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.”

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On the Road - Another Voice

Ellen Brandt and I were leaning against a bookcase at the back of the of the St. Elizabeth School library watching Carolyn walk four GS troupe members around the small space in which they would momentarily be performing and leading workshop activities for a group of Ellen’s students.
“Do you think they’re nervous?” Ellen asked.
“Maybe the younger girls,” I answered, “but the seniors, Steph and Stacey, are seasoned performers. They’re used to standing in the spotlight before strangers on unfamiliar stages.”
But as I watched the girls take physical note of the boundaries of their make-shift stage, I thought that, actually, they were probably all a little nervous. Although it’s true the two senior troupe members have presented to a variety of audiences in a variety of places over the years, this was a nearly new experience. They were at St. Elizabeth to introduce the GS program because Ellen, a language arts teacher, wants to implement a similar program in the school. Our girls would lead her girls through a series of exercises that would, we hoped, encourage them to join Ellen’s program.
The library was sunny and spacious, but it was organized for research and study. In spite of Ellen’s thoughtful set-up, it was a tight space for the activities our girls had planned to present to the twenty-some 7th and 8th grade girls invited to participate, and when the audience was seated, the actresses seemed in danger of trodding on toes during the performance.

GS playing keep-it-up at St. Elizabeth School

 The middle school girls were restless as Stacey introduced the workshop, but they calmed and focused for the performance. All four GS actresses executed their roles as if they had been rehearsing for weeks, when, in fact, there had been time for only two run-throughs during the second half of the previous Wednesday’s workshop. After the performance, as the GS girls initiated conversation with the middle-schoolers, their friendly interest in the younger girls’ questions and comments began to put everyone at ease. I could see our two younger girls relax as the audience’s obvious interest in their answers to questions about the program and the performance became apparent. And even the most shy of the St. Elizabeth students lost her reserve when Steph introduce the first of the post-performance workshop activities – a keep-it-up ball game.
The library filled with shrieks, laughter, and feigned moans of disappointment each time the ball fell to the floor. Steph took charge of the group, embodying the spirit of the best-gym-teacher-in-the-world: laughing, encouraging, and organizing. “Okay, girls, we need a plan…” The atmosphere in the room was authentic Girls Surviving.
When the game was over, the middle school girls were ready to try their hand at acting. Destiny, a GS freshman who joined the troupe in the summer, handed out scripts of the scene that had opened the workshop, and encouraged the younger girls to take turns with the parts. Afterwards, Cara, the fourth workshop leader, lead a deep and lively discussion of the scene. GS girls were amazed that the ideas expressed by St. Elizabeth students echoed the discussions they, themselves, had when they were writing the script. The discussion was a perfect prompt for writing and everyone, GS girls, St. Elizabeth girls, as well as Carolyn, Ellen and I, sat down and wrote. The middle-schoolers were eager to share their writing, and the workshop ended with promises on both sides to attend each others’ upcoming play.

Another workshop moment: reading the script. 

As we walked to my car for the drive back to Morristown, Stacey said,
“I think that went really well.”
“Yeah,” agreed Cara, “those girls were really having fun.”
“I think they would really benefit from having a program like GS at their school,” added wise Destiny.

At our regular Wednesday workshop last week, Stacey, Steph, Cara, and Destiny described their experience to the other girls. They were, rightly, proud of the work they had done. Carolyn and I were proud of them, too. One of the best things GS does for our girls is to give them opportunities to take risks, to stretch beyond the boundaries of previous experience, and to succeed – all by themselves.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

GS Goes on Tour

            The girls piled into Paula’s mini-van around 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, and the six of us headed out to St. Elizabeth’s School in Bernardsville where the girls were going to perform a scene and teach a workshop for 7th and 8th grade girls. We were taking a GS show on the road.

It was a beautiful afternoon and the girls were thrilled to be getting out of school early.  They were a little nervous too.  They would be breaking new ground.  The entire troupe had led a similar workshop last spring at their alma mater, Frelinghuysen Middle School, but this experience would be different.  First, we couldn’t bring the entire troupe. We could only bring four, and we wanted to choose girls of different ages and levels of acting and writing experience. Of the four we chose, two are seniors and seasoned veterans; one is a freshman who has never performed before; and another is a sophomore who has performed only once. We could tell that the newest troupe members were particularly nervous, and that the veterans realized that the burden of success largely fell on their shoulders.  Second, compared to Frelinghuysen, which is a sprawling public school that serves hundreds of students, St. E’s is a much smaller religious school. Our traveling players didn’t have a feel for St. E’s or how they would be received there.  They were taking a risk, but one that we believed would open the door for them to possibilities.

