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, March 24, 2015


“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself not as a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happened to the girl who wrote those words. That was ten years ago.  She was about 16 and part of our very first troupe. When she read her journal entry aloud, I heard the fatigue in her voice, mingled with her determination. Her voice and body language reflected struggle.  It saddened and worried me to think that someone so young had already struggled so hard and anticipated a future of merely “surviving.” 

Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate the power behind the word “surviving.” For the girls who have participated in our program over the years, “surviving” is a struggle that, while seemingly endless, is worth the effort. There is hope in that.

Ten years ago I had no reason to believe the program named to honor the girl’s words would still be “surviving.”  We, Paula and I, were two people with an idea, a few brave girls, no permanent home, and no organizational backing.  All of that has changed because we’ve found supporters who champion our work, girls who love it, and alumnae who return to tell us how much they have benefitted from it. And yet, each new year brings new challenges.

This year our girls seem busier than ever with their studies, jobs outside of school, family obligations, athletics and other school activities.  In recent weeks attendance has been low at our workshops. We ended one workshop early because key decisions about the play’s content, structure, and theme needed to be made and too few girls were there to make them. We understood the reasons and we know the girls are committed to the troupe.  The calendar, however, told us that a lot of work still needed to be done in just a few short weeks. Like everyone else, the girls probably had lost track of time.  They needed a reminder.  

The next day we texted everyone and asked them to tell us if they could come to next workshop. Tracking them down was worth the effort.  More girls joined us last week and, because of that, they made a lot of progress on the play. It also put us back in touch with how much they must juggle in their lives and how bad they feel when they can’t make it to Girls Surviving.

Shanelle and Grace, two girls who hadn’t been coming for a few weeks, said they thought they had let us down. 
           “We want you to know that we really wanted to come.  We weren’t skipping or anything.  We just couldn’t…,” said Shanelle, apologetically. 
           “We didn’t think you were skipping at all.  We know you have a lot going on!” we replied, a little surprised that they thought we didn’t realize how much they care about the program. We know that both girls hold down after-school jobs and wanted to reassure them that we weren’t upset with them.

“We got in touch because we really needed your input to finish the play. The ideas you came up with when you were here last are important,” I added.

Then, turning to Grace, I said, “What’s been going on with you?  Everything okay?”

“Yeah.  Last week I had to sub for someone at work.  She got sick and I had to help out. My boss was just back from vacation and I was so happy to see him.  He gave us all hugs. ”

Later on that night, Shanelle told me more about her job at a local restaurant.

“I’m working this Friday from 4:00 to closing.  “That’s 11:00,” she explained.  “Saturday and Sunday it’s 11:00 – 4:00. ”

“That’s a lot,” I said.

“Yeah, but what am I gonna’ do on a Friday night, anyway.  And I’ll have Saturday night off.  I don’t want my parents to have to pay for things for me.  Besides, in a couple of weeks I’ll be trained to wait tables,” she replied cheerfully.

Like Shanelle and Grace, most of the program’s participants – past and present - have faced or currently face economic hardship.  Those who don’t work long hours at jobs after school, help their families in other ways. For a couple of years one of our most dedicated troupe members couldn’t come regularly because she had to watch her brother while her mother worked.  She told me that she didn’t mind because she was doing it for her Mom.  “I have to help my Mommy,” she declared, smiling. It would have been unthinkable for her to abandon her responsibility to her family.

I could go down this year’s roster and point out the ways in which each of the girls in our current troupe struggles to overcome obstacles that threaten their success in life.  Each story is unique. Some are more heartbreaking than others.  As I look around our circle I can see signs of struggle on their faces – a trace of sadness here, dark circles under the eyes there.  Mostly, though, I see dedication, determination and cheerful optimism.

Our girls’ give us the strength to fight for the “surviving” of the program.  We can’t let them down any more than they would let down their teachers, families, or bosses. They’re good kids who really want their play to be a success. We’ll find ways to ensure that each of them contributes to the writing and rehearsal process because their play is an example - shared in performance - of the hope they have despite their struggles.

We’ll also work hard to secure funding for year-round Girls Surviving programs.  Right now, we don’t have funds to run the summer program.  Without it, our girls will not be able to build upon the valuable social and academic skills they’ve been acquiring in Girls Surviving throughout the school year. While their more advantaged peers study with private instructors or go off to camp this summer, our girls face the prospect of being left without a summer focus that could give them a leg up against the odds. If that happens, they’ll be struggling at a deficit. We’re still trying to turn the situation around.  In words they might use to explain:  “They’re totally worth it!”

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Wednesday night, there were only four girls at the workshop. This is the second time in three weeks that we have had such a small group and it is the first season in years that small workshops have been a trend. We currently have thirteen girls on our roster; ten of whom are fully committed to the group. I’m sure that every girl who wasn’t in attendance had a good excuse. Three of them let us know that they wouldn’t be able to come. Still, it’s worrisome. It reminds me of the old days when we would sometimes struggle to keep the group alive. After last week’s workshop, I began looking over files from previous years. Maybe, I thought, winter attendance is always low and my worry is unnecessary.

