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, July 25, 2016

The Cell Phone Ban

            The Summer Program, Week 2:  gone in a flash, yet so much learned and so much progress made in just two weeks!

What are we learning?  We’re learning that the girls who are new to the troupe this summer, all of whom will be entering ninth grade in the fall, cannot easily be separated from their cell phones. In fact, their cell phones seem like living, breathing parts of themselves. We’re also learning that it is impossible to accomplish much during a three-hour workshop when girls constantly interrupt the work to check messages.

What are we doing about it?  For the first time in the ten year history of the program we’re banning cell phones altogether during workshops…really banning them.  The firs week we tried asking the girls to silence their phones or turn them off, as we have successfully done many times in the past.  It didn’t work with this group.  At the end of the first week we brought in a basket and asked the girls to put their cell phones in the basket and leave them alone.  That didn’t work either.  Yesterday, after we deposited all of the cell phones in the basket, we hid the basket! That worked. Finally.

How do we eliminate exceptions to the cell phone protocol?  When the girls come into the workshop, we ask them to check their phones and let their parents know they will not have access to them for the duration of the workshop.  In case of an emergency, we instruct them to tell their parents to please call the counselor participating that day and ask her to restore contact.

The result?  We’re making more progress than we ever have in the past.

“It (the new rule) is making a huge difference,” one of our interns told us yesterday.  “Even I’m more focused.  It’s amazing.”

“How about we try it again in the fall?” I suggest.

“Well…,” laughed the intern.

“It would only be for two hours…,” I coaxed.

We all laughed.  It’s hard to give up cell phones.  The truth is that all of us depend on them for almost everything we do. At the same time, modern cell phones aren’t always helpful. They interfere with concentration and can impede work.

Luckily we put the ban into effect early in the program and, as a result, we are well on our way to finishing two scenes of our traditional three-scene play.  Every day the new girls are becoming more comfortable engaging in silly acting games, improvisations, and dialogue writing. Now that we have their full attention, even the quieter girls are beginning to come out of their shells.

Yesterday, for example, one of the more insecure girls felt confident enough with the writing process to write her very first dialogue for the play. It was a huge breakthrough for Gabriela.  Gabby is a less confident speaker and writer of English than the other new girls.  That being said, she comes to every workshop and volunteers to improvise often.  In the beginning, she only accepted small parts in our readings or improvs, but yesterday she engaged in two long, complicated improvisations involving Pam, a girl who mistakenly thinks her boyfriend, Chris, has stood her up to be with another girl, named Taylor.  We could tell that Gabby was having a lot of fun playing the part of the jilted girl’s best friend, Ashley, in one improv and the part of Taylor in the other.  But, when it came time to write dialogues based on the improvisations, we didn’t expect her to write a dialogue.

So far this summer, her writing has consisted of lists of ideas about the characters or their interactions.  They are great ideas and we discussed how we could use every one of them to enhance the play, but they are not dialogues that we can cut and paste into a script. Yesterday, though, she surprised us when she offered to read aloud her first dialogue.   

What happened yesterday that gave her enough courage to break through the final barrier that was preventing her full participation in the process?  I’d like to think that banning cell phones had something to do with it. Improved concentration probably did help. It is more likely, though, that yesterday’s small group made her feel less vulnerable.  Having a close friend to role-play with during the improvs also must have boosted her confidence.  And finally, there is the undeniable fact that our summer interns are making all of the new girls feel like valued contributors to the process. 

Our interns send out positive vibes.  You can feel them when you enter the Girls Surviving space.  Ours is a warm and welcoming room, a safe place to talk and write, and it is undisturbed by the ringing of cell phones.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

GS Seniors / GS Leaders

The Girls Surviving Summer program began on Tuesday, July 12, and it’s off to a pretty good start. We began with twelve new girls on our attendance list – that is, girls who signed up and turned in parent/guardian permission forms. So far, seven of them have come to workshops. That’s a good statistic. In past years, we’ve had only two or three out of twenty or thirty registered girls show up. I think our new recruitment strategies paid off.
In addition to the new girls, we had three veteran girls in attendance for the first week. Four more of our older girls will be joining us in following weeks, but the three who were able to commit the most time to the program this summer have paid internship positions. They will be learning to plan and conduct workshops and, we hope, to some day run a program like Girls Surviving.

All of the new girls are incoming ninth graders, so their interactions with the older girls should be helpful to them when they enter the high school next year. Already, they’re asking the senior girls questions about things like lockers, teachers, lunch protocols, and ‘friend drama’ at the high school. And the senior girls are giving them the kind of advice that should warm any parental heart. They tell them to avoid drama completely: ignore gossip, block social media trolls, and work hard to get good grades.

On the second day, after a long group discussion about friends and dating in high school, Patrice, one of the seniors, smiled at the freshmen, then spoke in her most serious voice,

“I don’t want to be ‘that girl’ but I got to tell you, when you get to high school, academics are important. Your grades can affect the rest of your life. Stay focused, ask questions, and get help if you need it.”

“Freshman year is easy,” said Angel, another senior. “It may not seem like it when you start, but it’s your best chance to lay down a good GPA.”

“Which you will need when you’re a senior,” added Patrice.

“Then you’ll be kicking yourself for not being more serious freshman year,” agreed Lisa, our third senior intern.

“A lot of it is common sense,” said Patrice. “Things like changing for gym.”

“True,” laughed Lisa. “Nobody should get a D+ in gym because they didn’t feel like changing. Change your clothes every day and you’ll get an A.”

“Also, don’t get involved with boy drama; it makes it hard to concentrate on academics.”

