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.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Rewinding a Thread

Before Theseus enters the labyrinthine den of the Minotaur, he is given a clew, a ball of thread, to guide him back through the labyrinth. He begins to unwind the clew as soon as he enters the monster’s lair and he rewinds it to find his way out. In our recent Girls Surviving workshops, I have been mentally and emotionally rewinding a thread from my own life: a parent/teen thread, back from my present state as a teacher of teen girls, through the years when I parented teenagers, back to my own teen years. The thread passes over some shaky ground.

I must have been an awful child to parent when I was a teen. I was rebellious, self-centered, and so sure that I understood the world much better than my mother and father ever could. I was a pretty good kid before I hit puberty and, in my high school years, I took advantage of the trust built up during the years I had behaved myself. It took a long time for my parents to figure out that I had changed and, by then, there wasn’t much they could do about it. I had already done the things they told me not to; none of us could turn back the clock.

But, I guess I hadn’t really changed that much. I had just stopped believing that my parents knew what was best for me. My core must have been solid because, thanks to a lot of good luck, I came out of those years okay. Once I was on the other side of the bad old days, I was, to paraphrase Mark Twain, surprised at what my parents actually knew about the ways of the world. Now, after having lived through some rough years with my own teen daughter (who is now on her own firm path into adulthood), I realize that my parents really didn’t have it right all along. They were learning from their experience of raising me, their oldest child, as much as I, the child, was learning from trying to get things right on my own.

Now the girls in our troupe are writing about a sixteen-year-old who is sexually active in spite of the advice and against the wishes of her elders. The questions the girls are raising through their writing are about next steps – what will happen in this family after the parents learn about their daughter’s actions. As Carolyn recently wrote, in the first scenario, the parents are angry. The father jumps to the conclusion that his daughter has been ‘sleeping around’ with a lot of boys. He calls her terrible names and threatens to lock her in the house. At one point, he says,

“If I say you can’t have sex until you’re eighteen, then you’re not allowed to have sex until you’re eighteen.”

He may as well have said, “If I tell you not to grow up, then you’re not allowed to grow up.” Silly. However, I completely understand how he feels. It is so hard to give your kids the freedom to learn from experience when you know the dangers that lurk on the paths they are traveling, but it’s the only way they will learn. I think this realization is twisted into the thread I’m winding and rewinding. What can parents do when their children begin the cut the strings that tie them to home and safety? How should they respond when their teenagers ignore advice or break the house rules?

I think my parents mostly responded by pretending it wasn’t happening, but when I was in the parental role, my first response was much closer to that of the dad in the girls’ scene. I didn’t belittle my child or call her names, but I tried my hardest to control her actions with rules, contracts, and curfews in my desperate attempt to hold her close. I acted as if I had never been a teenager, myself. I think, in my fear for my child’s safety, I actually did forget my own strong need at the same age to get out and try things on my own. I dropped the thread and it wasn’t until I picked it up again that the situation began to get better.  

The girls ask us how a parent might respond to the realization that their teen child hasn’t followed their advice. There are multiple answers to that question and I hope that they will explore them as they continue to write and revise variants of the scenario. After my recent reflections, what I would say if asked how a parent should respond is, “Don’t fear the truth. Stay calm. Listen to the child. Keep the channels of communication open.” In other words, do like we try to do in Girls Surviving.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Digging Deep

           “Would a brother tell his Mom if he were worried that his sister was doing something potentially harmful?” we ask.
           “No.”  While only one girl responds, the other girls seem to agree. “That wouldn’t happen.”
           We continue to probe: “Would his age make a difference?”

“If he’s older, he definitely wouldn’t snitch.  He would talk to his sister about it, but he would not want her to get in trouble with the parents,” says Carmen.
           “A younger brother might tell, though,” adds Mia.
           We’re talking about the girls’ scene-in-process. In it, the parents confront their 16-year-old daughter, Brook, with proof that she is having sex.  Their evidence?  They’ve gone to Verizon, printed out her text messages, and spread them out on the coffee table.  In our workshop, the group is trying to figure out what motivated the parents to take the radical step of printing out text messages.  What had they found out about Brook’s sexual behavior and how? Had a brother given them the heads up?
           “One of the parents could have just seen a text message come up on Brook’s phone when it was lying around on the table, panicked, and taken the next step,” suggests Cheryl.
           “That’s a good point. In real life, how else do parents figure out if their kids are having sex,” we want to know.
           “Evidence,” says one girl.
           “From other parents,” offers Paula.
           “Sometimes the school calls home if rumors about sexual activity are circulating in the hallways,” adds Karen, the school counselor who is working with us.
            The girls don’t offer much more and can’t make a decision about what tipped off Brook’s parents. 

