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, October 30, 2015

When The Core Group Shows Up

            Different faces appear at every Girls Surviving workshop. Our girls come and go.  They have to. 

Some watch siblings while their parents work the night shift.  Others need paying jobs. Juniors and seniors who want to go to college feel the academic heat. Without scholarship money, their options are limited and their future goals compromised. The competition is fierce. Success not only depends on good grades in advanced courses but participation in extra curricular activities.  Consequently, most of our girls get involved in sports, community or church programs, or clubs that demand consistent attendance.
            Girls Surviving is their refuge.  It’s the place they count on to be there for them when they need it.  It’s a place where they can talk openly and be heard without feeling judged.  It’s the place where the personal and creative rewards are greater than the requirements.
            “It’s the place I come to relax,” one stressed-out junior said at a recent workshop.  The very next week she couldn’t join us because she had two papers due the next day. Relaxation would have to wait until the following week.
            We’re comfortable with the unpredictability of the girls’ lives.  We understand.  With girls dropping in and out, however, it’s sometimes hard to reach consensus about the focus of the play. So far this year, the girls’ writing has focused on serious themes that have segued into discussions about the Holocaust.  Last week one girl told everyone how much she appreciates learning more about the persecution of the Jewish population during World War II, while another expressed doubts about digging further into the topic.
            "Yeah, it’s good to learn more about the Holocaust,” she began kindly, “but I’m not sure I want that to become our focus for the whole year.”

Everyone listened respectfully and without comment. It’s okay to disagree in Girls Surviving. 

Given the disagreements and fluctuating attendance, everyone is committed to the program’s goals.  But how do we write a play, rehearse it and perform it?  Blind faith?  Partly.  We also have the luxury of time.  Unlike many arts programs, ours runs through June. Our performances, too, are staged readings that allow rewriting up to curtain time and require no memorization of lines, costumes, props or scenery. Most important, however, we’ve learned that a small but committed group of girls eventually will find common ground, set an example for the newcomers and, as the season progresses, determine the direction of the play and performance.  While some girls will continue to come and go, we can count on a core group to fully engage in the process and see it through to the end.
When girls begin to make Girls Surviving a priority, other girls notice.  Some will follow in their footsteps. At our last workshop, one loyal veteran named Monica told us that she had rearranged her work schedule around our workshops.
            “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to come until tonight,” she said, “but now everything is straightened out and I can come every week.”

By taking the initiative to speak with her boss about making room in her schedule for Girls Surviving, Monica set an example for the newcomers. It is because of emerging leaders like Monica, that a core group takes shape to steady our ship in the shifting wind.

Most seasons, leaders emerge whose commitment to the program and understanding of the process help us unite the girls into a cohesive troupe. This year it looks like Monica will be one of them.  

Cheryl will be another. Cheryl has been a dedicated troupe member for four years, and this year she is the only girl who has turned out for all three of our workshops.  Every week she explains what we did the previous week to newcomers as if it’s no big deal.  But summarizing the myriad paths taken in our intense conversations is a big deal.  Cheryl, though, seems relaxed about navigating complicated situations. When girls write or say something surprising or unconventional that leaves others confused and speechless, Cheryl instinctively knows how to affirm them.

“I totally get it!” she exclaimed the other day when a girl unexpectedly revealed one of her vulnerabilities. “It may sound, weird, but I completely agree with what you’re saying.  I feel exactly the same way.”

Or, if a girl writes a piece that stands out because of its unique style or content, she’ll ask:

“Would you mind reading that again?  It’s just so cool.”

Cheryl actively welcomes difference and makes everyone feel comfortable. And, the more comfortable every girl feels, the more we can count on them to stick around for the long haul, become part of the troupe, and create together – despite the challenges - a play.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What Does it Mean to be Human?

“I just realized that everything we do in Girls Surviving is so… serious…depressing,” said Marianna.

We had just finished reading a scene from The Diary of Anne Frank, the play based on the true story, by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  There is no question that the scene depicts a tragic situation; and no one in the room had to read the play to know the horrific end of Anne’s story. Serious? Absolutely. Depressing? Yes, but a close reading of the scene reveals glimmers of hope.

Because Marianna and three others hadn’t been to last week’s workshop, it was hard for them to figure out why we had chosen a scene about the Holocaust as our literary prompt. The reason?  Issues raised in the scene echo themes the girls had chosen to explore further the week before. Cheryl was the only girl who had been present for the intense discussion of possible themes.  She summarized the previous week’s work as best she could and outlined the themes. They are listed below:

*Getting Out (how we distance ourselves from events to gain perspective on them)
*What Makes Life Worth Living?
*What Makes Us Human?

Are they serious?  Yes.  Depressing?  They can be.  Or they can be the stimulus for positive discussions.  But I had to convince a room full of newcomers, especially Marianna, of that. As a first step, I decided to dig for those glimmers of hope in the scene.
            “I see what you’re saying,” I replied. In heartbreaking detail, the scene reveals how Anne’s childhood innocence and the promise of her bright future were being stolen from her.