It would be an adventure for all of us. None of us had been to the site or seen the performance space.  We weren’t even sure where we were going. When a detour on route sent us off course, one of the girls shouted, “Guess what?  We’re lost!”  We all laughed.  The fact that this year’s troupe is writing their play about feeling lost seemed like more than a coincidence. Like the characters emerging in their play, the girls were headed into the unknown - literally, as well as figuratively.  The laughter released some of their tension.

We had arranged the event with Ellen Brant, a language arts teacher at St. E’s.  Ellen had learned about GS at the two-day intensive training that Paula and I taught in October and was eager to start a program like it in her school.  She was so eager, in fact, that she wanted to get her program up and running by January.  Putting all of the pieces together for the workshop during the busy holiday season meant that we didn’t have time to visit the school in advance, see the performance space, meet the school staff, or discuss our agenda and performance needs in person with Ellen.  If we had been planning this with anyone other than her, we would have proceeded differently.  We learned a long time ago when the program was young not to expose our girls to undo risk.  Ellen, however, knows how our program works and she understands the sensitivities of adolescent girls. We were confident in her good judgment, and, as it turned out, we were right.

Ellen warmly greeted us in the school entryway, immediately putting our girls at ease.  She had set up the school’s sunny library just as we had requested.  There were tables and chairs for the writing activity and plenty of open space for our girls to perform a scene and engage the 7th and 8th graders in an active warm-up game.  Our teen workshop leaders visibly relaxed and started to review the agenda I had handed out just before Ellen met us.  Their review was cut short, however, by the sound of their 22 charges chatting and laughing their way into their seats. There would be no more time to prepare or rehearse.

One word from Ellen and the middle schoolers fell silent. Paula and I retreated to the back of the room to watch.  On cue, our girls took charge. They ticked off all of the activities on the agenda as if they had been practicing for months. It wasn’t their confident presentation alone, however, that won over their audience. Our girls gave themselves over to the workshop experience with disarming candor.  They were shy and funny, vulnerable and forthright – all at the same time.  They were relaxed with each other and the unpredictability of the day’s events. They were complimentary and encouraging of the young girls who were looking to them for guidance.  They were kind.

As the workshop progressed, the 7th and 8th graders felt increasingly emboldened by our girls’ good will and participated in ever-greater numbers.  Shy at first, they began to open up after our girls’ performance. A few offered praise and asked a couple of questions about GS.  Reluctance thawed almost completely with the warm-up. The game got everyone on their feet and laughing so that later, when our girls invited them to act out a scene, some were so excited they rushed the stage.  Those who didn’t want to act blossomed during the writing portion of the workshop. 

Everyone wanted to share her writing.  Hands shot up everywhere, even from the quietest of corners. When it was time for the girls to wrap up, our hostesses begged us to stay a few minutes longer so that more people could share and discuss their writing.  Enthusiasm for the work filled the space. 

As we were leaving, one of our girls called out,

“If you girls form a troupe, let us know.  We’ll come see your play.”

“Maybe we can come see one of yours, too,” exclaimed someone from St. E’s.
Smiles lit up the library. 

Have our girls inspired the creation of a sister troupe in nearby Bernardsville? I think so. The generous exchange that we observed during the workshop offers us hope. What we know for sure is that the workshop brought together two groups of girls of different ages and from very different towns and schools in pursuit of a common interest.  Is there a better way to usher in the holiday season? 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Exploring Lost

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
GS participation in Discover Morristown High School seems to have paid off. At our first workshop after the event, three new girls, two juniors and a sophomore, joined the group. They all learned about the program when they visited our Discover table. With these girls, we had eleven troupe members in the workshop, including three girls from summer and five veterans of previous years. It was a lively evening, and one in which all girls fully participated in all workshop activities.
We began the workshop with simple introductions: what’s your name, your year in school, and something you like to do, but when it was Lynn’s turn to talk, she had much more to say.
“Senior year is stressing me out. I am so frustrated by the college application process! Everyone gives us advice, but no one has explained anything. How are we supposed to choose a school? What’s the deal with early acceptance? There is so much I don’t understand!”
Other senior girls expressed similar confusion. They have been lectured about the importance of a college education for their entire academic career, and most of them have taken the lessons to heart. They have worked hard to keep their GPA’s at acceptable levels, spent hours every week of the junior year in SAT prep classes, and given up weekends to college fairs and college visits. And now, as they see it, the pressure is on them to pick the perfect school to prepare them for a perfect future. It’s no wonder they’re feeling lost.