In order to understand the parents’ actions, we’ll need to keep discussing this and other aspects of the scene.  Not only do the parents invade their daughter’s privacy with the printed texts, but they also say horrible things to her.  The father, in particular, berates and shames her.  If Brook has been a good kid until this incident, as the scene suggests, it’s hard to know why the father gets so angry so fast.  When we ask the girls that question, though, they can’t come up with an answer.

“He (the father) calls his daughter a whore,” we begin. When no one says anything, we ask, “Is it realistic to think he might reconsider his attack on her or that other parents might communicate in a different way?”

“What do you think?” Carmen asks, a hint of frustration creeping into her voice.  “We’re not parents.”

Karen responds. “Sometimes after parents blow up at their kids and they have a chance to cool down, they think about how they can smooth things over. That could happen in this scene.”

“But we don’t want to influence your thinking,” adds Paula. “We don’t want you to write what you think you ought to write…what you think is appropriate…because of something we say.”

“What we can say, though, is that what all parents really want is to keep their kids safe,” says Karen.

“Yeah,” I say, “even this father. His yelling probably won’t help the situation, but he is doing it because he’s worried about Brook.”

I wonder if we’re talking too much and add, “Again, though, it’s your perspective on parents the audience wants to hear.  It’s your play.  The audience doesn’t want to know what we think.”

“But we don’t know,” someone moans. They all nod in agreement.  Are we confusing them by simultaneously giving our opinion and telling them to write their own play?

“But you do!” I insist.  “Look at what you’ve just written about Brook and her parents.  That can really happen.  Parents can get incredibly angry.  We just want to know if you think they can respond in other ways – if they might swallow their anger – and if they do, would it make a difference in how things end.  I mean, at the end of this scene Brook storms off to her room.  She is just as furious as they are. How do you think she will behave toward her parents after this?”

“She might become more secretive.  She might even start lying to her parents…sneak out…” suggests Mia, who has been relatively quiet throughout the discussion.

“She might come back crying hysterically and apologizing…yeah, she’d use tears as a way to get them to back off…feel guilty, and not ground her or take her phone or whatever,” says Cheryl.

“You mean there’s no middle ground?” we ask.

Angela confirms our observation.  “No, there is NO middle ground.  It’s either anger or tears.”

Mia pipes up again.  “I think parents can react in another way. How about we write a scene in which parents swallow their anger. The girl cries and apologizes.  But, then, in a twist at the end, she goes to her brother and warns him never to snitch on her again.”

“Yeah, that sounds good!” agrees Angela, excited about an alternative focus to the conversation and the possibility of starting a new scene.

“How do the rest of you feel about writing another scene about parents finding out their daughter is having sex? Do you want to leave this for a while and go in another direction?”

“But the scene really isn’t about that,” says Angela.  “It’s about the way parents and their kids communicate.”

The other girls concur.  I understand why the topic seems to both fascinate and frustrate. Interactions between parents and their children are infinitely mysterious. Just a couple of weeks ago when I was visiting my sister, we couldn’t let the subject drop.  After well over a half a lifetime living on our own, we still talk about the troubles we had with our parents when we were growing up. Now that we’re parents of adult children, we both feel much more sympathetic toward all parents, including our own.  But, we’ll never stop trying to sort out the complicated family dynamic that created so much tension for us during our teen years. 

At the end of our workshop I think to myself how much I want to take the girls aside and say this:  “The reason we’re asking you so many questions is because parents are, ultimately, unknowable to their children. Still, digging deep by talking and writing about them helps us understand them better. I'm proud of you for working so hard at it."

Instead, I say: “Too bad we didn’t have time to write, but we have a plan for next week.”

“Yes, and could everybody please try to get here on time?  We understand if you have to study for a test or a family obligation that makes you late…just let us know…but we really need a quorum to get anything done,” added Paula.

I agree. “Yeah, it’s hard to know how to make progress on your play when the conversation is limited to just a couple of voices.”

We’re back in the adult role, sounding paternal.

