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.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Moving Forward

Last week, Carolyn and I taught our first workshop for adults who are interested in learning about how Girls Surviving works. The idea to offer training that will help people in other communities replicate the program began with Jim Gallagher. For years, he has encouraged us to spread the word about the Girls Surviving program. With his encouragement, we began this blog, wrote a book, and published an article. In recent years, Jim’s daughters have lent their voices to the project. They have supported our outreach activities by providing both funding and advice.
It’s been a long, slow process for Carolyn and me. It’s hard for us to look beyond our very concrete involvement with our own Girls Surviving troupe. Planning workshops, typing scripts, buying snacks, teaching, texting, and transporting the girls takes time and energy. In the face of these day-to-day tasks, our work on expansion has seemed almost ephemeral. At least, it has to me. Right up to the morning of the workshop, I don’t think I really believed that anyone would show up to participate.

We began advertising at the beginning of April. Carolyn and I wrote a workshop description which Barbara Reuther, with help from her team at Morris Arts, transformed into an eye-catching flyer that she sent to her network of schools and organizations. A few hours after the first ad went online, she emailed, “One person registered!” and by evening, another couple of people had joined the list. Weeks passed and the registration list grew, and still I didn’t think people would really come. We planned a workshop for twenty five people with the thought that, realistically, we’d get five to ten. By Monday evening, more than thirty people were registered for the workshop and, to our astonishment, nearly all of them came!
They came from nine NJ counties and from a variety of occupations. There were teachers, healthcare workers, counselors, college students, and mothers. Participants also represented diverse communities: urban centers, small towns, public and private schools. All were women, and all are interested in helping girls gain confidence to speak their minds about the issues that affect their lives.

Because we had only three hours to introduce the program, workshop activities focused on the process we use to create a nonthreatening and familiar atmosphere for asking questions, sharing ideas, and writing personal thoughts. The Dodge Foundation meeting room, our venue for the morning, quickly became a safe space for sharing as participants introduced themselves and acknowledged both their commitment to helping girls and their worries about their own daughters, students, and clients. As workshop activities progressed from ice-breakers to discussion, the women opened up to each other and to us. Just like our Girls Surviving workshops, talk moved quickly from general ideas to personal issues.
Moving around the room as small groups of women worked to reach consensus on a writing topic, Carolyn and I overheard personal talk about the girls in participants’ lives. Later, as women shared their individual writing, we heard the voices of these girls and of the women who care for and about them: parents, teachers, and other counselors. This sharing was the culmination of our workshop activities and, for me, it was a culmination of the months of work we’ve been doing to get to that first training workshop. Everyone in the room that morning channeled her inner ‘girl surviving.’ In three short hours we got to know each other well enough to recognize that we shared hopes, fears, and goals; that we aren’t alone in the work we are doing to provide the girls we know with advice, skills, and strategies that we lacked as we tried to navigate our teen years.
Carolyn and I will do our best to keep the conversation going. We’ll invite the women from our workshop to our girls’ plays and workshops; we’ll offer follow-up events for people who want to immerse themselves in the collaboration at the heart of the GS process, we’ll get our book published, and we’ll figure out how to get people to read our blog. The next steps have become much more concrete.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Workshop for Women

            The meeting room was packed. Our circle of chairs had to be expanded.  Last week, 24 women from nine counties across New Jersey crowded into our workshop to learn how they might replicate aspects of the Girls Surviving program into their own work with teenage girls.

We were thrilled and somewhat amazed. Sure, most of their names were on the registration list, but experience with previous professional development workshops has taught us to expect no-shows. For this workshop, we anticipated a group of 12-15.  Five minutes before the start of the workshop we counted five participants mingling over morning coffee. We turned to each other with knowing smiles, agreed to delay the start by ten minutes, and mentally began adjusting our agenda to suit a much smaller group. 

And then we heard the unmistakable sound of female laughter and saw a long line of women forming at the registration desk.  They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and all at once. Within minutes the room was overflowing with their energy and anticipation.

As we moved around the circle introducing ourselves, we learned more about them and why they had come.  They were women of all ages and backgrounds.  Some were just starting their careers.  Others were seasoned professionals.  Many were teachers, but their teaching situations differed greatly. They came from both urban and suburban schools. They were public, private, and charter school educators of elementary, middle, or high school students.  Those who weren’t professional teachers were just as engaged in educational pursuits.  They were the mothers of daughters, health care providers, school cultural arts coordinators, a college student and a tutor.  What had brought this remarkably diverse group together was their own passion for learning and a deep commitment to helping women and/or girls. They wanted to know what we had learned over the past 10 years to help motivate girls to speak and write.

We shared by doing.  We led them through a series of hands-on warm-up games and writing and improvisation exercises that we use in Girls Surviving to bond our diverse group of girls into a cohesive troupe of writers and actresses. As this workshop progressed, our diverse group of adults seemed more and more like a typical Girls Surviving troupe.  Like our girls, they started by discussing the questions and concerns teen girls have about their complex and confusing lives.  Then, like our girls, they narrowed down the list of questions and eventually selected four to develop through writing. Their writing topics are listed below.

-I’m feeling left out.  What do I do?

-How does social media influence my self-perception and the way I’m perceived by others?

- My friend is hurting me…distancing herself from me.  What do I do?

-How do I know if something is wrong with me psychologically?  Is it depression that I’m experiencing or natural feelings of anxiety?

