talking about the lines they liked. About half way through the readings, two more girls arrived.
The group had a good discussion about how they thought the scene might go. It was during this discussion that I became aware of my impulse to tell them what I though would work best, but I bit my tongue and, with a only couple of lapses, listened. Their ideas were great, which is one thing I always realize when I’m listening to student talk. As long as they are working within their zone of proximal development, students can handle the work on their own. However, they don’t always have the confidence to realize they know what they’re doing and, when an adult makes a suggestion or begins directing the work, they tend to let her take over. Even our veteran girls can fall victim to self-doubt.

Some of the scenes in Girls Surviving plays fall together very easily. A chunk of dialogue from one girl’s writing leads naturally to a piece from another’s; a monologue or poem works perfectly to fill a gap in the dialogue, and so on. In these instances, organizing the scene requires little more than pasting together sequences of lines cut from everyone’s writing. Other scenes require more work and more writing. The writing we have for the Hank scene is strong, but it is all over the place. When they began writing it, the girls agreed upon a problem that would drive the action, but it seems like every writer had her own thoughts about the family’s backstory and, consequently, about what was happening in the dialogues they wrote. So last week, the girls had to decide what they wanted an audience to learn about the family in this scene, and how they could use the writing in their hands to show it. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the girls who were working on it were capable. Three of them are long term veterans. One is new this year, but has confidence in her own ideas. It was clear from their conversation that they would be able to organize the scene on their own.  

In past years, Carolyn or I have taken notes during these collaborative writing discussions and pasted the scenes together based on the girls’ ideas. On Wednesday night, we decided that those days are over. When we told the girls we thought they should revise the scene on their own, I think they were pleased that we were so sure they could do it. Scripts in hand, they pulled desks together and began. Carolyn and I moved out of the circle to give them absolute autonomy and it was inspiriting to watch and listen to them piece together a thoughtful beginning for Hank’s scene. It’s really best for everyone when the kids do the work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Growing Despite the Record Cold

Our last workshop started with a reading of the troupe’s first completed scene. A couple of people, myself included, hadn’t been there the previous week to participate in the scene revision process and we were hearing the fully finished version for the first time.

We heard a well-written dramatic scene and were impressed with the editing that had been done the week before. The girls had transformed a flat, expositional monologue into a dynamic two-character interaction. They had softened over-the-top angry lines to round out the more unsympathetic characters, transforming them with a few additional strokes of the pen into real people. Remarkably, they also shed awkward, distracting, or unnecessary lines.  Most of the novice playwrights I’ve taught over the years balk at the idea of cutting lines they’ve struggled to invent. And, when they write in pairs or groups, fear of hurting the feelings of their group mates prevents them from pushing the delete button.  That was not the case with these editors. They had cut entire passages that simply didn’t work.

When I praised the editing, the girls didn’t respond as enthusiastically as I expected.  Something about the scene seemed to bother them. After a few minutes of squirming around in their seats, a couple of girls spoke up.  It was the inconclusive ending that troubled them. At the end of the play, Becky, infuriated by her husband’s apparent insensitivity to her and their teenage daughter, Steph, questions the marriage and kicks her husband out of the house. As he storms off, threatening never to return, he finds Steph, sobbing on the porch. He stops but he doesn’t speak to her.  End-of-scene.

“Wouldn’t he say something?” was the question that stalled the group. Some thought he wouldn’t.  Others thought he would.  A debate ensued about the plausibility of the ending.

“We’re not parents,” said Cheryl.  Then she turned to us.  “You are.  What would you do?” she asked.

“You mean if I were Brian, the husband?” I asked.  “Or myself?  Cheryl sought the right words but couldn’t find them.  Was she questioning the troupes’ ability to write credible adult characters, I wondered?  I tried to reassure her and the other writers that their work was good.

“What’s so wonderful about the parents you’ve created is that neither one is completely innocent in their treatment of each other or their daughter.  Given what Brian says and does leading up to the climax, I guess I would have kicked him out, just like his wife.  But…Becky isn’t blameless either.  One minute she sticks up for Steph and the next she accuses her of being disrespectful.  Brian becomes so frustrated and angry with her at the end that I’m not sure, in the heat of that moment, he would know what to say to Steph. These are complicated characters.  That’s what makes the play so realistic.”