“Still, I continued, “I see a lot of hope in this scene.”

Marianna looked surprised.

I explained.  “I mean, despite the terrible darkness of the characters’ circumstances, they talk a lot about what makes their lives worth living…those things that we all cling to when horrible things happen. Does anybody else see what I’m talking about?”

Cheryl understood what I was trying to do right away. “Well,” she began,  “there’s the Star of David.  Anne cuts off the yellow star they made her wear, but she can’t throw it away.”

“Right, why not? I probed. What does it stand for?”

“Her religion?”

“Yeah, do you think her faith might help her when everything else in her life has been taken away?” 
“Yes, and she had her whole family with her, right?” asked Gabriella.

“Uh-huh, they all went into hiding together,” I replied.

“Because a lot of families got separated,” she continued.  “And that’s what most people are afraid of…being left alone.”

While the girls knew some facts about Anne Frank, none of them had read the diary or the play.  The reading and discussion were helping them understand Anne Frank as a person, not just a name synonymous with the Holocaust. 

As they continued to talk about the scene, Anne became even more fully human to them. They began to see the warmth of her personality, her kindness, love of reading and writing, even her blossoming sexuality. The conversation took many turns.

“She gives the cat some of her milk to drink,” said one girl.
            “Yes,” I agreed. “And how much food can they have during wartime and in hiding?”
            “She even had to give up music,” added Marianna, sadly.
            “But it says here that she hated practicing the piano!” cried Julie.
            “I know, but giving up music…that’s…that’s sad!” Marianna replied vehemently.
            Everyone smiled. We know that music is Marianna’s passion. If forced to give up singing, Marianna would be as devastated as Anne was when she realized that she couldn’t make a sound in her apartment while workers went about their daily business on the floors below.

Suddenly I could imagine Marianna chastising Anne for not practicing the piano. I could see Anne walking into our classroom, a teenager, just like all the other girls, joining our circle. As a result of our exchange about music, Anne Frank had become a very real presence in our room.

"Yes,” I said.  “It would be awful if you had to give up music. That might not be true for Anne.  We’re all different. But…how would you cope if you suddenly couldn’t make music…what would keep you going?”

“You mean like if there was some catastrophe?”


’Cause we’re reading The Grapes of Wrath in English…about the dust bowl…and there is this character in it called Rose of Sharon…and she gets pregnant…and she’s okay with it…she knows the responsibility…it’s like this need to reproduce…but it’s the dust bowl!”  Marianna stopped, at a loss for words, caught in the magnitude of life’s complexity.

“Whoah,” I thought to myself. “What just happened? The girl who seemed to be concerned about the seriousness of our work just a few minutes ago has brought up our biological impulse to survive?”

I answered her this way: “I think it’s time for us to write.  “The Holocaust, the dust bowl…when tragedy strikes, why do we get up in the morning?  What makes life worth living?”

Out of the blue, Shanece piped up. “Yeah, what’s the bigger picture?”

Not to be outdone, an energized Gabriella added this:  “What is the meaning of life?”

I was astonished. “How much deeper is our conversation going to get?” I wondered.  I picked up my pen. 

“Depressing to hear them thinking so deeply about what it means to alive?  No. They will be that much wiser for contemplating life’s mysteries,” I thought as we turned our attention to the empty pages in our notebooks just waiting there to be filled.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Wool Gathering and Geese Dreaming

The Girls Surviving program resumed weekly workshops on Wednesday, October 7th. It has always been our practice to let the girls get settled into the first month of school before our first fall workshop. In the weeks before, staff members texted reminders, sent home letters to new recruits, and thought about how to start the year. We usually open our first workshop with a story or a poem to start discussion, but we leave the question of what we will write about to the girls.

We began the October 7th workshop, as we often do at the start of the season, with storytelling. I told The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese. an Inuit tale collected by Howard Norman. It is the story of a girl with shamanic powers who is forced to take responsibility for herself and her community at a very young age. The girl seems to be up to the task until the spring of her thirteenth year when she loses confidence in her powers and things begin to fall apart. Her story is a coming of age story that examines the transformation of the female psyche at the time of puberty. For me, the Geese Dreamer’s story has personal significance. Telling it provides an opportunity to relive part of my own coming of age from the perspective of maturity. It also provides me with a way of retelling the story of a daughter’s coming of age. There is darkness in the tale, but the darkness leads the heroine to a profound understanding of herself and her place in the world.
At the beginning of the story, the girl’s parents leave her alone, forcing her to develop her powers when she is only ten years old. Relinquishing both their responsibilities and their rights as members of the community, they move out of their village, leaving their daughter behind. However, later, when they realize that their daughter is in trouble, the parents come back and, ultimately, risk their lives to save hers.