As it turned out, “Lost” was the topic Carolyn and I had chosen to explore that evening. To jumpstart the girls’ writing, we had brought a literary prompt, a poem called The Day Millicent Found the World by William Stafford. The poem begins, “Every day Millicent ventured further into the woods.” It goes on to describe the day her routine landed Millicent in the heart of the forest, a place where everything seemed strange, where she  “achieved a mysterious world where any direction would yield only surprise.”
Our seniors are on the cusp of such a world, and I think that the stress associated with their anticipation of it, as expressed by Lynn and echoed by her classmates, is mingled with a feeling of excitement for the surprises they expect to experience. However, when the girls wrote about Lost, the seniors didn’t directly connect to the bewildering process of applying to college.

Allie wrote, I have been lost many times in my day. Lost in a grocery store, lost in my AP Statistics class, lost in thought.  However, the thing about being lost is that feeling of   this is it… If I’m lost for more  than 8.5 minutes, I begin to come to terms with the fact that I’m gonna be lost forever and I have to start a new life.

Gina:  I’m lost in my head; The things that distract me make me lose sight of what’s important.

Susan : The few times that I’ve been lost, I’ve never really panicked. I like the feeling of just wandering around a foreign area and experience what it’s like there.

And Lynn wrote a song about lost love.

The following week, on the night we read the girls’ Lost writing,  there was an evening program at the high school that about half of the troupe had to attend. So, at 7:00, the younger girls got up to go, leaving the seniors behind. Before this, we had just time to check in, then read and begin a discussion of the Lost writing. We had hoped to begin culling lines from the writing that would help the girls hear a character’s voice or find a topic of conflict that could lead to a scene. Once we were alone with the seniors, however, we just talked.
Allie started the discussion.
“I was thinking about what Renee wrote last week, about driving and getting nervous about being lost, and feeling relief that her GPS was working, and I wondered, what did people do before cell phones and GPS systems?”
Of course, Carolyn and I remember very well what people did before cell phones and GPS.
“I think people were more observant then,” said Carolyn. “They paid more attention to what was going on around them.”
“And when your car broke down, or you found yourself lost, you asked for help,” I added.
“I just think it must have been so hard,” Lynn continued, “but at the same time, I worry about how much we depend upon technology.”
“Computers are doing more and more every year.”
“And everyone is glued to their devices.”
“I think it’s even worse for kids younger than us,” said Susan, “my little cousin can’t stay calm if she’s not playing games on her tablet.”
The discussion continued in this vein, the girls expressing their concern about changing values, changing ecosystems, and the plight of people in other parts of the world. But it was a good talk, the kind of rambling conversation the can occur between people who feel very comfortable together.

The senior girls have a foot in two worlds. Childhood is nearly at an end; adult life looms ever closer. With it comes an increasing sense of responsibility for the way things are and the way things will be. It’s becoming harder for them to live in the moment, thinking no further than the upcoming weekend. They’re starting to realize that they’re on the road to a future they have power, as well as an obligation, to form. They are achieving that “mysterious world where every direction leads to only to surprise,” a world in which they each have to find their own right way. And we have just a few short months to offer our support.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Two-Day Intensive GS Training

“This is the best PD (professional development) workshop we’ve ever been to. I’m serious. We usually grade papers at these things, but we knew as soon as we got started – not this time, “ said Cynthia. Andrea nodded her agreement.

“Sorry you have to grade papers this weekend, but we’re really glad you got something out of the workshop,” we laughed as we waved goodbye to them.

Cynthia and Andrea are high school teachers and they had just completed a two-day intensive training we led for educators and other professionals on October 27 and 28.  It was great to receive the positive feedback, especially because this was our first time teaching a two-day workshop in GS practices.  Before that, we only had taught three-hour introductory workshops. The last one, held in May, generated so much interest in GS that we decided to follow-up with this more in-depth exploration of the GS writing and performing process.

Unlike our previous workshops, this one was much more than an overview of our process.  It was a condensed replication of it. In other words, we squeezed our year-long curriculum into an 11-hour format. Still, we guided the eight participants – all women, most of whom are teachers - through every phase of the GS process, exactly the same way we do it with the girls throughout the school year. We started with discussion and bonding exercises, then segued into individual writing.  Next we combined segments from each person’s writing into a collaborative script and found ways to expand it through improvisations and additional writing.  Finally, we cast the script, rehearsed it, and performed it.

While we packed a lot into the agenda, our participants soaked in every bit of it. As I observed them working through the complexities of the process, I realized how energized I was by their eagerness to learn. All of us were focused.  We were having very serious fun working together toward our goal: a staged reading of a collaboratively written scene.