Paula and Renee agreed.  Despite assurances, though, the girls still couldn’t decide whether they wanted to add lines for Brian or not. With the discussion going around in circles, I finally suggested that we put the scene aside and work out the ending later, during rehearsal.

“Once the actresses inhabit the characters, the ending will become clear.  Remember, too, the characters can communicate through their actions as well as their words.  What Brian does when he sees Steph …the way you decide to block the scene…his movements and Steph’s physical reactions …all of that will help clarify the ending for you and your audience.”

That resonated with them and, relieved, they put the scene away.   What happened next, though, suggested that I had been right in thinking that the girls felt insecure about writing authentic sounding adult characters.

“I think we shouldn’t continue work on the second scene tonight…the one between Hank and his Mom,” piped up Germaine.  “We have another whole scene to come up with. We haven’t even thought about that. I think we should.  And I think we should write about siblings this time, not parents and kids.  We really don’t know how parents act…but siblings?  We can write something really, really good with siblings.”

After all that we had just discussed, including our assurances about their skillful crafting of the scene, I disagreed. 

“But you’ve done such a good job!  Remember, you decided on a parent-child theme for this year’s play. Just because you aren’t a parent doesn’t mean you can’t write in a parent’s voice. In past years you’ve created terrific male characters, but you’re obviously not boys.”  

They laughed, but they persisted.

“Yeah, but we know siblings so much better,” chimed in Cheryl.  Other girls nodded their heads in agreement. Their voice was clear.

“Ok…if that’s what you want, we certainly can expand the theme to families…and include scenes between siblings,” I conceded. 

Now it was time for me to step back. As so often happens in Girls Surviving, there comes a moment when adult guidance helps less than honoring the girls’ ownership of the process. No matter how much I wanted to convince them that they had written and revised a great scene, they weren’t going to buy it – at least not then. And, as so often happens in Girls Surviving, the girls’ decision to put distance between themselves and the scene by focusing on something different was right too.
           “So…” began Cheryl, tentatively “…can we…like…act…instead of write?”

Paula and I looked at each other, uncertain of our next move. Cheryl’s question tossed out our plan for the workshop… to finish the scene between Hank and his Mom.  The theme of the play was morphing.  The girls’ confidence in themselves as writers seemed shaken.  What to do with so much in flux? 

“Good idea!  Let’s take a break,” I said.  Be back in ten minutes and we’ll do an acting game to help you come up with characters for your next scene.”

We often engage in theater games for fun, to break the routine, but the girls had asked for something else. They wanted a challenging activity that would help them uncover fresh material for their new scene.  We needed a little time to choose an exercise that would meet their needs.

After they left the room, we tossed around a couple of options and finally decided to adapt a game called Conflict Tag.  In the game, actresses playing characters #1 and #2 argue a conflict until they reach an impasse and a new actress enters the scene, tags out actress #1, and engages actress #2 in an entirely new argument between two different characters.   Since the girls wanted to expand their theme to include siblings, we limited the scope of their scenarios to conflicts between family members.

We explained the game when they returned. They were excited and immediately started brainstorming characters and conflicts.  We expected them to create scenes between siblings. But, of course, they surprised us.  All of the scenarios they proposed focused on…parent-child relationships, the theme of their overall play.

In the first improvisation, a teenage girl tried to convince her mother to let her skip college and become a professional musician.  In the second and third enactments, seniors in high school who desperately wanted to go to a college out of state asked their parents for financial help.  While comparisons with siblings who remained off stage became part of their conversation, the focus of both improvs was on the parent-child dynamic. In the third, a mother, played with subtlety and sensitivity by Paula, probed her daughter about her sexual orientation until the girl finally confessed her love for a girl.

Letting the girls decide had brought us full circle. Once out of their seats and on their feet they chose to create scenes between parents and children. They selected serious, complicated real-life conflicts and skillfully enacted them. I knew then that the new scene was going to be as insightful and nuanced as the one I had praised.  I also knew the girls would not be satisfied with it until they were sure it was believable.

What had happened during this workshop?