The program began in July of 2005. In October of the same year, Carolyn and I wrote to the principal of Morristown High School to describe the Girls Surviving program and ask for help reaching out to girls who might want to join.  Two years later, in November of 2007, we wrote to the same principal (who, incidentally, became a strong supporter of the program) about problems we were having recruiting and keeping girls. Even with support from the high school, our fall 2008 attendance records show that we began that school year with only four girls in the program. After that, the group began to grow, but it took three years to establish a healthy program.
Our successful summer programs are one thing that spurred the program’s growth. The school year makes demands on the girls in the troupe, so much so that even the most dedicated members find that they sometimes have to take two or three weeks off from workshops. This creates a huge gap in continuity for them and for the other girls in the troupe because the process of writing and rehearsing a play demands ongoing collaboration from everyone involved. In the summer, the girls have fewer distractions and the program is more intense. By meeting more often and for longer workshops, the troupe does the work of a whole school year in six summer weeks. The intensity and continuity of the summer experience bonds the girls and gives them confidence in their skills as writers and actresses. Consequently, the summer program has always brought an infusion of new girls who come back in the fall with a commitment to the troupe.
Last summer, for the first time since 2009, we didn’t have a summer Girls Surviving program, and I think that we are feeling its loss this school year. With one exception, the new girls who joined in the fall don’t haven’t yet found their place in the group. There are several reasons for this, and they all result in sporadic attendance which compounds the problem and creates a certain amount of anxiety about how we’ll manage to produce the troupe’s culminating performance. Just like in the old days.

But last week was different from the old days. There was a guest at our tiny workshop. Kenya, one of our alumna, who was a troupe member through high school and who is currently her third year of college reminded us that Girls Surviving has made, and continues to make, a difference in the lives of some of its participants. The timing of the reminder was serendipitous.
Kenya in her last GS performance

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

It Takes More than One Try

‘I’d like to organize this year’s bake sale…learn how to do it, that is,” announced Shanelle out of the blue at a workshop in late November. 

Shanelle is a sophomore who has been in the troupe for several years. This year she has blossomed into an amazing playwright whose insightful questions and comments during discussions astonish us with each passing week. It wasn’t a surprise that she wanted to challenge herself in a new way.
            “That’s terrific!” I replied.  “Talk to Gabriella.  She’ll show the ropes. It’s great that someone in the troupe will know how to do it after she graduates. ” 
            Gabriella is a senior and our bake sale expert.  Last year she won an award from the school for organizing the most bakes sales.  A couple of years ago she suggested that Girls Surviving have one to finance the purchase of hoodies for the troupe with the Girls Surviving logo printed on them. The sale was so successful and the girls were so proud of themselves that other bake sales subsequently followed – all of them organized by Gabriella. The girls decided to use the proceeds from last year’s sales to see a production of The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.  Some of them, including Shanelle, were hoping to earn enough this year to see another play.
            This year’s troupe decided to have their sale on a Wednesday afternoon so they could eat whatever didn’t sell for snack at our scheduled workshop that evening. The sale finally took place last week. It did not go as well as expected.

There were a lot of contributing factors.  There were disruptions in communication between troupe mates because of snow days, delayed openings, and sickness. Furthermore, the entire school population was preoccupied with testing every day last week.  The school atrium, a large central hallway where the sales are held, usually is a magnet for students and teachers after school.  On sale day, however, it emptied out in less than an hour.  Who knew during the girls’ initial planning that severe winter weather, combined with major testing would alter routine activities so drastically? The girls couldn’t have foreseen these obstacles back in November when the idea was new.

Nevertheless, organization was lacking and mistakes were made. Almost no one baked, and only Gabriella showed up on time to sell. When Shanelle and the other girls she had enlisted to help her finally got there, the sale was winding down.  With nothing much left to do, they slumped onto a bench next to the sale table and watched Gabriella make change for the last few buyers.

We talked with them afterward about some of the problems they encountered and ways to improve the process the next time around.  We didn’t talk long, though, because all of us had other things to do before the evening workshop.  When Paula and I parted ways, we were undecided about whether to continue the conversation that night or not.  On the one hand, the girls might need closure. On the other, they might need time to recover from their defeat and reflect on what had happened before our next conversation.

As soon as Shanelle and the other sale organizers walked into the workshop, both of us instinctively knew we needed to drop the topic and move on.  Once again, they came in late, still looking unhappy. They brought what was left of the baked goods and spread them out on a desk.  There were only a few frosting smudged cupcakes and about a dozen macaroons that most of the troupe didn’t much care for.

“I don’t like coconut, unfortunately….” sighed a disappointed Shanelle.

Thinking the girls would have plenty to snack on that night, we hadn’t brought our usual bags of fruit, chips, and cookies. They were hungry and there wasn’t much to eat – yet another consequence of the failed sale staring them in the face.

“Enough is enough,” I said to myself. They had learned their lesson – the hard way.  If we revisited the bake sale again so soon afterward, we would be rubbing salt into wounds. Their self-esteem had been nicked enough. It was time to turn to their play.  

“We were reading the writing from last week when you came in,” I said.  “Let’s change up the parts.”  Looking at Shanelle and her friends, I added, “Do you girls want to read?”

They did.  Changing the focus slowly restored their good spirits.  As they took on the roles of the characters, they reconnected with the fictional world they have been successfully creating for several weeks. As they read and re-read their script, they stopped occasionally to identify gaps in their writing and inconsistencies in their characters’ behaviors.  They discussed revisions and worked together to decide which ones to incorporate or eliminate. By evening’s end, their second scene was nearly finished and their confidence had been restored.  If they had felt like failures earlier in the day, they didn’t when they went home that night.

They didn’t become confident collaborative writers over night.  It took several years and several plays for them to develop the social and writing skills to accomplish what was on display in our workshop. They may be inexperienced bake sale organizers, but they know what they’re doing when it comes to collaborative writing.

It takes more than one try to do anything really well. In a few more weeks – after a few more writing successes – and when their wounds have healed, we’ll encourage them to organize another bake sale.  I don’t think we’ll have to offer much advice about how to do it, either.  They’ll have a pretty good idea by then what went wrong and how to fix it. They just need time to reflect on their mistakes, the confidence to try again, and another opportunity to practice. If they can learn to write plays as a group using that recipe, they can learn to work together to sell cupcakes.  And, as with anything they do in Girls Surviving, we’ll be there to lend a hand.