After the performance, when we all sat down to process the time we had spent together, most of the women told us how they planned to implement what they learned into their work with teens.  Some said they would teach the process as part of an English or Creative Writing course to both girls and boys.  Others decided to create a girls’ writing and performing group during their lunch break. One expressed interest in offering it at a summer camp.  Another was considering teaching it after school as a club activity. And another was hoping to start the program like we did – from scratch and by reaching out to non-profits in her community for support. 

They all asked us for continued support, too, as they begin their journeys creating their own versions of GS.  After talking with them about the obstacles they face and what they think they’ll need to get their programs up and running, we decided to take the following steps to help assure their success:

-           For starters, all of us will stay in close touch through email to offer suggestions and encouragement as these new programs emerge. 

-          We will bring a couple of our girls to talk to their teen groups about the process, to read and discuss a scene from a play, or even to lead a mini-workshop. This will give our girls another opportunity to hone their skills in writing, performing, and teaching at the same time that they inspire others to develop their own.

-                    Six months from now we’ll offer another two-day intensive training for those who
             want to start programs like GS (Tier 1 Training)

-                    A year from now we’ll offer an advanced workshop for those who have completed
             Tier 1 training and are using GS strategies and activities in their work.

This Two-Day Intensive GS training benefitted all of us.  It provided those who participated with a tested path to follow and incentive to start GS programs of their own design. It also laid the foundation for a future of promise and possibility for girls – and perhaps for boys.  The experience enriched us, united us around a single purpose and gave us direction as we journey into the future.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Discover Night

“With us you’re more than just part of a group.  You’re important,” Alyssa writes in her brand new day-glow orange-covered GS notebook. 

It is Workshop Number 1 of the 2016-17 school year.  The girls are expressing their feelings about the program on paper because they want to include quotes in a brochure they’re creating to promote the program to other girls – girls like them – girls who are looking for a safe, stress-free environment in which to talk about their lives, write plays based on them, and share their writing in staged readings with a community audience.

They would have an opportunity to encourage girls to join the program the following week at Discover Night, a Morristown High School event. The annual event brings together eighth graders and their parents from all of the public, private and charter schools within the Morris School District who are considering Morristown High as their next four-year school experience.  One of the highlights of the evening for prospective students is a chance to talk to MHS students who belong to one or more of the school’s myriad clubs or sports teams and meet their advisers. Every extra-curricular activity offered by the school is invited to set up a display table in the cafeteria and staff it with club members and faculty advisers who are eager to talk about their programs.

GS was there for the first time this year and the girls were thrilled to be part of it.  Below are some of the other quotes from the first workshop that we decided to highlight at the event:

“We're always there for each other.”
                                                             By Gloria

“We’re friends; it’s all good.  From the ride to the program, to walking in the building, I’ve just felt so included.”
                                                              By Natalie

“Sisters by chance.  Friends by choice.”
                                                               By Andrea
Unfortunately, when Paula and I put the brochure together, we realized that we didn’t have enough room to include the quotations.  Instead, we printed them large and pasted them on the poster that we’ve used previously to promote the program. The poster is a collage of pictures of the girls and samples of their writing. 

It looked colorful and inviting as the backdrop on our display table at Discover Night the next week. The newly minted brochure looked great too.  The five troupe members who came to help that night agreed. It looks “very professional,” they said. They were busy setting out a basket of Halloween candy and a sign-up sheet for those girls who might express interest in the program. A laptop computer sat on the table playing a video of one of the girls’ past performances.  We were prepared and excited. We mingled and talked, waiting for eighth graders to stop by.
           We looked around the cafeteria.  We saw other tables like ours set up in rows on both levels of the cavernous space.   Pictures, banners, pamphlets and other handout materials that describe the clubs and other extra-curricular activities offered at MHS were being placed on them.  High school students who participate in these clubs and their faculty advisers laughed and talked as they organized their displays.
            We looked at our watches.  It was almost 7:30, a half hour after the start and not much was going on. Because we’re first-timers, we didn’t know what to expect, but the waiting created some anxiety.  Could parents be lingering upstairs, chatting outside the auditorium after the formal presentation by the administration?  Clarissa went upstairs to check. 

Meanwhile several of our more senior troupe members and past participants who were representing other clubs at Discover Night stopped by to give us hugs.  Marsha, a sophomore, was baking cookies with the cooking club to hand out later to the crowd.  Vera, a senior, was hanging out with the Drama club.  Grace, also a senior, was busy with the Peer Group Counseling program.  How wonderful to see these girls, who first came to GS as shy, insecure 13-year olds, spreading their wings.