I looked around the room. The six girls who had braved the cold to come to Girls Surviving that night had been coming regularly for roughly three to five years.  They all were long-time veterans and this was the first night that they had worked together this year without a newcomer present. 

The dynamic was different – the conversation deeper and more intimate.  The girls opened up in a different way.  They revealed things about themselves that might have lain dormant if the group had been larger and included newer voices.  Their sophisticated acting and insightful reflections about their first scene were signs of remarkable growth.  They belabored the ending of their scene, not because they were insecure, but because they have done this before and have developed an ear for believability.  They’ve learned that the climax and resolution of a play can send powerful messages.  They understand the responsibility they have to their audience to get it right. They didn’t want to play a theatre game just to have fun. They know it’s February and time is precious.  They wanted to use the game as a tool to further their work on the script. 

A year ago, this same group of six couldn’t have concentrated on scriptwriting for longer than ten minutes.  Improvisations routinely fell apart into fits of laughter.  All that had changed.  These girls were maturing into intellectually curious, emotionally grounded young women.  They are more skilled writers and actresses. More importantly, they will not be deterred from speaking their minds and asking questions until they know deep down they’ve got it right and can feel proud of their play. We look forward to the way they will help our newcomers follow the same path to finding their own voice.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Watching Them Grow

Last Wednesday, all of the girls who attended the workshop were veterans. They ranged in age from 14 to 17 and all of them have been in the Girls Surviving troupe since, at least, the summer after their 8th grade year, that is, between 2 and 5 years.
 The girls spent the first part of the workshop revising lines in the scene they had been working on the week before. After that, Carolyn and I had decided they should begin to put together a second scene from writing they did in December. The girls had another idea.
“I don’t know how y’all feel,” said Cindy, “but I can’t stand the thought of looking at more writing.”
“I agree!” said Ashley.
“We need some distance from this stuff,” added Liz. “Can’t we do an acting exercise?”
Liz’s suggestion was followed by cheers from everyone in the circle.
Carolyn and I exchanged glances and telepathed to each other something like, “They need a change, but we don’t have time to waste playing Bus Stop or Cat and Mouse.”
“Why don’t you take your break now,” Carolyn suggested, “and when you get back, we’ll have a plan.”

We decided we needed an exercise that would help the girls find characters for a third, still to be written, scene. Carolyn suggested a game called Conflict Tag in which two actresses are given a conflict to play out. When the improvisation begins to lose momentum, another actress in the group who has been observing steps in, tags one player out, and begins a new conflict with the remaining player. We also decided that the conflicts had to be between a parent and a child because these are the relationships the girls are writing about for this play.
When the girls came back from their break, we described the game and asked them to brainstorm some parent/teen conflicts. The list included:
-       parent doesn’t want to pay for college
-       teen wants to follow a career that a parent disapproves of
-       parent is in denial about teen’s sexuality
-       parent causes sibling rivalry by favoring one child over the other OR teen perceives favoritism

The girls quickly chose conflicts, took on roles, and the improvisations began. Carolyn, Renee, and I watched and kvelled. The acting was focused and the girls seemed comfortable in their characters. They listened to and reacted to each other as if they were participating in moments from their real lives. Every scenario was beautifully and meaningfully acted. In short, all of the girls who took part in the exercise have become poised and confident actresses during their years in the troupe. We adults felt the kind of pride and amazement that parents feel when they see one of their children pull together and display all of the skills they have been learning under the parents’ noses for years. A part of us knew the kids had it in them; another part was blown away!

I met several of the girls who attended last week’s workshop when they were sixth graders in my middle school Storytelling program. I remember that one of them still had reading difficulties when she was in 8th grade (now she does flawless, heartfelt first readings of scenes), that another was too shy to speak to me without whispering for two years (she has been a leading director/producer/actor/announcer in the school video and radio program for the past three years), and that a third was deeply depressed for most of her middle school years (she whispers, laughs, and talks with friends much too often during workshops this year).
Is Girls Surviving the reason for these positive changes? Yes. And no. No doubt most of these girls learned to act in the program. Also, participation in the program probably gave many of them the confidence to take risks and try new things when they entered high school. On the other hand, much of the growth we see can be attributed to time. Our girls grow up in the program and Girls Surviving is just one dimension of their growing process. The fact that we get to witness them grow is one of the perks of our job.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Field Trip

