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.”

Friday, June 19, 2015


As Carolyn wrote, the play remained untitled at the end of our final rehearsal. However, we had to put something on the programs that we hand out at performances, so I texted the girls over the weekend and asked them to pick something. They chose Disillusions / Dissolutions, one of the titles that had been tossed around at the workshop. It’s not perfect, but it does reflect an aspect of the play. The family members depicted in the three scenes are disillusioned, about themselves or each other, and their disillusionment threatens to dissolve ties that bind the family unit. However, the scenes in the play are complex, and it would be hard to accurately capture that complexity in one or two words.

As I write this, the girls have performed Disillusions / Dissolutions twice for audiences largely composed of their peers. Each actress’s performance captured her character’s complexities in ways the title did not. Both of the venues in which they performed introduced distractions to the audience and the players. The first show was in a terrific space at the high school, but some of the audience members, although they were in the same age range as our girls, lacked the maturity and the social skills to sit through a live performance without calling attention to themselves. The second show was performed for thirty 8th grade girls who have been referred to us as potential participants in the program. They were well behaved and attentive, but during the first scene of the play, the actresses were forced to talk over the rumble of garbage cans that were being trundled past the open windows of the performance space.
These distractions are typical of school venues, but the fact that they can be expected doesn’t make them less unnerving. I can still lose focus in the middle of a storytelling performance when confronted with similar noises and behaviors, despite the fact that I’ve been performing for more years than most of our girls have been alive.
If the girls were distracted, it didn’t show. The loss of focus they displayed at the final rehearsal was gone. In character, they listened and spoke to each other as if the conflict on the stage was real. Although they perform with scripts in hand, there was no hint that they were reading or that any actress was anticipating her next lines. They gave beautiful and powerful performances.
We lost a couple of actresses in the last weeks of rehearsal, so several of the girls played multiple roles. One of the girls, Lina, was cast as the mother in two scenes: two different mothers with two distinct personalities. Although I had watched her rehearse, I was amazed by how Lina differentiated between the two women in performance. Near the beginning of both scenes, there is a moment when the mother character stands in her kitchen taking things from a cupboard. Because we don’t use props or sets, actions are pantomimed and the actresses create objects and settings with their actions. Through subtle changes in the way she reached for an imaginary ingredient or placed an imaginary object, she made those two moments distinct from each other, making it clear that the mother in the second scene was not the same woman whom we had previously watched. She even looked different in the two scenes!
Lina’s performance stands out in my mind, but all of the actresses made convincing transitions into characters of different ages and genders. They portrayed fathers, a grandmother, a teenage boy, and a little girl and made all of them seem real. This is especially impressive when you remember that the teen actresses also wrote the dialogue for these diverse characters. After both performances audience members remarked on the realism of the characters’ words and actions.

Yesterday, I stopped writing this piece to get ready to go to the girls’ third, and last, performance of the season. This was an evening show that was attended by families and friends of the actresses, and by staff members of Morris Arts. I think the third performance was the best. The audience was attentive and the actresses were firmly grounded in their roles. Also, the conversation between the girls and their audience after the play was very thoughtful and thought provoking. It is wonderful to watch and listen to the girls talk about the work they do in Girls Surviving. I think Carolyn and I leave the final performance of each season with a little of the ‘after-birth’ euphoria we felt when we first beheld our own children. The labor is over and its results were much better than we imagined, even on our best days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Title Talk

The play’s title: To the outsider looking in, it might seem like a lot of talk about not much.

We were taking a dinner break from a long final rehearsal, sitting around a big table in the school cafeteria eating pizza, tossing out words and phrases like “frayed,” “disconnected,” “unglued,” “dissolution,” “disillusion,” “out of touch”…. Time passed and the list got longer.  What had started as a narrowly focused, straightforward conversation became a complicated discussion that focused on the message the girls want to communicate about parent-child relationships in their play.

They were looking for the right combination of words, the one that would best capture the play’s meaning – the perfect frame for a complicated picture.   As one girl said,  “We need to find an image.” It was like writing a poem – collaboratively - and it was harder than we thought it would be.  It was so hard, in fact, that after almost an hour, we went back to our rehearsal undecided.

The girls had spent months writing the play, but did they understand what they had written?  Was that why they were struggling over this issue?  During the discussion, we all talked about what threatens to destabilize each family in each scene and whether the characters succeed in connecting with each other, fail, or find themselves still sorting out their differences in the end. Listening to the girls talk about the play, it seemed to me that they all understood the family dynamics in every scene. They had a clear idea of what they had written.  That wasn’t what was hampering progress on the play title.

