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, July 31, 2015

The Risk and Reward of Performing Off-Book

“What’s going on?” I ask.

I stop the rehearsal mid-stream.  It is our last run-through, the dress rehearsal. It is an especially important one too, because we haven’t had time for many run-throughs.  I don’t want to interrupt, but the two actresses on the stage, Sam and Rachel, have been stumbling over the text and breaking character.  Long pauses separate their lines.

Neither girl wants to answer my question. They shuffle their feet and offer not much more than “Uh…well….”   I realize I’m not getting anywhere with this approach.  As I search my brain for another, it dawns on me: while they were playing the scene, they weren’t looking at their scripts. Their hands were by their sides the entire time.  Because Girls Surviving writer/actresses revise their original plays throughout the rehearsal process, they always perform script-in-hand – a staged reading.

A thought comes to me.

“Hey, are you trying to memorize you lines?” I ask.

“Yeah,” they say sheepishly.

Another brain rush: I recall that the night before the performance of the last Girls Surviving play a few months ago, Sam had tried to convince me to let the girls perform off-book.  While I knew it would be impossible for them to memorize lines over night, I was gentle with Sam when I told her we would need several more rehearsals to do that well.  I didn’t want to squash her enthusiasm.

“Uh-oh, “I think to myself as I scan the stage. “Are Sam and Rachel the only ones who believe they can memorize lines at the last minute, or is everyone on the stage trying to perform off-book?  Rehearsals have been choppy.  The biggest problem for everyone has been pacing.  The lag we’ve been hearing between lines could suggest that memorization is in progress and we didn’t know about it until now.”

What to do?  I don’t want them to think they can do the impossible, but I don’t want to discourage them.  Some, including Sam and Rachel, are veterans with as many as four years of GS performing experiences under their belts.  They might be ready for the challenge.  Not everyone in the troupe, however, is as accomplished or confident on the stage as they are.

I explain to all of them that it takes time to internalize lines until they effortlessly roll off the tongue. Studying lines alone at home isn’t enough, I tell them. Many line rehearsals are necessary to get everything from the timing to the intonation right.  But, I add, if these two experienced actresses, Sam and Rachel, have begun the memorization process, I am willing to let them take this next step – but only for this very short scene – and if they are willing to run lines with each other after hours.

“My goal is to make you look good.” I say.  “Do you want to try the scene right now off-book to see if that is even possible in the time we have left?”

“Yes,” they say in unison.

“Are you willing to put in the extra time running lines on your own?

Another vigorous nod in the affirmative.

“Okay, then, let’s do this.  Put down your scripts and help each other out without dropping character this time if you forget something.”

Even though they forget a line or two, they do well enough for me to give them the green light.  That was yesterday.  Today the troupe performed, and everything went without a glitch.  Everyone was splendid. During the talk-back, a member of the audience singled out Sam and Rachel’s scene as particularly powerful.

When it was all over Rachel and a couple of the other girls – all veterans - were debriefing with me over cookies and lemonade.  We talked about what it was like to perform a script from memory. Rachel admitted that she had been nervous and forgot a few lines, but generally felt positive about the experience.

“I never would have known you messed anything up,” I said.  “You both covered beautifully.  But memorizing lines is harder than it seems, isn’t it?”

“Much,” sighed Rachel.

Michelle, another girl involved in the conversation agreed. Michelle aspires to be an actress, spends endless hours watching movies to study acting technique and has taken the theatre class offered at the high school.  “Last year in theatre, the teacher made us memorize a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest….it’s a play by Oscar Wilde and it has all this language that’s hard to say…and the teacher wanted us to memorize it in only three class periods.  It was impossible!  I only got through the first page!”

“It takes time,” I said, “Do you want to work on that in Girls Surviving?  Maybe when we start up again in the fall, we could take maybe twenty minutes out of every workshop to learn more about how to memorize parts in plays.  What do you think?”

They all smiled, nodding again. They’re ready for an acting challenge, a new focus….something daring and different.  Sounds like fun to me.


Monday, July 20, 2015

A Real Troupe

            I can’t believe we started the summer program just two weeks ago and we’ve already reached the halfway point. What a whirlwind.  So much has happened in such a short amount of time. Attendance jumped from a low of three on day two to a high of 10 on day six. Until we saw the numbers go up and stay up, we thought we might have to cancel the program. Now we’re relieved and happy to dig into the work of guiding the girls toward better understanding of themselves and others through the play.
            We’re also excited by the astonishing progress the girls are making.  Before the program began, we were concerned about how the group could possibly write and perform even a short play in just four weeks.  By the end of the second week, though, the one-act was almost finished.  The girls are so engaged in the process that they decided to stay an extra half hour after every remaining workshop and schedule their performance a day later than we had planned so that they have time to polish the play and experiment with staging. 

They’re already laughing themselves silly with acting exercises.  At one workshop, we played a game that involved howling like wolves, yodeling, stamping feet, dancing, and speaking in a foreign language. The very next day they were talking in gibberish to each other and making noises that made me think of R2D2. The fun they’re having now with acting games bodes well for the rehearsal period that starts in the next day or two.