We’re at a nerve-wracking stage of our writing process. It’s already February and, although the girls have generated a lot of writing, we still don’t have a script. When Carolyn and I took stock before our final January workshop, our inventory of writing looked something like this:

-       2 scenes, mostly written, need to be formalized
-       poems and reflections that could be used to introduce or knit scenes together
-       some monologues and snatches of dialogue that may fit into a third scene

By the beginning of last week’s workshop, one of those two scenes had been drafted. That is, the girls had selected and sequenced lines from everyone’s writing and the lines had been organized into a continuous scene. It still needed work. There were gaps in the action and we had questions about one of the characters, but I went into the workshop last Wednesday feeling like the scene would be finished by the end of the evening. Then, as often happens in Girls Surviving workshops, life stepped in and threatened to kick my plans into the gutter.

Nothing went wrong; on the contrary, one of our new girls, Sam, had been asked sing the National Anthem to open a wrestling match that was scheduled during our meeting time. Sam, who is very conscientious about her responsibility to the troupe, had emailed me a couple of days earlier to ask if it was okay for her to leave the workshop for half an hour. So, although I had been given a heads-up that there might be a slight disruption to our work, I didn’t foresee that it would become an issue for the whole group. However, half-way through the workshop, when one of the wrestling coaches stuck his head into the room to tell Sam they’d need her in ten minutes, the work of scene revision screeched to a halt.
“Hey,” asked Tammy, “what’s this about?”
A smile flickered across Sam’s face, then quickly disappeared. Because she is relatively new to the program, she is still a bit self-conscious about drawing attention to herself. “They asked me to sing before the wrestling match.” She spoke as if she were describing something that might have been asked of anyone.
“REALLY!?” screamed Mia, then, turning to me, “Can we all go?”
Janelle, who was sitting next to me said, “Cool! Field Trip!”
I looked at Karen, the other adult in the room and, simultaneously, we shrugged.
“Is it alright with you?” I asked Sam.
This time the smile stayed put.
“Okay,” I said, “but this is our break. We have to get right back to work as soon as we get back.”

It would have been mean to deny the girls’ request, especially since it seemed likely to bond Sam more tightly in the group, but as I followed the girls to the gym where the match was being held, I was annoyed.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” I warned as we walked in. “Stay together and stay near the door so we can leave right after Sam’s song.”
I stood just inside the door and watched as the girls began to mingle with the crowd of teens and parents who had come to cheer for the wrestlers. As I observed, I realized that the girls’ behavior was a little different in the larger high school environment. Just as families fall into habits of behavior when they’re interacting in the family circle, the girls in the troupe have established a dynamic that is usually predictable. However, as they interacted with friends and classmates out of our group, they revealed something new to me. I noticed that some of the troupe members stuck together – clearly best friends, even outside the troupe – while others left the group to talk and laugh (or flirt) with someone in the crowd. For a few seconds, I had a glimpse of how these girls behaved among peers, without adult influence.
When I heard a familiar voice happily chatting in the bleacher near my head, I looked up to see Carmen, a veteran troupe member, laughing and talking with a girl I didn’t know. I watched in pleasant surprise because, although she is a long-standing member of the troupe, Carmen has never seemed to feel quite at ease in the group. The other girls like and admire her, but she is shy and sometimes speaks and acts in a self-deprecating manner. When she was younger, this girl suffered from depression so severe that I worried for her safety. Over the years, she has received outside help through her relationships with the counselors in our program, and I think her association with Girls Surviving has provided social and emotional stability in times of stress. But last week, as I watched Carmen smile and whisper with her friend, I felt sure that she is going to be fine. She has found a niche in high school life in which to develop her natural strengths, and I think it must also provide her with another safe space to try out new things.

Sam sang beautifully, navigating difficulties in the song that have tripped more experienced singers. As we walked back to the workshop, the girls bathed her with praise. The field trip was a success, accomplishing just what such trips are supposed to – giving participants a new point of view by changing their learning environment. The girls realized that their new troupe mate can hold her own before an audience, and I was reminded that even those girls whom I think I know best can surprise me and lift my heart. It was a good night.