As a writer I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to change focus when I’m stuck – fold laundry, listen to music, take a walk. Otherwise I sit at my computer going around in circles accomplishing nothing.  When it was clear that the girls weren’t going to reach consensus, we knew that the time had come to drop the subject and turn to something else– in this case, a much higher priority: rehearsing.  After all, this was our last rehearsal before the troupe’s performances, and we still had a lot of work to do.

During the rehearsal several girls had trouble maintaining focus. They zoned out and forgot entrances.  They burst out laughing during the funny parts of the play.  When they were off stage, they distracted those who were acting with their chatter and laughter.  We knew they were tired.  Their day had started with school, segued into a bake sale to raise money for Girls Surviving, and was concluding with this long rehearsal.  They were wiped out, a decision about a title too difficult to make.

After stopping rehearsal several times to remind them to stay in character, though, I began to wonder if their indecisiveness about the title reflected a deeper ambivalence about performing this play for their parents and other adults.  The adult characters they had conceived, scripted into life, and are trying to portray on the stage are very realistic.  Most are parents.  All are multi-layered human beings. They have sex lives, control issues, drinking problems, economic woes, prejudices, complicated families, and/or unfulfilled dreams. With performance just days away, were the girls getting worried about their parents’ reactions to these frank depictions of adults?  Is that why they were having trouble fully inhabiting the characters?  Is that why they couldn’t reach consensus about the title?  Were they finding it difficult to own their work – accept responsibility for what they had written? 

In my opinion, the characters in this play speak more honestly than most other characters created by Girls Surviving troupes.  But, truth isn’t always easy to own. Luckily there will be three performances of the play.  The first two are for audiences mostly made up of students and understanding adults who undoubtedly will praise the play and bolster the girls’ confidence before their third and most public performance. The more affirmation the actresses receive for their work before the final performance, the more they will give themselves over to their characters and proudly give full voice to truth they speak.  It may be only then – when the play is over and the audience has dispersed - that they’ll know for sure how to title their play.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Winner!

        Paula and I went to the movies together Friday night. It’s rare that we take time to get together in the off hours, but we really wanted to view Morristown High School’s 3rd Annual Film Festival.  One of the competition’s documentaries was written and produced by Jessica, a long-time member of Girls Surviving and a graduating senior.  How many more chances would we have to show our support for one of our most committed troupe members?

         We’re so glad we went.  Of the 20 finalists in the competition, Jessica’s documentary was one of the best.  In our opinion it was by far the most professional entry, but, to be fair, we had to leave without seeing the last five films. The film, A Better Day, documents Jessica’s interviews with homeless youth between 18 and 21 in New Jersey and the executive director from Covenant House NJ, the organization that helps them. Watching the film, we realized just how much Jessica’s experience going to the Covenant House fundraiser for the past four years had influenced her.

         We had seen changes in Jessica after she went to the fundraiser at Newark’s NJPAC the first year Covenant House supporter and friend of Girls Surviving, Dr. James Gallagher, invited girls from the troupe to attend.  As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, Broadway stars volunteer their time to perform at the event and mingle with the audience in the theater lobby afterward. That first year Jessica was so enthralled by one of the performers that she went up to him in the lobby after the show and asked to have them photographed together.  We were surprised by her boldness because up until then, she had been one of our quieter troupe members.

        We were even more surprised when she went up to the Covenant House youth who had shared their personal stories onstage, hugged them and told them they were “awesome.”  Out came the camera again, and soon she and they were posing, arms draped around each other, for another shot. That was just the beginning.  Since then the fundraiser has been a highlight in her life.  Every year she brings the camera and, after the performance, sets out across the lobby with the goal to photograph as many of the speakers and actors that she can find. As we watched her sensitive, yet probing interviews with Covenant House youth in her documentary about them the other night, we were struck by how much she had learned about them and their fight for a better life.

        Jessica’s film reflects her passion for setting the record straight about homelessness.  Homeless youth are, as one of the young women featured in the documentary says, just like you and me.  And, like all of us, they seek a path that will lead to “a better day.”  Jessica’s film corrects the misconceptions of many about homeless youth and allows us to hear directly from them about lives with which many of us are not familiar. Like professional documentarians, Jessica cares so deeply about her subject that she felt compelled to share her knowledge and insights with the larger community.  Technically and artistically, too, the film is outstanding, from start to finish.