While it has been gratifying to watch the girls’ development as writers and actresses, I’ve felt particularly glad to see how quickly they’ve grown into a cohesive, compatible troupe. The veterans deserve a lot of credit for helping newcomers feel welcome.  So far this summer we have one new girl and three who are returning to the program after long absences. Taking their cues from their more experienced troupe members, the newer girls started sharing their thoughts in discussions or group writing activities immediately and, after only minor uncomfortable giggling, jumped right into the acting games. 

In the Girls Surviving summer program, however, it isn’t until everybody sits together at lunch that we know for sure the girls have bonded.  Unlike the school year program, the summer program includes lunch.  We supply the girls with sandwich fixings, fruit and snacks, and we make sure they have a solid half hour to talk and eat.  Free to sit where they like, good friends tend to form mini-groups and sometimes forget that someone else is sitting alone.  They don’t mean to exclude anyone.  They just want to sit with their friends.  If we see the pattern continue for a couple of weeks, however, we usually speak to one of the veterans about it and before long everyone is sitting together.

This year it took only a few days for one of the veterans to notice, without our prompting, that a couple of girls were being left out of the lunchtime fun.  Without fanfare or making it seem obvious, she somehow got everyone seated at the same table.  When I saw them all together like that, laughing and talking, I knew we had a real troupe.

Coincidentally – or maybe not, this troupe is writing a play about exclusion.  The characters are girls who, either knowingly or unknowingly, exclude each other from their conversations and activities.   Has the process of writing the play helped some of our girls remember times when they have excluded others?  Do they see parts of themselves in the characters they’re creating?  Will their behavior change as a result of the work we’re doing?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that one girl, on her own, has made sure that no one in Girls Surviving will feel left out.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Making Art

I LOVE the GS summer program. The work is so much more intense than during the school year because we have longer workshops and we work in three day arcs, so there is more continuity between meetings. And this past week, the girls were on fire. Our numbers picked up nicely. We now have ten girls on the roster who will be dependable through the rest of the month. The girls continued working with characters created for the 2007 play, but by the end of the Thursday workshop, the only similarity between the ‘old’ characters and the ones the girls are writing about now are their names.
The troupe’s process through this transformation has been interesting. During the first week of workshops, they read part of the climactic scene of the old play and, after talking about possibilities, each girl wrote a new ending for the scene. Then, after reading the new material, they decided that the old beginning seemed stilted, so they wrote each wrote new beginnings.
When we came together this Tuesday and read aloud transcriptions of these new beginnings the girls noted that the characters were changing. Their actions were more subtle and ambiguous than in the pieces we had originally intended as resolutions to the scene’s primary conflict. In fact, the girls weren’t sure that the conflict could be resolved realistically. They began to talk about leaving the audience to decide how each character might be affected by their involvement in the problem.
Because everyone had different ideas about how to move forward using the writing that had already been done, the girls broke into two groups to decide how they might piece the scene together. They were still working hard when we broke for lunch near the end of the session, so we decided to pick up the process on the next morning. They got right back to work on Wednesday and worked through the three hours without a break. At a certain point, they came together to share their ideas as a whole group, and by the end of the workshop, they had pieced together a scene, added dialogue to fill in gaps, and fleshed out the characters.
The first thing they said on Thursday morning was,
“Wow! We worked really hard yesterday!”
And it was true. Furthermore, their approach to the work was organic and self-directed. As a group, they saw what needed to be done, figured out how best to do it, and got to work.

Thursday, after some physical warm-up exercises, we read the new scene. The girls took parts and read dramatically. Then they exchanged roles and read again. After the second reading, they began new revisions. Once more, they worked in break-out groups, then came together to work out details. The workshop was winding down Rosie said,
“I know it’s late and we haven’t got that much time but I have an idea.” She frowned. “But it’s probably too complicated for us to do.”
“It may be,” said Carolyn, “but tell us what it is.”
“Well, began Rosie, “when Jamie is telling her story….”

In the center of the scene, as it now stands, a character, Jamie, tells a story that may or may not be true. Rosie’s idea was to break the narration of the story by having actresses enact it as a flashback. The actions in the flashback would change as the characters listening to Jamie’s narration questioned the truth of her story. We liked the idea and asked one of the girls to direct an improvisation of the story with the flashback. The girls jumped into the work and it wasn’t long before we were laughing hysterically. The improv was much too silly for the serious nature of Jamie’s story, but it was enlightening. The girls realized that a literal pantomime of characters’ actions can look ridiculous on stage, but we decided that if we could figure out how to choreograph the story to represent actions rather than reenact them, Rosie’s idea might work. We’ll work on it when workshops resume next week.

