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.”

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bake Sale!

Waiting for customers (all photos by Carolyn Hunt)
The girls decided to kick off the fall season with a fundraiser: an after school bake sale to be held on September 28, a week before our first fall workshop. On the  Friday before, I texted the girls to remind them about the date and asked someone to be in charge of organizing the others, especially our newest and youngest members. I got a response immediately. It was from Giselle, a sophomore, who joined the troupe last year.
“I’ll check with girls from summer.” (That is, the girls who joined in the summer.)
Her reply was eventually followed by other veteran girls, saying that they were bringing baked goods and would be on hand to help sell them. Then, on the morning of the sale, I received a text from one of the “summer girls.”
“Where should I drop off the cookies for the sale?”
This was quickly followed by another, “I had the same question.”
And another, “I didn’t get a pass to leave class.”
And I thought, “Yes! It looks like we’re set to have a good year.”

As we’ve mentioned previously on this site, we’ve had recruiting challenges for the past couple of years. Attendance at our 2015 summer program was significantly lower than previous summers and, although this past summer brought a nice group of new girls, we weren’t sure they would stick. So confirmation that some of those girls were participating in the bake sale was good news.

New Girls
Just before the sale was set to begin, Carolyn and I arrived laden with cupcakes. In the school office there were boxes and bags filled with more goodies baked or bought by the girls. Two of the summer girls had collaborated on beautifully decorated cup cakes.
Karen gave the girls passes to leave their last class a little early, so shortly after Carolyn and I got to school, girls began to show up. They were excited: laughing, hugging, and hopping around. Then they got down to work. Everyone pitched in. Carolyn took some pictures, but other than that, we were pretty much extraneous. The girls did it all. In the end, they made about $140.00 which they will use to buy something extra for the troupe. In the past, they’ve bought widely different things with their bake sale funds -  from sweatpants and theater tickets. They decide.


At least eleven girls worked on this project. Five of them were new to the troupe this summer. Our fall season begins on October 5th. I think it’s gonna be a good year.   


Friday, September 9, 2016

Rebranding GS

A couple of years ago, at the beginning of the school year, Shirley, who was new to the troupe suggested that we change our name.
“I mean, when I first heard Girls Surviving, I thought it was a therapy group for girls who had been through something really traumatic,” she said.
I remember the remark because I bristled at her suggestion.
At the time, our troupe and our program had been Girls Surviving for about nine years and most of us were very attached to the name. Our first troupe had come up with it when, as you can read in the heading of this blog, a girl responded to a writing prompt with, “I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor, but as a girl surviving.”
At the time, it seemed a perfect name for our new program. Troupe members were all doing their best to survive the vicissitudes of teen life and, in fact, most of them had experienced and were facing more than common difficulties as they learned to navigate the path toward adulthood. The program, too, was struggling to survive. We had a temporary home, no funding, and scant hope that we would be more secure in the near future.
As time passed and the program grew stronger and more secure, the name stuck, and it was still apt. It described the program, the participants, and even the staff who, although we have long since stopped referring to ourselves as girls, still recognize that some of the fears and insecurities of our younger selves have yet to be completely resolved.

So, we’ve been Girls Surviving. As one of our veteran troupe members recently said, “It’s just who we are. It’s even on our tee shirts!” But, in recent years, our struggle to attract and keep new members has made us wonder if Shirley, now a veteran girl, had a valid point when she spoke up at her first workshop.

This occurred to us in the first days of the recent summer program when we, once again, found ourselves wondering what had happened to all of those eager 8th grade graduates who had signed up to join us. We only saw a couple of them on the first day. A third came by on day two, but then one of the first day arrivals disappeared. Carolyn, Renee, and I furrowed our brows and wondered, did the program have a stigma that kept girls away? When they told friends or older siblings about it, did they hear that it was not cool?
Renee asked our interns, savvy girls who had just finished their junior year of high school and who, consequently, would have been aware if there was such a problem.
“No,” they said, “in fact, it’s more likely that people don’t know about the program at all.”
So we asked about the name.
“Maybe,” they said.

Then the summer got busier. More new girls showed up at workshops; veteran girls came back from family visits or other programs, and the problem of recruiting moved itself to the back of our thoughts. However, as Carolyn said in her recent post, when we found ourselves with an extra day to debrief from the summer and plan for the fall, we talked again about our name. On this day, Shirley was with us and she reiterated her initial impression. And this time we listened. It was hard because no one who had been working in the program for any length of time wanted to change. We like our name. But if it was sending the wrong message to potential troupe members, we had to, at least, consider letting it go.
Then someone, it may have been Renee, solved our problem.
“G.S.” she said, “can stand for many things we do: girls speaking, girls sharing…”
The girls began to add to the list:
“Girls singing,”
“Girls screaming,”
“Girls scribing,”
“Scribing? What does that even mean?”
“It means writing.”
“Nobody knows that.”
“I do. But how about ‘girls scripting?’ We write scripts!”
“Girls on stage.”