Older MHS girls who don’t know the program at all began to check out our table too.  Bored at their own display tables or wandering the school for other reasons, they spotted our display and recognized the girls working with us.  Some were interested.  A couple of them continued to hang around, chat with the girls and nibble at the candy.  They say they like to write and decide the program is right for them.  They put their names on the list and promise to come to our next workshop.

Things were looking up.  By the time Clarissa returned, the room had begun to fill with adults and their kids.  Our girls swung into action.  Clarissa, who is a senior and has been in the program since the eighth grade, took the lead.  The younger, newer girls watched her every move as she described her experiences.  One parent took me aside to praise her presentation.  “She’s so passionate about it,” the parent exclaimed.  I glanced at the sign-up sheet.  The first page was full of names.

Clarissa took a well-deserved break.  Immediately the younger girls moved to action.  Marla and Serena stood in front of the table, arms around each other, and started to sing.  Their energy, enthusiasm and beautifully harmonized voices filled the space around us.  More people stopped by and our girls, well prepared after listening to Clarissa, knew just what to say and how to say it. More girls signed up.

During a pause in the action, Marla noticed a girl standing some distance from our table, looking at it hard and long before hesitantly turning away. In a flash, Marla was running after her.  The girl was more than halfway through the cafeteria before Marla caught up with her and brought her back to the table, talking the entire time.  It was too noisy to hear their conversation, but I could see the intensity on Marla’s face as she spoke gently into her ear to be heard above the din. The girl picked up the pen and wrote her name on the list. 

Before she left, I spoke with her just to make sure that she didn’t feel pressured by Marla to sign up.  Far from it.  In fact, she seemed happy that Marla noticed her interest. It took a person with considerable sensitivity and keen perceptivity to act as quickly, surely and correctly as Marla did. Watching her in action was an inspiration to all of us.

In fact, observing Clarissa, Serena, and all of the other GS girls in the cafeteria that night  - whether they are current or past troupe members, whether they were promoting our program or another after-school activity – made me feel proud to know them. 

The Discover Night experience confirmed for me what I wrote about our girls at Workshop Number 1 when all of us were thinking about what’s important about GS:

“I’ve seen girls come and go in this program and I think that the girls who find GS and stay with it represent the very best of what it means to be a human being.  Our girls are there for each other in times of need, but not one is so needy that she can’t stand on her own. The fact is…our girls are incredibly brave.  They’re willing to take risks in their writing, their acting and in their daily living. They’re fighters who dare to live strong for themselves and each other.”


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bake Sale!

Waiting for customers (all photos by Carolyn Hunt)
The girls decided to kick off the fall season with a fundraiser: an after school bake sale to be held on September 28, a week before our first fall workshop. On the  Friday before, I texted the girls to remind them about the date and asked someone to be in charge of organizing the others, especially our newest and youngest members. I got a response immediately. It was from Giselle, a sophomore, who joined the troupe last year.
“I’ll check with girls from summer.” (That is, the girls who joined in the summer.)
Her reply was eventually followed by other veteran girls, saying that they were bringing baked goods and would be on hand to help sell them. Then, on the morning of the sale, I received a text from one of the “summer girls.”
“Where should I drop off the cookies for the sale?”
This was quickly followed by another, “I had the same question.”
And another, “I didn’t get a pass to leave class.”
And I thought, “Yes! It looks like we’re set to have a good year.”

As we’ve mentioned previously on this site, we’ve had recruiting challenges for the past couple of years. Attendance at our 2015 summer program was significantly lower than previous summers and, although this past summer brought a nice group of new girls, we weren’t sure they would stick. So confirmation that some of those girls were participating in the bake sale was good news.

New Girls
Just before the sale was set to begin, Carolyn and I arrived laden with cupcakes. In the school office there were boxes and bags filled with more goodies baked or bought by the girls. Two of the summer girls had collaborated on beautifully decorated cup cakes.
Karen gave the girls passes to leave their last class a little early, so shortly after Carolyn and I got to school, girls began to show up. They were excited: laughing, hugging, and hopping around. Then they got down to work. Everyone pitched in. Carolyn took some pictures, but other than that, we were pretty much extraneous. The girls did it all. In the end, they made about $140.00 which they will use to buy something extra for the troupe. In the past, they’ve bought widely different things with their bake sale funds -  from sweatpants and theater tickets. They decide.


At least eleven girls worked on this project. Five of them were new to the troupe this summer. Our fall season begins on October 5th. I think it’s gonna be a good year.