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, February 21, 2016

A Messenger of Hope

It was cold outside, but it felt like spring was beginning to poke through the ice inside the workshop.  Most of the girls arrived more or less on time.  Their conversation was animated and inclusive. A new girl tried us out and two we hadn’t seen in many months returned. What a welcome sight!
           One veteran who hasn’t attended a workshop since early fall, a senior I’ll call Dana, was overflowing with news: stories about getting her driver’s license and weighing the pros and cons of prospective colleges. We hear these kinds of stories from seniors everywhere:  the one about the ill-tempered driving instructor; the nerve-wracking college interview; the grueling scholarship application process. There is no question that every junior and senior is stressed out.

Most of the girls in our troupe have unique challenges, however, that begin to take a huge toll on their time, energy, and self-confidence during their last two years of high school – especially during the fall and winter. Of late, our workshops have been feeling the chills created by these struggles because so many in the current troupe are juniors and seniors. That is why everyone gave the floor to Dana and let her own it for as long as she needed to air her feelings of accomplishments as well as her frustrations and worries.  Dana’s story is illustrative of what lies ahead for the rest of her troupe mates.

The overall impression she left them was hope.  She resolutely found a way to get her license, despite not having a car or sufficient funds to pay the exorbitant driver’s license fee.  She applied to both in and out-of state schools, despite her family’s apprehension about her leaving home. She is carefully weighing her options and applying for additional scholarships because she knows her financial situation is precarious,.

Smiling broadly, she dug into her backpack to produce her wallet and pull out her driver’s license.  And smiling broadly, she told about how, with the help of a mentor, she put together an art portfolio for her BFA applications.  Again, smiling broadly, she listed her acceptances and scholarship choices and described how the compromises she might have to make could alter her future plans. She will adapt if she has to, she said, but she made it clear that she will not give up.

If anyone can inspire the weary juniors and seniors in our troupe to stay the course, it is Dana.  And her timing was perfect.  As if on cue, sensing the juniors’ tension about passing the spring SAT and the seniors’ disappointments about being rejected from their college of choice, she appeared, smiling broadly and bearing a message of hope.  Spring has got to be right around the corner.  The robins are stopping by and so is Dana.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Double Standard

The girls have been writing about parents and teens, about expectations and communication, and, specifically, they have been writing about whether parents should have the power to prevent their sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen year old children from having sex. The girls, themselves, aren’t sure of the answer. In fact, we began to write about it because it is one of those issues with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ on both sides of the argument.
The girls approached the topic by imagining a situation – a girl’s parents discover that she is sexually active –  and writing dialogue for a scene in which the daughter is confronted with her parents’ discovery. Actually, they have written two scenes about the situation. In one, the parents threaten and belittle their daughter; in the other, they try their best to keep communication open. In both scenes, the girls, with their uncanny ability to figure out what is really going on, have written parents who are, at bottom, concerned about the welfare of their child and confused about the role they should play in her life as she grows toward adulthood.
After reading and discussing several versions of the scenes, we talked about next steps.
“Do you want to keep writing about this?” we asked. “Can you think of another family dynamic through which to explore the question?”
The girls talked about the possibilities.
“Maybe we could write about parents who just don’t care,” suggested Rachel.
“What would that look like?” we asked.
“They’re rich people who only care about their social life and their possessions,” said Vanessa.
“Or they’re poor people who have to work so much that they can’t focus on their kids,” said Marlene.
“That doesn’t mean they don’t care,” said Cheryl.

We talked about this for a while, but after throwing around several more ideas, the girls came to the conclusion that they don’t have enough experience of uncaring parents to write realistically about them. Then Vanessa asked,
“Does the teen have to be a girl? Could we write about a teenage son?”
The girls all began talking at once.
“That would be different.”
“Yeah, when he discovered he had sex, his father would pat him on the back and say, ‘Good job, son.’”
“I know, it’s completely different for boys.”
On that, they all agreed.
This complaint has been made by our girls through the years, troupe after troupe. Their brothers and male cousins can do what they like. They don’t have any responsibility for housework or childcare. They have no curfews. They don’t have to follow the same rules as the girls in the family.

So the girls began writing a new scene, as we do, each girl writing her own version. The premise in this one is that the girl’s parents have caught the teens in a compromising situation and her father brings the boy home. Each scene begins with a knock on the door of ‘Kevin Taylor’s’ house. Kevin’s father answers the knock to find Kevin on the doorstep with the father of his girlfriend, Bethany. The dialogue in each scene is, for the most part, spoken by the two fathers, and they have entirely different attitudes about the situation. Bethany’s father is outraged, claiming that Kevin has dishonored his home and his daughter. Kevin’s father doesn’t understand why the other man is so upset.
In none of the dialogues is it certain that the teens have actually had sex, but the conversations between the fathers do point to a double standard with regard to gender. Kevin’s father is quicker to note that the young couple’s actions are natural and inevitable, while Bethany’s father is just not ready for his little girl to grow up. Both men seem to understand the damage that can be done through callous sexual activity (At one point, the Kevin’s father asks, “Has my son done something to hurt your daughter?”), but the stakes are definitely higher when it comes to a daughter’s virginity as opposed to a son’s.