“Sorry about that,” the latecomers murmur guiltily.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Another Thread

There are many threads that run through Girls Surviving workshops, plays, and relationships. The thread of trust that Carolyn describes is one of them. There is also a thread of compassion with respect to the people and situations the girls write about, and this thread leads them to a better understanding of themselves and their surroundings. Through the years, no matter how far removed from their own experiences a character seems to be when it is first conceived, no matter how shallow or silly a character is in its inception, the girls manage to find their way to some deep truth through their work with that character.
For example, several years ago, the girls wrote a play about an inept teacher. The idea for it began after a workshop check-in in which one of the girls ranted about a run-in she had with a teacher earlier that day. As the girl talked, other troupe members who had similar experiences chimed in. The girls felt disrespected in their interactions with this teacher, and the conversation turned to a more general one about student/teacher relationships. As they frequently do when an check-in issue raises a general response, the girls began to write about the subject, creating a caricature of an ineffective, uncaring, possibly racist high school English teacher named Ms. Rose.
At first, the scenes written around this character were outrageous, almost slapstick. Ms. Rose behaved ridiculously and was a perfect foil for the student characters’ jokes. However, as the girls continued to develop the play, they began to realize that, like the student characters in the play, Ms. Rose, also had a backstory that might mitigate her actions. They began to develop this idea and, although the story they created is not part of the play, near the end of the play, some of the student characters begin to change the way they talk about Ms. Rose. Here are two excerpts from the last scene of Lose Some / Lose All, written by the 2010/11 GS troupe.

(loud enough for everyone to hear her)
Ms. Rose won’t be back. I heard she got fired. Rosie gone forever! Yesss…

She can’t get fired.  She’s got tenure.

Oh, shut up, Cori.  No one was talking to you.

I heard her son overdosed. Haha, what a druggie. (beat) Wait, Ms. Rose has a son? Does she have a husband?

Right? Who would marry that old crone. I bet she’s the reason her son became a druggie!

Ms. Rose really has a son? I’m still on that.

Nicole, teachers are people, you know. They actually have lives.

(laughing) You mean they don’t just step into the coat closet at night and come back out when the bell rings for homeroom?

Although, you do have to admit that Ms. Rose always seemed like she was from another planet. It is hard to imagine she had a real life.

It just goes to show, you never know what’s really going on in someone’s life by the way they act in public. Anyway, it’s not true about Ms. Rose’s son. I know him. I would know if something happened to him.

And those rumors you heard about Ms. Rose? They’re all lies. Ms. Rose hasn’t been here for a week because of your behavior. You guys made her feel like less than a human. She did get in trouble for walking out, but I would have done the same thing.

Rosie got it bad. Hahahah, good for her.

Ugh, you guys act like animals, like you have no home training. I can’t be around you guys. I’m moving to another table.

(HARLEM leaves. The remaining girls sit in silence for a minute, then CORI speaks.)

I don’t think I’m gonna go as hard on Ms. Rose as we did before.  Let’s give her a break.

At the end of the scene, only a couple of the student characters seem to feel compassion for Ms. Rose. The others were too focused on their own issues to give much thought to a teacher’s problems. For the writers of the play, it was a different story. They had come to see that, although they couldn’t condone their disrespectful teacher’s actions, they might find a way of viewing the classroom dynamic through her eyes and, perhaps, changing their own behavior as a consequence of whatever insight they gained.
The girls learn about themselves by writing and talking about fictional characters who may be composites of real people whom they dislike or ridicule or with whom they disagree. Our workshop process facilitates this understanding, but the fact that it occurs at all has to do with the girls’ willingness to stand in another’s shoes and try to understand.

In recent workshops, the girls have, once again, been writing about parent/teen interactions. Their early discussions of right and wrong have turned to more specific questions about parental control and teen autonomy. When they began to write about this topic, the parent characters in their scenes were demanding and inconsiderate, expecting their teenage children to capitulate to the same rules imposed on them when they were very young. In recent discussions, however, the girls ideas about these characters are changing. They are beginning to think, as the earlier troupe of students did about Ms. Rose, that they can understand their parents’ motives, even if they don’t agree with them.
In a recent workshop, Libby, one of the younger girls, said, “My mom doesn’t let me do anything. This frustrates me but when I think about it from her point of view – well, a lot the people at her work have problems with their teenage children, and I know she worries that I might get in trouble like that if she gives me more freedom. I get that.”
This is typical of the way our girls talk about their real life situations. Even while they chafe under the yoke of parental control, they consider their parents’ feelings and motivations and, at least in the context of the discussion, believe that their parents’ actions stem from concern about their daughters’ happiness and safety.
Last week, after reading several versions of a scene in which the parent characters were too angry or frightened to listen to their child’s account of her actions, we asked the girls,
“Could parents be reasonable in this moment? Do you think that it’s possible for them to react differently, to actually communicate with a child in this situation?”
The girls’ response was, basically, “We don’t know; you tell us. You’re parents; we’re not.”