The younger girls seem to be taking the advice seriously which is probably because of the spirit in which it is delivered. The seniors’ interactions with their younger troupe members are pitch perfect. The veteran GS girls are intuitive and empathetic. They understand the fears and concerns that underlie the younger girls’ questions and they address them confidently. They also know how to keep the  group social dynamic on an even keel.

“Spread out,” commanded Angel when a clique of new girls grouped up to talk when they should have been writing. The instruction was given an a friendly manner, but it was definitely spoken with authority. The girls spread apart, but two of them went off together to a quiet corner.
“Don’t even think of taking out that phone, girl,” Patrice warned one of the two conspirators.
When the younger girls feigned innocent surprise at her remark, she laughed. “We know all the tricks.”

As they gave instructions and teased the new girls into abiding by the rules of the workshop, the interns also took note of those girls who weren’t sure what to do. Angel sat beside a girl who was staring at a blank page in her notebook, and after a short whispered conversation, the girl was smiling and writing.

And it’s not just the new girls who are learning from the interns. They have things to teach us old girls, too. After the first workshop, when staff sat down to plan the next day, Lisa said,
“Today’s writing exercise was too specific. These girls have never written dialogue. We need to make tomorrow’s exercise more open.”
“I agree,” chimed in Patrice. “Let them write whatever. We should give them a general topic that everyone can relate to.”
We talked it over and agreed to introduce our “questions” activity to open discussion and hone in on a writing topic. On Wednesday, the interns led the workshop they had planned during that meeting. Carolyn and I participated in activities, but we were not the teachers that day or the next. The seniors have taken over the summer program.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

All Grown Up

          The play we thought would never get finished? Written.  The performance we thought we didn’t have enough time to rehearse?  Performed.  A workshop for 8th grade girls that we wanted our troupe members to plan and lead but thought they couldn’t pull off on such short notice?  Check.  And, it was a resounding success.  So was the performance.  And, according to one of our counselors who saw it, this year’s play was the best she has seen produced by Girls Surviving in the many years she has been working with us. 
          With every new season we seem to see a miracle unfold toward the end of the cycle. Time is impossibly short as we near performance, but the girls always rise to the occasion.  They often surprise and delight us with their talent, perceptiveness, or maturity during our culminating event. And, after they’ve been with the program for a few years and we give them opportunities to lead, set an example for younger girls, or perform in a variety of settings, they shine.

This year’s miracle, though, seems particularly remarkable and poignant to me because I suddenly realized that our oldest troupe members aren’t experienced “girls.” They’re women, and I hadn’t seen the transformation coming.

“When had it happened?” I wondered.

“Was it the moment when they told us they weren’t afraid to perform a play for their parents that talked frankly about sex?  Was it when they got onto their feet in rehearsal and needed to be told only once where and when in the script movement was required? Or was it when they found themselves looking into the eager faces of 30 8th graders, all potential recruits for this year’s summer program, with a workshop to teach – on their own – with minimal guidance from us?” 

“I know, I know,” I told myself.  “This didn’t happen over night. Maturity comes gradually. The recognition of new growth, however, can happen in an instant.”

I remember when I first saw this remarkable change. The performance was over. The girls had introduced themselves to the audience and told them their grade and how long they had been participating in the program.  I felt the first pang of recognition when six of the seven performers said they were juniors. I sucked in an astonished breath. Five of the six had started Girls Surviving in middle school.  We had been working together for five and six years!

“Could they have grown so fast?  Were they really going to be seniors in the
fall?”  I didn’t want to believe it.

After the girls’ introductions, audience members asked them a range of questions
about the Girls Surviving process and the play. Then came a question that was different from the others.  The adult questioner, a young teaching artist who is just beginning her career, posed the question as if to other adults.  She treated the girls as she might her peers.

“I’m going to be teaching playwriting in a school in Newark (for the first time),”
she said.  “Do you have any advice for me?”

Excitedly, all of the girls took turns responding. Two of their answers, however,
stunned me with because they were so insightful:

“Let them (the students) know they can say anything they want.  Let them know it is safe for them to talk and write.  Establish trust,” said a confident Claire.

There was a long pause. We thought that might be the last remark, but suddenly Emma spoke up:
          “I would say, don’t take yourself too seriously.  Just be yourself.  Don’t get uptight. If you think they’re judging you, well everybody does it, so don’t let it get to you and they’ll get it.”
          It was excellent advice, advice that might be given by an experienced mentor to her pupil.  These recommendations proved that our juniors hadn’t just grown; they had grown up.

As I thought about their comments later, I recalled how these girls had handled the workshop for the 8th graders the day before. I realized then that the workshop had succeeded because our girls had taken their own advice: they didn’t take themselves seriously, despite the 8th graders’ nervous giggles, side-glances, and possibly judgmental side conversations. With amazing candor, they also shared personal stories about their complicated relationships with their parents.  They did it to establish rapport with the recruits and let them know that they, too, could safely share. 

Because our juniors know they’ll be graduating in a year and the program needs new girls to replace them, they understood the importance of the workshop.  All of the 8th grade girls who attended the workshop were there because their middle school guidance counselors thought they would love program.  Still, they are typical 8th grade girls, most of whom are reluctant to speak up, especially in a public setting. Claire, Emma and the rest of the troupe recognized their younger selves in these girls. They gently coaxed them  to participate in the activities we had planned.  Because of our girls’ patience, understanding, and honest presentation, 11 new 8th graders signed up for this year’s summer program.

We were so impressed with our girls’ maturity that we invited all the juniors who are available this summer to intern with us.  Three are free, including Claire and Emma.  As far as we’re concerned, they can plan and every workshop this season if they have the time and inclination.  We know that our younger and less experienced troupe members will be in capable, caring hands with these young women.

Oh my, how I’ll miss them when they graduate.  But, as Emma told me when the two of us were getting teary about that thought,

“We’re not gone yet.  We have another whole year!”