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.”

Monday, April 4, 2016

Opening Up A Conversation

            The Girls Surviving troupe of 2012 wrote about one of the most sensitive issues in their lives, their community, and their country in the play Colored By Color. They explored racism. The current troupe is struggling to write about another sensitive subject: the ways parents and their teenage children talk about sex.  I never thought there could be a more difficult topic for the girls to explore in writing than racism until these girls started grappling with the content of this year’s play. 

The process started smoothly.  The girls stayed focused on parent and child relationships in their writing.  The topic of sex served only as a dramatic device to stimulate dialogues about how parents communicate with each other, other parents, and their teenage children.  The girls seemed less inclined to discuss the topic with us, but they expressed themselves well on paper.  In a relatively short time, each girl had written dialogues that could be included in the play’s three scenes. We were optimistic that they could choose and organize lines from everyone’s writing into rough drafts of scenes, then revise and expand the scenes without much trouble.  Most of the girls in this troupe are veterans who have handled the sometimes frustrating and slow collaborative writing and revision processes unique to GS brilliantly in the past.

Then, progress on the play stalled. We could find no ready explanation.  On the surface, the problems the girls were encountering with their play seemed no different to us than problems they had successfully fixed many times before. First, gaps in dialogue needed filling to improve the flow and clarity of the scenes.  Second, the characters needed more depth.  Their conversations were superficial and lacking lines that reveal inner needs and desires.  Finally, each scene’s conflict needed a more detailed and slower build toward the climax and resolution.  In the rough drafts, the conflicts were too easily resolved to be believable. Basically, the girls needed to think more deeply about the characters and add richness to their discussions. It’s hard work but not a challenge the girls haven’t conquered before. 

Why did they arrive late, chat, and in other ways seem to avoid doing the work?  Why did they look off into space when we tried to talk about ways to expand the scenes? Why did it seem like we adults were the only ones talking? Why were they so silent?

When we asked them these questions, they offered the following explanations: We’re stressed, overcommitted juniors and constantly pressed for time; we’re exhausted by the time we come to Girls Surviving; sometimes we don’t have time for lunch and need more to eat than the salty and sugary snacks GS usually provides.

We moved quickly, thinking we could fix the problem. We gave the girls leeway on arrival time, making our “official” start 6:15 instead of 6:00.  We devoted the beginning of the workshops to long check-ins, allowing the girls time to relax and talk about what was going on in their lives.  We brought cheese and crackers or humus and chips to beef up the snacks, and we allowed them to bring and eat take-out dinners while we talked.  We played games to lighten the mood and energize our discussions. Still, when it came time to work on the play, the girls’ blank stares returned and not much got done.

One night we questioned them more closely about why they couldn’t seem to buckle down to the task.  After what seemed like an interminably long silence, Rosie spoke up.

“I don’t understand why we need to expand the scenes.  This is the way we talk with our parents in real life,” she said.

“But this is theater,” I replied. “Theater gives us and the audience a chance to think about things in new ways and ask questions about important issues that sometimes don’t get asked in real life.”

That’s when it dawned on me: the girls’ initial excitement about using sex as the dramatic device to explore parent and child relationships quickly dissipated when they realized that in-depth conversations about teen sexual behavior had to take place between the characters in order to add depth to their play. What had seemed cool and a little daring at the outset now had them worried.  The most problematic scene for them, I realized, was the one in which two loving parents want to engage in a detailed, honest discussion with their daughter about sex. This is the kind of conversation they never wanted to have with their own parents. Transforming a conversation like that into a scene was unspeakably embarrassing for them, and we could feel the tension from the thought of performing it for parents, siblings, and members of the community!  My heart went out to them just thinking about their dilemma.

Luckily, Marianna raised the performance issue the very next week, and we talked it through.

“Are we going to perform this play at Frelinghuysen (Middle School)?”

“Well,” one of us began, “we’ll talk to Renee about it, but the audience will be eighth graders.” Renee is the middle school guidance counselor who works with us in the program, and the girls respect and like her.

We pressed the issue. “Eighth graders are thinking about these issues, just like you, aren’t they?” They nodded their heads.

We continued.  “We’ve been wondering if you’re really comfortable writing this play…if, perhaps, using sex as the topic, is too embarrassing.”

“It’s so controversial,” Martina said. “I mean people have so many different views about what’s right and wrong.”

I agreed.  “That’s true, and so far, the play hasn’t even mentioned the role religion plays in some discussions about sex.”

“But,” countered Paula.  “You’ve written about controversial issues before.  Just last year, you wrote about how a father’s reacts when he finds out that his daughter is a lesbian.”

When the girls sort of nodded but didn’t reply, I suggested, they stop work on this altogether and start something new.

“We can’t do that,” said Rosie.  “It’s too late.”

“Trust me, it can be done.  And, it’s far better to redirect the work than attempt to salvage an idea that isn’t working for you.”

“But we’re so far along,” said Jan. “Besides, I’m not worried about performing the play for the people who generally come to our shows.  My dad won’t be coming, so no problem.”

“And your parents, Martina, think the world of this program,” added Paula. “They’re so proud of you.”

“Right,” I continued, “they’ve often told us how much they’ve learned from watching these plays.  You know, it might not be a bad thing at all for parents to hear about what’s on your minds.”

The girls began to relax and murmur their consent to continue with the play.  Until then, Karen, the high school counselor working with us that evening, had said little. At that moment, however, when we most needed her insight into the situation, she said exactly what needed to be said.

“Before the play begins,” she said, “in your introduction, you can say that the play isn’t about any one girl’s personal experience.  It is, rather, a fictional reflection about the kinds of things kids your age are thinking and talking about.”
            The sigh of relief in the room was audible. The girls realized that all they had to do was begin their performance with a disclaimer and everything would be okay. Phew!  Without any more discussion, they turned to their scripts and began to write.
            Colored By Color represented a breakthrough for Girls Surviving.  Before the play was written, our girls self-segregated when they sat in a circle or chose writing partners and lunch-mates.  The pattern changed for good the year that play was written.  Successive troupes have been welcoming of every new girl and every new difference.
            Similarly this year, Girls Surviving is breaking boundaries. The girls’ recent willingness to face and discuss their fears about the play represents a breakthrough in communication between all of us for both staff and students. Our determination to uncover the root cause of the girls’ silence and their eventual responsiveness has paved the way toward deeper trust and greater understanding within the troupe. It is too soon to know if the girls’ courage during our recent discussions will carry over into their writing. If it does, wouldn’t it be extraordinary if the performance of their play leads to a more open and sensitive discussion with a larger audience about the way adults and teens talk about sex?