When it came time to write, some assumed they would write in groups.  Instead, we explained that in Girls Surviving, we ask each girl to reflect and write on the same topic by herself in the writing style of her choice. Writing alone, we added, validates each girl’s ideas and provides rich and varied material to incorporate into the final play. We encouraged the women to find a comfortable spot in the room to write about one of the four topics, share their writing in small groups, and select one from each group to share with everyone. 

Paula and I circulated to listen and answer questions.  It was fascinating to watch the same process we use with teenage girls working with a group of adult women. They, too, wrote in many styles. There were poems, character descriptions, journal entries, monologues, and dialogues.  When it came time to select just one writing example from each group, they had trouble deciding how to make a single selection.  Like our girls, most wanted to read their own writing and everyone wanted to validate the writing of the others in their group.  This workshop process had led them to our goal for each Girls Surviving troupe: the desire to collaborate.

Our full collaborative writing process is complicated and will have to be the subject of a subsequent workshop, but the women who came to this workshop left it with a sense of how the process evolves.  When the small groups shared their selected material with everyone else, the connections between the four writing themes became apparent to us. As we listened and talked about the writing, we pointed out to the participants that threads from almost all the writing could be woven together into a collaboratively created play.

We also pointed out that each one of them had written about some aspect of a single theme that can be summed up in one word: pressure.  For example, one woman wrote a fast-paced advertisement touting the magical properties of beauty products.  Listening to her read it aloud, all we could hear was: pressure…pressure to be beautiful…pressure to conform…pressure to be popular.  Another participant wrote a poem in which every first line started with the word “pressure.”  The repetition of the word was as unrelenting as the power that word wields over teenage girls. The girl described in the poem was the same girl others described in their own writing: she is alone, isolated, possibly even ostracized, tormented, anxious, possibly depressed, fragile, susceptible to manipulation by her peers.  She is an amalgam of all four of the topics the groups chose to write about – an amalgam of every teenage girl we know, and the pressure she feels is powerful enough to crush her if there is no one to help her.

The wonderful women who came to our workshop want to help this “every girl,” and I hope that we were able to provide them with some ideas about how to further the great work they already are doing. Working and talking with them certainly inspired us to continue to learn, teach, and expand the reach of Girls Surviving.

In a side conversation I had with one of the women after the workshop, we talked about our deep commitment to helping girls navigate the teen years.  We also lamented the fact that what we are doing sometimes feels like it’s just not enough.  Before we parted, I left her with this thought:  “You’re right, of course.  What each of us does will never be enough, but if you do a little and I do a little…if each of us in this room does whatever she can, it adds up.”  

There is strength in numbers. Now, after last week’s workshop, 24 women from all over the state who are dedicated to helping girls survive the pressure now know each other.  We’re connected. We can stay in touch, support each other, and learn from each other.  That’s an accomplishment and a sure sign of hope.  Together we can make a difference.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


It’s getting harder to write here because, although, year by year, girls with different talents and different problems come and go, there is a similarity about the rise and fall of each season. Now we’re nearly at the end of the school year. Last week we cast the new play and rehearsals will begin at the week’s workshop. We have four weeks to rehearse. With our current workshop schedule, that’s four rehearsals! But we’ve been here before.

The past few weeks have been busy. We are recruiting for our summer program which we hope will run a full six week session this year. Last month, Carolyn and I set up a table at the middle school on parent conference days. On each day, one of us lurked outside the school cafeteria, the center of eighth grade conferences, and pounced on parents going in and out. Our battle cry --
“Do you have a daughter?”

In the end, we had a promising list of fifteen girls who we hope to invite to a workshop/performance led by girls in the current troupe.

In the process of trying to plan this workshop, we gained new insight into the lives of some of our girls. Our first plan was to present the workshop at an eighth grade girls’ group that meets on Wednesdays after classes at the middle school. Knowing that our girls who have jobs have made arrangements to have Wednesdays off, we assumed that this would work for most of the troupe members. Renee made plans with the girls’ group leader and we presented the plan to the troupe.

“I can’t do it,” said Joan. “I have SAT prep after school on Wednesday.”
“Me, too,” echoed Tia and Brielle.
“We can’t miss it,” added Lisa. “Mr. A gets tutors in to work with us and we can’t waste their time.”
“And I really need to get a good score,” said Brielle.
Carolyn and I looked at each other.
“Well, what time does SAT prep begin?”
“Right after school,” said Tia.
“And it ends….?”
“At 5:00 but most days they keep us until at least 5:30.”

This was eye-opening, the first time we clearly registered what our girls are doing in the hours before our weekly workshops. We know that, as our girls develop confidence through their work in the troupe, they branch out and take on new activities: sports, the school plays, and jobs, to name a few; but we didn’t realize how long their GS days have been this year.
“Do you get a break to eat?” we asked.
A sheepish exchange of glances.
“No. That’s why we’re always late getting here.”
“And why we come in with food. We run downtown to get dinner before the workshop.”

So, we’re not going to have an after school workshop for eighth grade girls. We’re trying to arrange something that will take place during the school day. And we have a new appreciation for our girls.
Through the year, we’ve been talking and writing about the lack of focus we’ve seen in our girls this year. They’ve missed workshops, they come late, they seem to avoid deep conversation about the issue they chose to write about. And no wonder! By the time they come to us, they’ve been concentrating on school work for ten hours! They’re exhausted. And yet, they still come to Girls Surviving. They’ve written a play that is going into rehearsal tonight and which they’ll perform in four weeks. They’re amazing. And they’re committed to the program.