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, November 3, 2016

Exploring Lost

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
GS participation in Discover Morristown High School seems to have paid off. At our first workshop after the event, three new girls, two juniors and a sophomore, joined the group. They all learned about the program when they visited our Discover table. With these girls, we had eleven troupe members in the workshop, including three girls from summer and five veterans of previous years. It was a lively evening, and one in which all girls fully participated in all workshop activities.
We began the workshop with simple introductions: what’s your name, your year in school, and something you like to do, but when it was Lynn’s turn to talk, she had much more to say.
“Senior year is stressing me out. I am so frustrated by the college application process! Everyone gives us advice, but no one has explained anything. How are we supposed to choose a school? What’s the deal with early acceptance? There is so much I don’t understand!”
Other senior girls expressed similar confusion. They have been lectured about the importance of a college education for their entire academic career, and most of them have taken the lessons to heart. They have worked hard to keep their GPA’s at acceptable levels, spent hours every week of the junior year in SAT prep classes, and given up weekends to college fairs and college visits. And now, as they see it, the pressure is on them to pick the perfect school to prepare them for a perfect future. It’s no wonder they’re feeling lost.

As it turned out, “Lost” was the topic Carolyn and I had chosen to explore that evening. To jumpstart the girls’ writing, we had brought a literary prompt, a poem called The Day Millicent Found the World by William Stafford. The poem begins, “Every day Millicent ventured further into the woods.” It goes on to describe the day her routine landed Millicent in the heart of the forest, a place where everything seemed strange, where she  “achieved a mysterious world where any direction would yield only surprise.”
Our seniors are on the cusp of such a world, and I think that the stress associated with their anticipation of it, as expressed by Lynn and echoed by her classmates, is mingled with a feeling of excitement for the surprises they expect to experience. However, when the girls wrote about Lost, the seniors didn’t directly connect to the bewildering process of applying to college.

Allie wrote, I have been lost many times in my day. Lost in a grocery store, lost in my AP Statistics class, lost in thought.  However, the thing about being lost is that feeling of   this is it… If I’m lost for more  than 8.5 minutes, I begin to come to terms with the fact that I’m gonna be lost forever and I have to start a new life.

Gina:  I’m lost in my head; The things that distract me make me lose sight of what’s important.

Susan : The few times that I’ve been lost, I’ve never really panicked. I like the feeling of just wandering around a foreign area and experience what it’s like there.

And Lynn wrote a song about lost love.

The following week, on the night we read the girls’ Lost writing,  there was an evening program at the high school that about half of the troupe had to attend. So, at 7:00, the younger girls got up to go, leaving the seniors behind. Before this, we had just time to check in, then read and begin a discussion of the Lost writing. We had hoped to begin culling lines from the writing that would help the girls hear a character’s voice or find a topic of conflict that could lead to a scene. Once we were alone with the seniors, however, we just talked.
Allie started the discussion.
“I was thinking about what Renee wrote last week, about driving and getting nervous about being lost, and feeling relief that her GPS was working, and I wondered, what did people do before cell phones and GPS systems?”
Of course, Carolyn and I remember very well what people did before cell phones and GPS.
“I think people were more observant then,” said Carolyn. “They paid more attention to what was going on around them.”
“And when your car broke down, or you found yourself lost, you asked for help,” I added.
“I just think it must have been so hard,” Lynn continued, “but at the same time, I worry about how much we depend upon technology.”
“Computers are doing more and more every year.”
“And everyone is glued to their devices.”
“I think it’s even worse for kids younger than us,” said Susan, “my little cousin can’t stay calm if she’s not playing games on her tablet.”
The discussion continued in this vein, the girls expressing their concern about changing values, changing ecosystems, and the plight of people in other parts of the world. But it was a good talk, the kind of rambling conversation the can occur between people who feel very comfortable together.

The senior girls have a foot in two worlds. Childhood is nearly at an end; adult life looms ever closer. With it comes an increasing sense of responsibility for the way things are and the way things will be. It’s becoming harder for them to live in the moment, thinking no further than the upcoming weekend. They’re starting to realize that they’re on the road to a future they have power, as well as an obligation, to form. They are achieving that “mysterious world where every direction leads to only to surprise,” a world in which they each have to find their own right way. And we have just a few short months to offer our support.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Two-Day Intensive GS Training

“This is the best PD (professional development) workshop we’ve ever been to. I’m serious. We usually grade papers at these things, but we knew as soon as we got started – not this time, “ said Cynthia. Andrea nodded her agreement.

“Sorry you have to grade papers this weekend, but we’re really glad you got something out of the workshop,” we laughed as we waved goodbye to them.

Cynthia and Andrea are high school teachers and they had just completed a two-day intensive training we led for educators and other professionals on October 27 and 28.  It was great to receive the positive feedback, especially because this was our first time teaching a two-day workshop in GS practices.  Before that, we only had taught three-hour introductory workshops. The last one, held in May, generated so much interest in GS that we decided to follow-up with this more in-depth exploration of the GS writing and performing process.

Unlike our previous workshops, this one was much more than an overview of our process.  It was a condensed replication of it. In other words, we squeezed our year-long curriculum into an 11-hour format. Still, we guided the eight participants – all women, most of whom are teachers - through every phase of the GS process, exactly the same way we do it with the girls throughout the school year. We started with discussion and bonding exercises, then segued into individual writing.  Next we combined segments from each person’s writing into a collaborative script and found ways to expand it through improvisations and additional writing.  Finally, we cast the script, rehearsed it, and performed it.

While we packed a lot into the agenda, our participants soaked in every bit of it. As I observed them working through the complexities of the process, I realized how energized I was by their eagerness to learn. All of us were focused.  We were having very serious fun working together toward our goal: a staged reading of a collaboratively written scene.

After the performance, when we all sat down to process the time we had spent together, most of the women told us how they planned to implement what they learned into their work with teens.  Some said they would teach the process as part of an English or Creative Writing course to both girls and boys.  Others decided to create a girls’ writing and performing group during their lunch break. One expressed interest in offering it at a summer camp.  Another was considering teaching it after school as a club activity. And another was hoping to start the program like we did – from scratch and by reaching out to non-profits in her community for support. 

They all asked us for continued support, too, as they begin their journeys creating their own versions of GS.  After talking with them about the obstacles they face and what they think they’ll need to get their programs up and running, we decided to take the following steps to help assure their success:

-           For starters, all of us will stay in close touch through email to offer suggestions and encouragement as these new programs emerge. 

-          We will bring a couple of our girls to talk to their teen groups about the process, to read and discuss a scene from a play, or even to lead a mini-workshop. This will give our girls another opportunity to hone their skills in writing, performing, and teaching at the same time that they inspire others to develop their own.

-                    Six months from now we’ll offer another two-day intensive training for those who
             want to start programs like GS (Tier 1 Training)

-                    A year from now we’ll offer an advanced workshop for those who have completed
             Tier 1 training and are using GS strategies and activities in their work.

This Two-Day Intensive GS training benefitted all of us.  It provided those who participated with a tested path to follow and incentive to start GS programs of their own design. It also laid the foundation for a future of promise and possibility for girls – and perhaps for boys.  The experience enriched us, united us around a single purpose and gave us direction as we journey into the future.