The story offers insight into the importance of family integrity and parental responsibility, especially during a child’s coming of age. However, in the way of myth and folktale, family integrity becomes a metaphor for personal integrity. The child contains aspects of both parents – the courage of the father and the creativity and intuition of the mother, and these powers manifest themselves during the coming of age process. Although parents provide essential support, the child ultimately realizes that everything she needs to become a complete person is within her. This is the confidence we hope will come to our girls as they work in the program and work through their adolescent highs and lows.

Story analysis is an intellectual activity; understanding story is not. The power of story lies in its ability to reach beyond our rational comprehension. The girls who listened to the Geese Dreamer’s story that evening didn’t talk much about it afterwards, but I think that what they did say in their post-story conversation revealed that the story had entered their hearts and begun its work. They talked about how they help themselves in stressful situations and, although they all have different ways of dealing with stress, they all acknowledged that they use internal dialogue to help them understand their emotional responses to pressures from within and without. They talked about trying to figure out what is really important to them and how that connects to common and essential aspects of the human experience. Like the girl in the story, they have begun the process of self-integration. They are no longer children who listen only to the voices of their elders and peers, they have found their own voices and they are using them to understand the world and themselves.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

We're Back

Girls Surviving is back for the school year. It was exciting to think about and plan for another writing and acting journey that would end in June with a new Girls Surviving play and performance.

We decided to begin with storytelling. Storytelling is a great way to stimulate discussion about issues and experiences that ring true for almost everyone, and we hoped that it would jump start a conversation about possible themes for this season’s play. We chose the Inuit tale The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese because it resonates particularly well with teenage girls. It is about a girl who begins to distrust her good judgment and special talents when she turns 13.

Paula’s telling of the tale was riveting. The girls seemed moved by it, but when we asked them if there was a moment or an image in the story that they could relate to, they offered only silence. It was understandable. Powerful art experiences often trigger emotions and thoughts that can’t always be put into words.  When they can, our first attempts at talking about them are jagged fragments.  It’s hard to unravel complex feelings and clearly express them in conversation or writing. Besides, like the girl in the story, our girls sometimes don’t trust themselves when it comes to speaking out.

Even when a group has worked together in the past, like this group of four, they can feel awkward with each other at the start of a new season.  So much changes for teenagers in two months!  It’s no wonder our girls needed help getting the conversation rolling.

“One moment that stood out for me,” I began, “was when the girl’s parents try to nurse her back to health, her suffering is so great that she lashes out at them.  I don’t really know why that moment touched me so much, but for some reason it grabbed me,” I added, hoping that my vagueness would encourage the girls to speak even if they weren’t sure they completely understood why they were speaking.

Karen, the school counselor who works with us, and Paula added their insights too.  Soon all of us were engaged in an interesting three-way conversation about what we had learned from the story.  Distancing oneself after a traumatizing event, we said, sometimes helps us gain perspective on what happened and how to deal with the aftermath.  Going for long nature walks, we suggested, helps some people heal and gives them the strength and courage to get on with our lives. We talked about how people cling to hope even during the darkest of days.  We cited the Holocaust as an example. Life can be brutal, we concluded, but there are things worth living for. We paused and looked at the youthful, silent faces sitting in the circle.  We had gotten so caught up in our adult conversation that it looked like we had left the girls behind.

Laughing lightly, Paula broke the silence. “Well, we three old ladies have been doing a lot of talking.  Were you able to make any connections to the story?”

“Yeah,” I added, “we talked about how we take walks when we need space to figure things out.  But that’s what we do.  What do you do? If you have a fight with your friend or something else really bothers you, do you watch TV, play video games….?  I don’t know….”

Cheryl suddenly spoke up.  “I watch stand up.”

All eyes turned questioningly to Cheryl.

“Stand up comedy? she added, as an explanation.  Lewis C.K…He’s so funny.  He makes me laugh…I mean, I laugh because nothing is going to change the situation anyway, right?  I mean, there is nothing I can do.  There’s nothing anybody can do to change some things. So what I like to do is laugh.”

Cheryl continued on with what was an amazing stand up monologue of her own until she stopped, breathless, and Shantelle picked up the conversation. 

“Yeah,” she said, “everybody has got to ‘get out.’  I gotta’ ‘get out,’ all of us do, but everybody does it in a different way.  I know someone who yells at people when she gets angry.”

The conversation heated up. Excited girls’ voices overlapped. It was hard to keep track of who was saying what.

“Sometimes you can just talk yourself out of something…just keep talking to yourself until you figure it out.”

“Figure out what makes life special.”

“And why what you think makes your life special, others reject.”

“Yes,” we agreed, vigorously nodding our heads. What we had hoped for at the beginning of the workshop finally had happened.  The girls had taken control of the conversation. They had listened to the story and our adult conversation; thought about what was said; and trusted themselves, us and the other girls enough to state their opinions.  Afterward, they told us what they want to write about in the coming weeks:

*Getting out

*What makes life worth living?

*What makes us human?
           When I heard girls break their silence, speak out and take ownership of their ideas and the direction of future workshops, I knew that Girls Surviving really is back for a stimulating 11th year.