And so… we begin the fall season rebranded as GS – Girls Speaking, Girls Scripting, Girls Staging… Girls Surviving.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

An Exciting New Chapter

            We’re looking forward to a new and exciting start to the school year program.

            Here’s the plan:
                    *Day 1 – a bake sale with a GS display table to promote the program and earn money for something special for the troupe.  Theater tickets?  Maybe.  The girls will decide.
                    *Day 2 – a troupe planning meeting to prepare for GS’s first-ever participation in Discover Night, an event that introduces freshmen to the high school’s extra curricular activities. How will Discover Night be organized?  Who will be responsible for which details?  The girls will decide.
                    *Day 3 – Discover Night.  The troupe will set up a display table about GS, talk to freshmen girls about the program and encourage them to come to our first workshop. What else will the troupe do to interest others in the program?  A reading?  Maybe.  The girls will decide.
                    *Day 4 – The first workshop.  What will we do?  In what order? The girls will decide.

            Who came up with this new and exciting plan?  The girls. 

            How did it happen?  Here’s the story:
            Because of an unusual complication regarding the availability of workshop space for the summer program, the troupe had to perform their play a day earlier than in past years.  That meant we had an extra workshop that we could either cancel or hold the day after the performance.  We decided to go ahead with the workshop because we had lots of ideas about how to use the time productively.  We also knew that it would give the girls a chance to process what they had accomplished during their five weeks together during the summer.

Only five of the seven girls who performed could come that day. Three of them are seniors and seasoned troupe members who had been paid that summer to be interns in the program.  The other two girls are less experienced GS participants but are very dedicated to the program.  All of them were as happy as we were about this unexpected opportunity to debrief post-performance, and the discussion flowed easily from one topic to the next. 

The air in the room electrified, however, when the topic changed to recruitment.  Opinions and ideas flew across the room. One that floated by was changing the name of the program. While everyone admitted that to the uninitiated, “Girls Surviving” sounds like a therapy group, most of the girls couldn’t imagine the program being called anything else. 

There were protests.
            “I thought it was for people with problems when I joined.  I came anyway, but I think a lot of people don’t because of the name.”
            And, there were counter-protests.
            “But it’s always been Girls Surviving! It can’t be anything else.”
            And there was our explanation of how the name came to be.
            “It was our first year. The name came from one of the girls’ writing.  She said, ‘I don’t think of myself a survivor.  I think of myself as a girl surviving.’ That was a long time ago.  Things have changed.  The program has changed.  The girls have changed.”
            In the end, they all concurred that the phrase “girls surviving” sums up their feelings about living through teenage experiences just as much as it did for the girl who originally described the feeling.
           Still, they also agreed that the name is problematic for a girl who doesn’t know that the primary goal of the program is to write and perform plays.
            The conversation stalled.  I opened my notebook and turned to a page of alternative program names that I had scribbled down a few days before. As I read from my list, I heard a smattering of groans. I laughed but kept going because I know that throwing even the most random suggestions into the mix can unlock whatever blocks the creative thought process.  As I expected, the girls were unmoved by my titles.
            “Well,” I said, “what’s an alternative? What do we do in Girls Surviving? How would you describe it?”
            That’s when someone latched onto a couple of the words I had used in my titles: stage, script, speak: 

“Those words all begin with the letter ‘s’.”
            My brainstorming had unleashed a new way of thinking about the problem.
            “We also ‘SHARE in Girls Surviving,’” someone else added.
            Another summed it up this way, “We share, script, speak, and SURVIVE.”
            “Do we simply call the program ‘GS,’ so that someone will ask what it means and we can explain it?”
            “Sounds good to me.”
            “Me too.”
            “Me too.”

Problem solved. 

That’s when the idea of holding a bake sale emerged - and the idea of participating in Discovery Night.  Deciding to use the acronym for Girls Surviving as the formal name of their program prompted the girls to think of how and where they could gather large groups of girls together to describe what they do in GS and tell them how much they love it.

Our girls will make great recruiters. Their enthusiastic discussion about the name of the program reflects how much GS means to them, and it is just one example. Over the years they’ve demonstrated their commitment in countless ways.  And, as they’ve matured, we’ve given them more and more responsibility.  Now, after a summer in which three of them learned how to organize and teach workshops, we believe it is time to let the girls decide how, where, and when to recruit new girls into the program. We’ll encourage them to make more decisions as this exciting year unfolds.
            This is the first time we’ve ever been able to give the girls so much autonomy in making decisions because this is the first time ever that we’ve had a core group of veterans who have evolved into such dedicated, skilled, and passionate leaders.

            It’s an exciting new chapter of the Girls Surviving - GS - story.