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, August 24, 2016

Performance Day Transformation

            Performance day. I usually anticipate problems on performance day.

When it comes to performance, things can go awry.  That doesn’t make me nervous, just hyper-aware that I may need to trouble shoot with only minutes to spare before the lights go up.  The night of the June performance, for example, the custodial staff had forgotten to set up chairs for the audience.  It wasn’t a big deal and before we knew it every custodial staff member was on the job.  In five magical minutes we were set and ready to go.  But, what if, after that, one of our actresses decided not to come?  That kind of thing has happened in the past.

On this performance day, however, I’m confident that all will go well no matter what happens at the last minute. That’s not because I’m sure that all of the actresses will show up. In fact, I know of two who might not.  One has been sick. She’s also insecure about performing in English.  She hasn’t been in the country very long, still struggles with the language, and plays important, prominent roles in the play. The other girl is new to the troupe and to performing. She’s also the only freshman.  All of the other actresses are seniors.  Both of the newer girls are understandably nervous. We’ve praised the remarkable progress they have made during rehearsal.  We’re sure that they can do well, but we understand that no amount of praise can convince anyone to perform if they don’t feel ready for the challenge.  Performing live is scary for many.

As I drive to our “theater” for this performance, I think about how I’ll reshuffle parts if the girls fail to appear.  When I’ve done that in the past, I’ve had to consider how much sudden change each troupe member can handle.  Some of our actresses feel more insecure on the stage than others and are less flexible as a result. What’s different this year is that I have complete confidence in all of our other actresses to seamlessly switch parts if they have to. I know I can count on them to show up, too, unless something dire happens in their lives. All of them are veterans and most of them have been in the troupe for five or six years. They know the ropes of the GS rehearsal and performance process as well I do, and they are totally committed to the program.  They know how to handle emergencies with a smile and a “no big deal” shrug of the shoulder.

Not a problem for this performance. All of the girls come. They look eager.  They chatter and laugh as they slip on their brand new black t-shirts with GIRLS SURVIVING emblazoned in hot pink across the back. The laughter eases the newer girls’ tension. We smile and talk, too, as we set the refreshment table with a cloth, trays of cookies and a variety of cool drinks.  Then we set out programs for the audience and check the stage lights.  Next we turn our attention to the girls.  We warm up their bodies and voices, run through bits and pieces of the script and the curtain call and cheer them on as audience members begin to trickle in. It’s all part of the performance day tradition.

GS performance day is a special occasion, a seasonal celebration of all that has been learned.  It is like a rite of passage from which the girls emerge transformed. Even if a girl participates in only one cycle of the program, we see remarkable change on performance day.  Take this summer’s freshman, who I thought might not show up.  Let’s call her Shantelle.  While she was noticeably less sure of herself on the stage than her more seasoned troupe mates, her timing, concentration, and articulation were excellent.  She also was brave enough to answer a question from the audience in the talk back afterwards.  When the girls were asked what their greatest challenge had been, she immediately and without hesitation spoke up:

“Taking on a role that is different from who you are was really hard for me.”

She nailed it.  That was her greatest challenge. Both of the characters she played are older than Shantelle and not at all timid.  They are “take charge” kinds of people.  One is a teenage bully who hides her insecurities.  The other is a capable, perceptive, and wise mother who knows better than to immediately accept as true everything her teenage daughter says or does.  Our reluctant freshman’s willingness to openly share her feelings about what it was like for her to perform for the first time was a breakthrough for her. 

Until performance day we were never quite sure whether or not the now successful actor would make it through the season. Her attendance was spotty, and she often seemed distracted during group discussions.  Even though we praised her writing, she often left workshops early or arrived late, and during rehearsals she sulked when we made suggestions about how she could improve her performance.  She seemed both insecure and immature.

On performance day, however, we saw a completely different person. Most important, she showed up and arrived almost on time. Later, when she was acting, we saw that she had listened to our corrective comments and learned from them.  As she talked with the audience afterward, we saw a girl who was sure of herself and someone who had discovered through the GS process things about acting she still didn’t know and had yet to learn. Most remarkable, she was willing to talk about her shortcomings as an actress with an audience of strangers.

For every girl who performed with her, I could tell a similar story about transformation.  On every performance day, we observe as many little miracles as there are performers on the stage. I don’t know whether or not our new star player will return to the program during the school year or next summer.  I don’t know if, like our veterans, she will come every season that she is a high school student.  If she does, though, I can say with confidence:  she will become just as dependable as the senior girls who work with us today.  Her attendance at workshops will be (almost) perfect. She will learn to take direction during rehearsal.  She will learn to play characters who are different from her and understand more about human behavior in the process. She won’t miss a performance unless something dire happens in her life.  She will seamlessly switch parts five minutes before the lights go up on a performance if she has to.  She will understand  the GS writing and performance process and be able to mentor others. She will serve as a role model for the younger and newer girls.