 We had hoped to finish the writing on Thursday so we could cast on Tuesday and rehearse for our remaining five workshops. Now, not only is there no ending for the scene, but the girls have a great new idea that will probably take hours to work out. It’s crazy, but the girls are having an authentic artistic experience. They are mucking around in the messy, joyous process of making art. It’s what I love about summer.

Some summer girls on a winter day

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bumps in the Road

It’s been over three weeks since we last posted, but it was a busy three weeks for Carolyn and me. We have written program reports and funding proposals, closed out our school year programs, and prepared for the Girls Surviving summer intensive. Because we lost funding, we didn’t have a program last summer, and we both felt that had a negative impact on the school year troupe. So we were determined to find a way to make it happen this year. Thanks to Gina Moran at Morris Arts who worked relentlessly in her pursuit of financial support for the program, and to our long time friend and supporter, Jim Gallagher, we are able to run a four week program this month.

Last Tuesday was our first day and, like many first days, it was less than perfect. We had no idea who would show up. We had reached out to over thirty new girls from the middle and high schools, but not one of them had made a positive commitment to join. I sent letters to all of the girls’ homes during the last week of June, but on the day before we were to begin, no one had called for more information or to confirm their interest. Also, this year we lost our most secure source for new referrals. A middle school arts program that had, for years, nurtured many of the girls who ended  up joining the GS troupe was dismantled by school administrators last year. However, we had commitments from most of the girls in the school year troupe so, in the days before the first summer workshop, we bought food and supplies with the hope that we’d get enough new girls to fill out a troupe of ten to twelve.  On Tuesday, only four girls showed up to the first summer workshop. Three were members of our ongoing troupe; the fourth was a girl who was returning to the program after an absence of two years
In spite of the low numbers, we had a good workshop. Because this summer’s program will be shorter than those of previous years. we had to cut something, so we began by introducing ideas for a writing topic rather than letting the girls find a topic through explorative writing and discussion. We handed out part of a scene from a play that was written by a Girls Surviving troupe in 2007. The play, which is more traditional in organization than those the girls have written recently, had seven or eight characters. At the climax of the scene we read on Tuesday, a group of girls steals and reads aloud from the journal of another girl. Carolyn and I thought the scene would prompt a discussion about vulnerability – those fragile places of the ego that we hide from the world. The conversation took a slightly different turn.

“I don’t think girls today would act like that,” said Sasha. “The bullying is too obvious.”
“Yeah, these days even mean people are much more subtle,” agreed Susan.
Carolyn and I looked at each other. Had the teenage world changed so much in the eight years since the play came into being?
“Remember,” continued Sasha, “we get lectured about bullying all the time. It’s become part of the culture. Anti-bully lessons are everywhere.”
“So what do kids do now?” Carolyn asked.

This opened a conversation in which the girls described their own experiences with bullies. In most of them, the girl in question had stood up to the bully, something I don’t think I had the courage to do until I was much older than they are now. However, as the conversation continued, they began to remember times when their own behavior had been unintentionally mean, or had opened the door to cruel behavior by someone who was less socialized. One girl talked about how a casual remark about a friend’s haircut, because it was made in the wrong company, led to teasing. Another told about the time she mistakenly sent a Snapchat message to group instead of to the individual with whom she was chatting. As we continued talking, it began to seem that we all probably tramp through other people’s fragile places every day, often without even realizing it.

Only three of the four girls came to the second workshop. The missing girl had overslept. On this day, everyone, girls and staff members, made up our own continuation of the scene we had read the day before. The girls wrote independently. Each seemed completely absorbed by the process. When we shared the writing at the end of the session, it was all good. The characters were taking on new life; the transformations seemed a natural outcome of the previous day’s discussion.
As the girls finished their writing, Carolyn, Karen, and I discussed the attendance problem. We couldn’t justify continuing the program for such a small number of girls. We decided to have another go at the ‘new girl’ list. I called Renee, the middle school counselor on our staff and asked her to phone the girls she had referred. Karen gave me a list of phone numbers for girls I had taught in my middle school workshops, and she left messages in Spanish for parents who had Spanish language messages on their answering machines. We made contact with a few girls. A couple said they would come.

By the end of the third day, there were seven girls in the circle when we shared the day’s writing. One new girl and six veterans. Things are looking up, but this week’s experience has reminded us that sustaining a community arts program, even one that is as successful and long-lived as Girls Surviving, takes continual behind-the-scenes work. For the past several years, we have been lulled into a fragile security. Sustainable program attendance, which had been one of biggest obstacles of our early days, seemed to be taking care of itself. Veteran girls referred friends, girls who saw the troupe perform wanted to join, and 8th graders in the middle school storytelling program saw Girls Surviving as the next step in developing their writing and performance. However, recently, as our veteran girls gain confidence, they are joining other mainstream school activities, and as they get older, they are getting jobs. The storytelling program has ended and, consequently, we have lost a stream of younger girls eager to join the troupe. To counter these changes, we need new strategies for outreach to parents, teachers, and other community organizations. We’ve begun the conversation; by next year we’ll have a stronger program because of the problems we’re now facing.