I just learned a little while ago that she won second place. If that news wasn’t thrilling enough, she also told me that she had received $22 in donations for Covenant House the night the documentary was shown.  When I asked who had donated the money she replied, “I am not sure who donated.  I had a box on a table toward the entrance. Even though it’s not a lot, I hope I can still send it somehow (to Covenant House).”

Before Jessica graduates in June, I’m going to make it a point to get my photo taken with her.  She is “awesome.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Rehearsal - Another Part

Wednesday night was our third rehearsal. We have two more to go. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Because we do staged readings, actresses don’t have to memorize every line, and near the end of the school year season, the girls know each other and, usually, work well together. However, the only way the girls can have a successful performance experience with only five rehearsals is to commit to attending every rehearsal and to working hard while they are there.
When Wednesday’s workshop began, the play was barely on its feet. Carolyn had blocked the scenes the week before, but she was missing actresses so there were girls who hadn’t yet seen the blocking. On Wednesday afternoon I sent a text reminding girls about the rehearsal and asking for 100% attendance. One girl reminded me that she was singing in another event that night – an excused absence. Five girls texted that they would be there and there was no response from the remaining four girls in the troupe.
I arrived at the high school about ten minutes before the workshop was set to begin. Carolyn was already there with four girls. Another couple showed up during the next few minutes.
“Has anyone heard from Nadine, Maria, or Amirah?” I asked, naming the missing girls.
“Nadine and Amirah are coming,” said Lisa.
“That is, they’re in the building,” chimed in Chelsea. As she said it, she exchanged a glance with Lisa.
“Right,” Lisa continued, “they may have something else going on.”
I texted the missing girls, asking if they intended to come to the workshop. As I was sending off the message, Amirah walked into the room. She greeted everyone, grabbed a snack, and disappeared. Assuming that she was leaving to wash hands or get a drink, we said nothing. But when it was time to begin rehearsing, we asked.,
“Where’s Amirah?
“Um, I think she left,” said Chelsea.
“Is she coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
She didn’t return.

So, we began rehearsal with six actresses, one of whom had not tried for a part and would prefer not to perform. And now comes the good part of this story: All of the girls who were present got to work. Because four troupe members were absent, there were actresses missing from all three of the vignettes that make up the play, but girls pitched in to fill the missing parts. Carolyn retaught the blocking to the girls who were unfamiliar with it and rehearsal went forward. All but one of the girls present were long-term members who have been in previous performances. They work well together and are comfortable with Carolyn’s direction, so they picked up the blocking and performed the roles as if they had been practicing the scenes together for weeks. Carmen, the girl who doesn’t want to perform, gave a spot-on performance in one of the most challenging roles in the play.
It was, as it always is, a pleasure to watch Carolyn direct. Her vision of the play always adds something new to the scenes and the girls respond by deepening their performances. This year, one of girls is challenged by a physical disability that might have narrowed the movement of the scene she is in. However, if she or any of the other actresses had any misgivings about how that scene would go, they were put to rest by the strength of her performance in rehearsal. Carolyn’s direction of the scene, which is tense and emotionally charged, was sensitive and, to my eye, brilliant. It produced moving performances from all of the actresses.

But now, as our next rehearsal workshop draws near, I have a problem. What should we do about the girls who weren’t there? Of the four, only one gave us a reason for her absence and, in fact, had warned us that she would miss that rehearsal weeks ago. Another apparently flaunted her decision to shrug off the workshop, and two more made no effort to let us know whether they were coming or not. The girls who came on Wednesday evening came to work. They took risks and rose to challenges that were made more difficult by the absence of their troupe mates. If the truant girls show up at this week’s workshop, should we resume rehearsals as if they had not stayed away?

If we were a conventional theatre program, the answer would be easier. Most programs have strict rules about attendance, and missing an important rehearsal means relinquishing your role in the play. We have never been that strict, mostly because the main objective of our program is not performance for an audience. We know our girls have obligations to work, family, and school that can sometimes prevent their participation in a workshop. However, we expect them to take their responsibility to the GS troupe seriously: to let someone know if they will be missing a workshop, and to make attendance a high priority when it is crucial as it is now. We would be doing no service to ignore the actions of a girl who drops in for a snack and then leaves her troupe mates in the lurch because she would rather be somewhere else. But what is an appropriate response to such an action? The answer is always, it depends. It depends upon possible extenuating circumstances; it depends upon the girl; it depends upon how the other girls feel about the decision. As with many questions we have had, and will continue to have, through this process of developing the program, we’ll have to wait and see, and hope that everyone learns something from the action we decide to take.