“Stick with it,” I think. “If you come and stay, you will be among the next generation of GS leaders.” 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Learning From the Littles

A teacher friend refers to her Kindergarten and Grade One students as “the littles,” as in “I’ve got fourth graders this year which is a big change from teaching the littles.” In Girls Surviving, the littles are thirteen and fourteen years old, and we have had a bunch of them in the summer workshops.
Having the littles in Girls Surviving is a change because, for the past three or so years, the majority of our girls have been in 10th through 12th grades. In fact, for the past two years, we’ve had only one freshman each year. These girls have enjoyed the distinction of being the youngest in the troupe and both of them, with no point of reference to each other, have introduced themselves in audience talk-backs as “the baby” of the troupe. This summer, however, eight incoming freshman have participated in the program, and the difference between most of these girls and their older troupe mates is distinctive.
The younger girls have had a harder time mixing with the veterans. They were shy at first, but even in later weeks, as they grew comfortable with the older girls, they seemed to take advantage of every opportunity to separate themselves. As Carolyn wrote in her recent post, the littles also had a very hard time turning off from their cell phones and, for the first time in ten years, we had to institute a cell phone ban to increase their participation in discussions and writing.
In spite of this, these recent middle school graduates have become more comfortable writers. Even girls we knew had struggled academically took risks in their writing as they gained confidence that what they had to say was important and relevant to the work we were doing. Their confidence was mostly built by the attitudes of the older girls. From the first day, they listened closely and carefully considered the littles’ contribution to group discussions. They also seemed to agree among themselves that the topic of the summer play should reflect issues important to the lives of the littles and they used experiences from middle school and first year of high school to inform their talk and their writing.
Then, last week, one of the littles who seemed to be having the hardest time integrating into the group finally opened up and told a story that she thought would make a good scene for a play. She was right. In fact, the story was filled with enough pre-teen drama for a whole season of Nickelodeon. There were friend betrayals, boyfriend infidelities, comments in the school halls and on social media, and general angst all around. As she related these events and slipped from third into first person, it became clear that she was telling a story from her own sixth or seventh grade experiences and the story took on a new dimension for the adults and some of the older girls.
There was nothing lurid or, even, inappropriate in the tale. It was about the kinds of things that seem life shattering to an eleven year old and that will seem trifling to her fifteen year old self. But the story highlighted the difference in maturity between some of the younger and all of the older girls. Never the less, the older girls put on their mentor hats and cheerfully worked with the littles to write the story into a scene. They worked on it for about an hour without getting much done, probably because the story became more elaborate with each retelling.
After the workshop, a couple of the older girls expressed their surprise and dismay to learn that those littles had been so focused on boy/girl interactions at such a young age.
“When I was in sixth grade,” one of them said, “I was all about playing ball!”

My first reaction to the younger girl’s story wasn’t surprise. I thought the story was another example of how quickly little girls in our society are expected to grow up, of how much pressure to be sexual creatures they must feel from the messages of fashion and media. The story made me sadder when I thought about the resources our littles have to combat that pressure. After all, they’re tied to their phones – to the music, videos, and friend messages that encourage them to act like caricatures of socially successful young adults – and I wonder if there are influences strong enough to provide other options. Then I though about myself at age eleven.
I was completely boy crazy. In fact, I think I began worrying about boys when I was four. That was when my best friend, a little boy a year older with whom I’d played almost every day for as long as I could remember, came home from his first day of kindergarten and said, “I think I’m going to marry Sharon Smith.” I can still remember that first crack in my heart. In fourth grade, I exchanged dime store rings with a little boy in my class, and by fifth grade, I held hands with boys during the Saturday matinee at our local theater. If I were completely truthful, I would have to admit that I didn’t learn to give my undivided attention to anything else until I was in college. And even then, boys were a distraction.
I did have real and influential distractions throughout my boy obsessed years. I was an avid reader. I had grandparents who taught me to love the natural world, and parents who fed my growing desire to fight against social injustices. These are all important things, but I don’t think they’re rare, and I’m sure that many of the girls we teach have similar positive influences in their lives.
So, what I learned from this experience, what the littles have taught me this summer is the importance of looking back. When adults make judgments about children without trying to put themselves back in those preteen or teenage shoes, they run the risk of forgetting that they are seeing only potential. What it will become in five or ten or fifty years is anyone’s guess.