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, December 1, 2015

The Blank Stare

            We’re sitting at my dining room table and pulling up documents on our laptops to finish the proposals we’re sending out to potential publishers of our book about Girls Surviving. But we’re thinking about something else.  

          In just a couple of hours we’ll be teaching another workshop and how we handle it seems more pressing than our longer range publishing project.  We’re puzzled by the blank stares we saw on the girls’ faces at our last workshop when we asked them what moral issues they were struggling with. We had just finished reading a scene from the Jean Anouilh version of Antigone and had been discussing the moral dilemma raised in the scene.
          Did they understand the scene? We thought so. We had prepped them before the reading, and Paula told the Oedipus story to make sure they understood the characters’ back story.  Plus, the dialogue in this1956  version of the play is more contemporary than that of the original, by Sophocles. The author’s presentation of the conflict is straightforward too: Antigone asks her sister, Ismene, to help her bury their brother, Polyneices, who has been denied burial by their uncle, the king, as punishment for opposing him in battle.  While Ismene wants to honor their brother with burial, she does not want to suffer the consequences of breaking the king’s decree.
          Maybe they just couldn’t relate to it?  That didn’t make sense, though. We had used the scene as a writing prompt successfully with another troupe just few years ago. Besides, this year’s troupe already had read and understood a more nuanced scene from The Diary of Anne Frank.  Since then, they had been discussing questions like:  What is the meaning of life?  Do we really have a choice or do circumstances dictate our decisions?  What are the intangibles we cling to during the rough times? Their writing about these philosophical questions had been thoughtful. The timing seemed right to introduce the Antigone scene as a prompt to begin dialogue writing between characters with opposing views on a moral issue.
          Were they afraid to explore real-life moral controversies?  Maybe. They wouldn’t be the only ones. The art of discussing controversial subjects with respect and good will seems to have been replaced with shouting matches in the media, on college campuses, in political debates and in many other sectors of our society.
          Before we turn our full attention to the publishing project, we come up with a plan to address our concerns about the workshop.  We decide to read a different scene from Antigone, this time from the original Greek version. We want to give the girls an opportunity to explore the issues of civil disobedience and familial duty from another perspective and in more depth. We also decide to ask the girls if talking about moral issues - their own or others - makes them feel uncomfortable.
          As it turns out, our planning is unnecessary.  Girls who had not read the scene or discussed Antigone’s and Ismene’s struggle, turn out for this workshop and sit beside those who did. Because we hadn’t seen some faces in a while, we offer everyone a chance to check-in.  For some reason they all open up.  Ironically and unexpectedly, they talk about the moral dilemmas and life-changing decisions they currently are struggling to resolve within themselves or with their families or friends.
          Were the fresh faces the catalyst for the change?  Perhaps that was part of the reason everyone opened up.  It’s also possible that the girls who had stared at us blankly the week before simply needed time to think before they spoke. 

I wonder if as a society we’re expecting instant feedback too often  When we send a text and don’t immediately get a reply, we worry or check the phone repeatedly until we do.  In a matter of seconds, the internet supplies us with answers to almost all of our questions, from the mundane to the profound. We’re so used to getting instant responses when we text, phone or do research on the web that I wonder if we’re losing patience with the thinking process.  Thinking takes time and complicated moral questions require mental processing of the highest order. We can misspeak when we respond without thinking through our answers. Silence is a lot less risky.  Only when the time is right do we know how to talk confidently about that which is most personal and complex. The blank stare may indicate that all we need to do is wait.
          Reflecting about why the girls filled the room with silence when we probed them about their struggles has paid off too.  We still plan to read the other scene from Antigone in upcoming weeks and ask them if controversy makes them feel uncomfortable.  It will be up to us not to expect instant feedback, and we hope that reading the scene will take their conversations and their writing to a deeper level.