When we reminded them that they had recently created believable, three dimensional parent characters in last spring’s play Disillusions/Dissolutions, they seemed doubtful. But, they thought about it, and then began to imagine a second and third scene for their new play – scenes in which they, the writers, are attempting to understand the motivations of adult characters. We know from experience that, at the end of this process, they will also have reassessed their own reactions and responses to their real parents’ behavior.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

An Extraordinary Troupe

          We introduced the girls to a William Stafford poem called The Way It Is at the start of the school year.  We’ve written about it frequently in our blog posts since then and I find myself thinking about it every time I write a new post.

          To review: the poem describes those intangibles we cling to in times of trouble that give us courage and offer up hope. Stafford calls it “a thread you follow.”  “You don’t ever let go of the thread,” Stafford says at end of the poem.  Is he giving advice, a warning, a reminder? He seems to suggest that we must be mindful not to lose faith in or sight of our guiding principles.

          In Girls Surviving there is a thread that we follow that goes like this:  “What is said in Girls Surviving stays in Girls Surviving.”   When I write a blog post or when I speak of Girls Surviving to friends, colleagues, and strangers, I try never to lose sight of those words.

          Everyone who comes into the Girls Surviving circle understands the importance of honoring the Girls Surviving thread.  That means everyone: counselors, teaching artists, and girls.  We understand that the burden of responsibility to maintain trust within the circle rests with each one of us. Trust connects us. The thread is a vital reason the girls join us—and stay. It is the reason why the program is a success. If we were to let go of the thread, the program would fray and split apart. The girls would scatter and retreat into their silent selves. Where once they felt free to be open, honest, and willing, they would sit quietly minding their own business, wary, recalcitrant.

          While we know that trust is what keeps the troupe connected, it isn’t always easy to know what we can or cannot say about what goes on in Girls Surviving without jeopardizing that trust.  We tread gingerly in our blog posts, for example, reflecting on those discussions that relate to the literature the girls are reading or the ideas they’re exploring for their play.  We conceal identities by giving the girls fictitious names.  There is a lot, though, that we do not share. Sometimes we wish we could.

          This year, especially, we would love to blog about specific events and confidential conversations we’ve had with our girls that have inspired our profound respect. Each of these amazing human beings brings something special into the life of the program and each unique and impressive behind-the- scenes-story is worth listening to.

           But they are their stories to share when and if they decide to do so. What I can do is share their fictional writing. They currently are writing in the voice of Brook, a 16-year-old character who will make her appearance in their new play this spring.  Through Brook you will hear our girls’ speak about their understanding of each other’s stories.

Brook, by Stephanie

There is a thick sticky film that floats on the surface of my skin.  With every word that spills out of my parents’ judgmental mouths, the fog becomes thicker. The air that I suck in becomes hotter with every scolding glance.  My throat begins to bleed with every strike against my face.

Brook, by Laurel

A Sound-Filled Silence
Utter silence.
And yet, small sounds are heard.
The hum is persistent.  A quiet but potent hum of unidentified origin.
The air is frigid: sixty degrees is pleasant outside but brutally cold in the confines of this house.

Brook, by Sara

Brook felt violated when she saw those papers on the table.  She thought, haven’t they humiliated her enough.  They are always on top of her.  Maybe they would have some respect or trust but she was wrong….She thought about what she did to deserve all this….She was a good student and everything.  She was trying really hard to understand them but she couldn’t.

          In addition to sharing the girls’ writing, I can talk about them in generalities – describe what I’ve learned about them from listening to their personal stories and struggles and watching them interact. As people, they are every bit as insightful, sensitive, caring, and brave as they are writers. They work hard at better understanding what they can do, as individuals, to bring a group together.  They also examine past deeds and words for possible mistakes they’ve made in their personal interactions.  Then they take steps to rectify any perceived wrongs. Most remarkable, they do all of this on their own, without adult prompting. Sure, they talk to us, but they don’t wait to be told to reach out to someone in need. They observe, listen, and respond with respect.

          That’s a lot more than I can say for some of the adults who are vying to be our country’s president. After Girls Surviving workshops I often come home and slip into a comfy chair to watch the news broadcast on TV.  The vitriol I hear and pounding on podiums I see on the screen make me feel ashamed of the thousands of adults who would divide us rather than bring us together as a country. 

          "How is it possible that our girls seem more mature than our current crop of politicians?”  I wonder, as I sit in front of the tube, contemplating the contrast between the respectful, inclusive discussions of these young women and the screaming I’m seeing in front of me.

          "What are the threads in our politicians’ lives?” I ask myself.  “Maybe if they had a thread that spelled the word ‘respect’ or ‘trust’ they might be able to create an environment that spells ‘inclusiveness’ too. But right now they don’t.  I hope they will before I have to cast a vote, but until they do, I’ll put my faith and my hope for the future in our girls.  The troupe of 2016 knows The Way It Is.