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, May 28, 2015

Rehearsal - Part One

Every year, at the end of April or the beginning of May, the focus of Girls Surviving workshops changes from writing to rehearsing, and this effects a change in everyone’s energy. It’s not just that we feel more energetic as the performance dates loom; there is a different kind of energy in the workshop space during this phase of the process. These weeks, between the time the roles are cast and the first performance, represent the climax of our season. During this time, the relationships that the girls have formed with each other over the past eight months become crucial to the success of their effort. And, as we watch them negotiate the obstacles they encounter on the path from page to stage, we can see how they have changed and grown since the beginning of the school year. 
In the first rehearsal, the actresses read through the script in the roles they have chosen to play. Although this isn’t, by a long shot, the first time they have read the scenes aloud, the fact that they are now reading the character they will be developing for the next few weeks adds a kind of gravity to this reading that makes it different from those in workshops when we are revising and trying out lines. This is the reading that showcases words that will be published, that is, made public, in our culminating performances. As the actresses experiment with voices and facial expressions, the characters whom audiences will see on the stage begin to take life and the people in the reading circle begin to seem slightly unfamiliar.

Another thing that happens during this reading is that each girl hears her own words spoken as part of a whole. On the night we did our first read-through, I watched and listened.
“You decided to begin the scene with my piece?” Carmen smiled happily as she spoke, then quickly added, “I’m not sure it’s that good.”
But the girls know that Carmen, a prolific writer whose poems are published on teen poetry websites and in the school literary journal, is always shy about her success and they joke away her shyness.
Later, Nadine, whose attendance has been sporadic this year because of other commitments, was surprised to find that one of the few pieces she managed to write was featured in another scene. As the actress read the lines, I saw Nadine smile and mouth the words, “I wrote that.”
Lisa is one of the girls who is new to the troupe this year. When she joined, she express doubt about her ability to express herself well enough in English to take part in the writing and discussion. We told her that she could write in Spanish and someone would translate for those who didn’t understand. However, as the weeks went by, she wrote more and more in English, and one soliloquy she wrote ended up in the working draft of the script. When we came to those lines, near the end of a scene, she nodded and smiled – a private smile, a nod to success.

Because the script is created by weaving together lines from every girl’s writing, there is no one in the room who isn’t having an experience similar to these in this first reading. The script bears witness to the fact that our process is collaborative, that every voice is important, everyone has something deep, interesting, funny, or beautiful to say, and that the troupe will be successful because individuals work together and recognize and develop each other’s strengths. It’s a good way to begin rehearsals.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Extraordinary Experience

It was rush hour and there were accidents. Traffic piled up.  We arrived late. The buffet was almost over by the time we filled our plates and made our way through the crowd to an empty table.  One of the girls, Nadine, was with us. The other four had scattered – some to explore the theatre lobby or one of the many bathrooms, others to grab a bite.

As we raised our forks, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that the show was about to begin. Guesstimating it would take a solid 20 minutes to herd the hundreds of people we saw mingling about into the theatre, we assured Nadine that she had time to finish her dinner. We had been to the gala before and knew what to expect, but this was her first time. 

We were about to see A Night of Broadway Stars, a fundraiser that has been held annually for the past 12 years for Covenant House New Jersey at NJPAC in Newark. Covenant House is an agency that provides food, shelter, and other essential services to 18-21 year-olds who have aged out of foster care or, for other reasons, find themselves homeless.

Our five troupe members were in for a special treat.  A Night of Broadway Stars is more than a “show.” It is an experience. Yes, professional singer-actors perform show-stopping songs.  The music is always stunning. But it is not the music alone that makes the show extraordinary.  In between songs, young adults step forward to tell the packed house how Covenant House rescued them from desperate circumstances and helped them onto a path of self-sufficiency. They conclude their heart-wrenching stories with special thanks to the individuals at Covenant House  who have worked tirelessly to replace their despair and loneliness with hope and family-like support. 

Standing alone on NJPAC’s huge stage, these young people look simultaneously heroic and vulnerable. They have overcome daunting obstacles and are turning their lives around.  As we listen to their successes, though, we realize that their struggles are ongoing. Some raise children, work, and pay off student loans by themselves. Life is hard. When one young woman says that she rented her first apartment around the corner from Covenant House, we understand why.  At 26, she still needed to know that Covenant House was there for her, just in case. She is well past the 21-year old cut off for Covenant House support, but we know from the way she speaks that if at any time she reaches out for help, the Covenant House staff and volunteers will respond.

Covenant House offers more than essentials.  It offers ongoing love. Generosity suffuses the NJPAC auditorium every year during A Night of Broadway Stars. We hear it in every song, every story, every speech, and every thank you. We see it at work in the lobby afterward too. The professional performers, as well as members of the Covenant House community – young residents past and present, volunteers, trustees, staff – stay after the show and relax over dessert with other invited guests. The girls we bring every year delight in talking to them and posing with them for pictures.

The Covenant House experience has had a profound effect on our girls over the years.  A few years ago, something almost magical happened after one of our shyest girls, Suzanne, watched a performance of Singin’ in the Rain. The song and dance routine dazzled her. She was so excited by the idea that she could have her picture taken with the star who had captured her attention, that she completely forgot her shyness, walked right up to the actor in the lobby after the show and asked him to pose with her for the photo.  Since that night, she has opened up, found her voice and become a leader in our troupe and in her high school.  Now a senior, she is an award-winning filmmaker and a member of National Honor Society – to name just two of her accomplishments.