The topic is a touchy. Carolyn and I haven’t taken sides in the parent/teen conflict but, while we sympathize with the confused and worried parents in all of the scenes, I don’t think that either of us is inclined to harshly judge older teens who have safe and thoughtful intimate relationships. The double standard is another matter. I have five kids: two boys and three girls. The boys are older so we had ‘the talk’ with them first. It took place a while ago (they both have children of their own these days.), but I remember that when we did talk to them, our focus was on respect.
I’m pretty sure the conversation with our daughters was different. It’s not, I believe, because we thought the stakes were higher, but we felt that the girls were more vulnerable, more likely to be pressured into something they didn’t want. In retrospect, I’m not sure that’s true. I think boys feel tremendous pressure to be accepted by their peers, and at a certain age that can mean having sex whether you’re ready or not. It’s hard to be a teenager, regardless of gender.

Meanwhile, our girls are talking about this important topic. Things are out in the open in the workshops. They can ask questions, express their opinions, and hear that their friends have questions and worries similar to their own. And, as they write and talk about Kevin Taylor’s dilemma, they may even begin to wonder if boys are really so much different from girls.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Late Again

           Rachel was the only girl there. The others were late.  We looked at the clock; it was 6:15.  “They’ll be here any minute,” we reasoned. We already had heard from Karen, the counselor who works with us, that snarled traffic would make her late. Because we’re used to 10-20 minute delays, we sat tight.

We had a pretty good idea which girls might come because most had responded to our earlier texts.  At 6:20 we double-checked the girls’ text responses and sent the following text message to those we thought were coming:

“You coming?  Where are you?”

One girl immediately responded that she couldn’t come after all.  “Sorry,” she said. Three others were at SAT prep, they replied, and would be there soon. Because girls have taken the prep course in the past and still made it to Girls Surviving on time, we weren’t sure whether to believe them or not.  The timing didn’t make sense. When Karen came in a couple of minutes later, she agreed to find out what was going on. Since she works for the school district and we do not, she was in a better position to get to the bottom of the situation.  We sat tight.  We also were worried about a fifth girl, Alice, who had said she was coming but clearly wasn’t with the others.

Several of the girls – primarily the three who claimed to be at SAT prep - have been wandering in late too often. The writing process has become frustratingly slow and erratic as a result. Once, a couple of weeks ago, they showed up more than halfway through the workshop, forcing us to review everything we had talked about in their absence before we could continue to work.

Karen came back at 6:30 empty-handed.  SAT prep had finished up at 5:00 and no one was in the room. She had talked to someone who told her the girls had gone to get food. Not knowing when we could expect them, we decided to pack it in for the night. Before we left, though, we wanted to track down Alice – just on the slim chance she was still planning on coming. We didn’t want her to show up and find an empty classroom. Our text, however, went unanswered.  All we could do, we decided, was collect the notebooks, go home, and have Karen follow-up with Alice the next day to make sure she was okay.  We would text the three who were getting dinner that the workshop was cancelled.

Coming up with a reasonable plan, however, wasn’t enough to make us feel less worried and frustrated. We weren’t the only ones who were annoyed.   Rachel was too.  Rachel is conscientious about coming regularly and letting us know when she can’t attend. While she is relatively new to the program, she is a junior like the three who were missing and has a similarly heavy workload at school.  She’s worried about her SAT’s too.  Understandably, she resented having to hang out with the adults in the room and wait for her peers when she could have been using that time to tackle homework.  One of our worries was that the group of three – all veterans who have been involved in the program since middle school - wasn’t setting a very good example for newcomers like Rachel.  In the past we’ve depended on our veterans to mentor new girls, but we were beginning to wonder if this group was mature enough to take on that responsibility.

Thankfully, the three girls appeared before we closed the door on the workshop. We talked through our concerns and feelings with them and, together, we reached an understanding about how to move forward.  What we decided, though, sounded like a repetition of what we have consistently asked of our troupe members:  let us know if you can’t come to the workshop or are going to be late and make every effort to be ready to work between 6:00 and 6:15. 

I wasn’t optimistic that anything would change. The three girls seemed surprised and confused when we told them that we felt disrespected because of their repeated tardiness.

“I guess I just didn’t think…well…that it would be…,” began Shenise.

“Well, reverse the situation,” suggested Paula.  “How would you feel if you were waiting here for us for 35 minutes.”

“After all, this isn’t a group where we just talk about issues.  This is a writing and performing troupe and we need consistency and participation to reach a goal,” I added.

“Well…do you want us to quit?” asked Cheryl.

“No, of course not!” we said almost together, echoing each other’s dismay at the question.

Cheryl’s question reflected the guilt she and the others must have been feeling.  It also indicated to me that these girls haven’t thought very much about how their behavior impacts others.  My hope was that our conversation would help them understand how much we appreciate their participation and look to them as troupe leaders.  In the back of my mind, however, I knew they might show up on time for a couple of weeks, then revert to their previous pattern of behavior.

As of today, the news is positive. The girls showed up at our next workshop before we did, arranged the desks into our circle, sat down, and waited patiently for us to arrive. Karen’s conversation with Alice and her parents alleviated our worry on that front too. The poor girl had suffered an injury during a track workout that made her forget entirely about Girls Surviving. 

It is too soon to tell whether or not our conversation about being late will have a lasting impact on this year’s veterans.  We’ll encourage the responsiveness we’ve seen so far, however.  The girls have demonstrated their maturity in other ways – primarily during our many thoughtful discussions about the play. Hopefully that is another positive indication that they will show increasing interest in learning more about how to – and what it means to – be a leader and mentor in Girls Surviving.