This year, as well, two of our troupe members came away from the Covenant House experience with extraordinary stories to remember for years to come. Toward the end of the evening, when we were gathering the girls together to go home, one of the performers walked into our midst and started talking to the girls.  His name is Hollywood Anderson and both his music and resume differ significantly from those of the colleagues with whom he had just shared the stage.  He is a young self-taught solo singer who writes his own contemporary music and accompanies himself on the acoustic guitar. He was brave enough to audition for American Idol and good enough to make it. His career took off.  Most remarkable, his success story began when he found himself homeless and on the doorstep of Covenant House. It was there that someone gave him his first guitar.

Nadine and Vanessa, another Covenant House gala first timer, are both singers. Singing came up during Hollywood’s conversation with the girls and soon he was singing with both of them, first with Nadine, then with Vanessa.  Vanessa and Hollywood really clicked.  Vanessa writes music, sings and plays acoustic too, and in very much the same style as Hollywood.  Standing there in the lobby, the two of them started to improvise.  Vanessa provided the beat and Hollywood matched her in words. They were oblivious to their surroundings – lost in making music – until they simply ran out of steam. But Hollywood hadn’t forgotten his moment with Nadine, either.  When the girls formed a circle around him for a picture, he noticed Nadine, who has a disability, standing outside the frame of the camera lens. He stepped away from the others, guided her into the center of the group, gently turned her to face the camera, and steadied her with his protective arms for the shot.

We owe these precious moments to the generosity of Dr. James Gallagher who has wrapped Girls Surviving in his friendship since we started the program 10 years ago.  Also a long-time supporter of Covenant House New Jersey, Jim has given our girls the opportunity to share in this extraordinary experience for the past several years. When I recently thanked him in an email for inviting us again this year, he returned the thank you with a thank you because, he says, he loves us all.  

Friday, May 8, 2015

Unexpected Energy

            This season’s play promises to be one of the best ever. The writing and revision process that has been shaping it for the past six months has been remarkable. The play blends comedy and drama. It rings true and avoids predictability or melodrama.  Surprising plot twists, lively dialogue, thought-provoking themes and scene resolutions simultaneously entertain and encourage reflection.

The play consists of three scenes.  One starts with a typical squabble between a teenage girl and her parents about going to a party and ends with a wrenching argument between the parents about their failing marriage.  In another, a 16-year old boy falsely accuses his mother of being unfaithful to his father.  The boy is looking for a way to blame her for the disconnect he feels from the family as his parents devote more time to their careers and he transitions into adulthood.  As the parents’ focus shifts from meeting their son’s physical and emotional needs to securing his and their economic future, the boy feels abandoned.  In the third scene, a normally loving father surprises both himself and his family when he responds angrily to the news that his daughter is a lesbian.

All three scenarios deal with mature subject matter, and the girls do not gloss over the complexity.  Their writing is insightful and sensitive.   If quality of writing is a measure of the health of the current program, then Girls Surviving has been successful in helping this group of girls develop into skilled playwrights.

Attendance, however, another traditional marker of a program’s success, has been stubbornly low since January.   How is it possible, then, that most of the excellent playwriting we’re seeing emerged during the past four months?  As attendance gradually dropped from a consistent turnout of 14 in the fall, to six or seven during the hard winter months and to three, four or five starting in April, our sessions have been more intense and focused. The few girls who come each week scrutinize the writing.  They take apart and reconstruct scenes line by line. They seem dissatisfied with anything short of excellence.

It’s not that numbers don’t matter.  They do, and even though only a few girls show up each week, the majority of the girls who started with us in the fall have found a way to stay connected.  A dedicated 10 out of the original 14 do everything they can to juggle complicated schedules to participate. They squeeze in as many workshops as their time allows, even if it means dropping in for 15 minutes, showing up in sweaty lacrosse uniforms or skipping dinner.  Eventually, they all attend and, by the end of this year, all of their voices will be included in the play. 

At the same time, a rotating cast of three to five weekly participants has strengthened the play and the learning process. These guided small group discussions and writing sessions, with different girls contributing in every workshop, have allowed each girl involved in the program the time and space she needs to find and strengthen her voice and improve her writing.
          When attendance is high, some quieter girls fade into the woodwork until we encourage them to speak.   Even then, some of them defer to a vocal defender of particular point of view.  The more confident writers who find it difficult to cut their own writing out of the script hold sway over others.  With fewer girls and different voices in each workshop, ownership of ideas and writing disappears and, ironically, more girls actually contribute to the process.  And, the process itself becomes less personal as the girls grapple more objectively with what they want their play to say and which writers in the group say it best.  As a result, greater learning takes place and the play that emerges is deeper and more thoughtful.

Paula and I often lament the fact that our girls have so many demands on their time that they can’t consistently come to workshops.  Now that I’m looking at the play with a director’s eye, I see how remarkable it is and the ways in which erratic attendance has helped enrich it.  I see, too, how many vibrant voices have shaped it.

This play has an energy that is unique. It is the creation of girls who do not limit themselves - girls who are actively engaged in family life, school, their jobs and their communities.  The very same activities that take them away from Girls Surviving return them to us more enthusiastic, dedicated, and ready to work. The experience they gain outside of the program breathes life into it. The experience they gain through the program, we believe, helps them better understand themselves as they learn to make choices right for them and mature – month by month.