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.”

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On the Road - Another Voice

Ellen Brandt and I were leaning against a bookcase at the back of the of the St. Elizabeth School library watching Carolyn walk four GS troupe members around the small space in which they would momentarily be performing and leading workshop activities for a group of Ellen’s students.
“Do you think they’re nervous?” Ellen asked.
“Maybe the younger girls,” I answered, “but the seniors, Steph and Stacey, are seasoned performers. They’re used to standing in the spotlight before strangers on unfamiliar stages.”
But as I watched the girls take physical note of the boundaries of their make-shift stage, I thought that, actually, they were probably all a little nervous. Although it’s true the two senior troupe members have presented to a variety of audiences in a variety of places over the years, this was a nearly new experience. They were at St. Elizabeth to introduce the GS program because Ellen, a language arts teacher, wants to implement a similar program in the school. Our girls would lead her girls through a series of exercises that would, we hoped, encourage them to join Ellen’s program.
The library was sunny and spacious, but it was organized for research and study. In spite of Ellen’s thoughtful set-up, it was a tight space for the activities our girls had planned to present to the twenty-some 7th and 8th grade girls invited to participate, and when the audience was seated, the actresses seemed in danger of trodding on toes during the performance.

GS playing keep-it-up at St. Elizabeth School

 The middle school girls were restless as Stacey introduced the workshop, but they calmed and focused for the performance. All four GS actresses executed their roles as if they had been rehearsing for weeks, when, in fact, there had been time for only two run-throughs during the second half of the previous Wednesday’s workshop. After the performance, as the GS girls initiated conversation with the middle-schoolers, their friendly interest in the younger girls’ questions and comments began to put everyone at ease. I could see our two younger girls relax as the audience’s obvious interest in their answers to questions about the program and the performance became apparent. And even the most shy of the St. Elizabeth students lost her reserve when Steph introduce the first of the post-performance workshop activities – a keep-it-up ball game.
The library filled with shrieks, laughter, and feigned moans of disappointment each time the ball fell to the floor. Steph took charge of the group, embodying the spirit of the best-gym-teacher-in-the-world: laughing, encouraging, and organizing. “Okay, girls, we need a plan…” The atmosphere in the room was authentic Girls Surviving.
When the game was over, the middle school girls were ready to try their hand at acting. Destiny, a GS freshman who joined the troupe in the summer, handed out scripts of the scene that had opened the workshop, and encouraged the younger girls to take turns with the parts. Afterwards, Cara, the fourth workshop leader, lead a deep and lively discussion of the scene. GS girls were amazed that the ideas expressed by St. Elizabeth students echoed the discussions they, themselves, had when they were writing the script. The discussion was a perfect prompt for writing and everyone, GS girls, St. Elizabeth girls, as well as Carolyn, Ellen and I, sat down and wrote. The middle-schoolers were eager to share their writing, and the workshop ended with promises on both sides to attend each others’ upcoming play.

Another workshop moment: reading the script. 

As we walked to my car for the drive back to Morristown, Stacey said,
“I think that went really well.”
“Yeah,” agreed Cara, “those girls were really having fun.”
“I think they would really benefit from having a program like GS at their school,” added wise Destiny.

At our regular Wednesday workshop last week, Stacey, Steph, Cara, and Destiny described their experience to the other girls. They were, rightly, proud of the work they had done. Carolyn and I were proud of them, too. One of the best things GS does for our girls is to give them opportunities to take risks, to stretch beyond the boundaries of previous experience, and to succeed – all by themselves.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

GS Goes on Tour

            The girls piled into Paula’s mini-van around 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, and the six of us headed out to St. Elizabeth’s School in Bernardsville where the girls were going to perform a scene and teach a workshop for 7th and 8th grade girls. We were taking a GS show on the road.

It was a beautiful afternoon and the girls were thrilled to be getting out of school early.  They were a little nervous too.  They would be breaking new ground.  The entire troupe had led a similar workshop last spring at their alma mater, Frelinghuysen Middle School, but this experience would be different.  First, we couldn’t bring the entire troupe. We could only bring four, and we wanted to choose girls of different ages and levels of acting and writing experience. Of the four we chose, two are seniors and seasoned veterans; one is a freshman who has never performed before; and another is a sophomore who has performed only once. We could tell that the newest troupe members were particularly nervous, and that the veterans realized that the burden of success largely fell on their shoulders.  Second, compared to Frelinghuysen, which is a sprawling public school that serves hundreds of students, St. E’s is a much smaller religious school. Our traveling players didn’t have a feel for St. E’s or how they would be received there.  They were taking a risk, but one that we believed would open the door for them to possibilities.

It would be an adventure for all of us. None of us had been to the site or seen the performance space.  We weren’t even sure where we were going. When a detour on route sent us off course, one of the girls shouted, “Guess what?  We’re lost!”  We all laughed.  The fact that this year’s troupe is writing their play about feeling lost seemed like more than a coincidence. Like the characters emerging in their play, the girls were headed into the unknown - literally, as well as figuratively.  The laughter released some of their tension.

We had arranged the event with Ellen Brant, a language arts teacher at St. E’s.  Ellen had learned about GS at the two-day intensive training that Paula and I taught in October and was eager to start a program like it in her school.  She was so eager, in fact, that she wanted to get her program up and running by January.  Putting all of the pieces together for the workshop during the busy holiday season meant that we didn’t have time to visit the school in advance, see the performance space, meet the school staff, or discuss our agenda and performance needs in person with Ellen.  If we had been planning this with anyone other than her, we would have proceeded differently.  We learned a long time ago when the program was young not to expose our girls to undo risk.  Ellen, however, knows how our program works and she understands the sensitivities of adolescent girls. We were confident in her good judgment, and, as it turned out, we were right.

Ellen warmly greeted us in the school entryway, immediately putting our girls at ease.  She had set up the school’s sunny library just as we had requested.  There were tables and chairs for the writing activity and plenty of open space for our girls to perform a scene and engage the 7th and 8th graders in an active warm-up game.  Our teen workshop leaders visibly relaxed and started to review the agenda I had handed out just before Ellen met us.  Their review was cut short, however, by the sound of their 22 charges chatting and laughing their way into their seats. There would be no more time to prepare or rehearse.

One word from Ellen and the middle schoolers fell silent. Paula and I retreated to the back of the room to watch.  On cue, our girls took charge. They ticked off all of the activities on the agenda as if they had been practicing for months. It wasn’t their confident presentation alone, however, that won over their audience. Our girls gave themselves over to the workshop experience with disarming candor.  They were shy and funny, vulnerable and forthright – all at the same time.  They were relaxed with each other and the unpredictability of the day’s events. They were complimentary and encouraging of the young girls who were looking to them for guidance.  They were kind.

As the workshop progressed, the 7th and 8th graders felt increasingly emboldened by our girls’ good will and participated in ever-greater numbers.  Shy at first, they began to open up after our girls’ performance. A few offered praise and asked a couple of questions about GS.  Reluctance thawed almost completely with the warm-up. The game got everyone on their feet and laughing so that later, when our girls invited them to act out a scene, some were so excited they rushed the stage.  Those who didn’t want to act blossomed during the writing portion of the workshop. 

Everyone wanted to share her writing.  Hands shot up everywhere, even from the quietest of corners. When it was time for the girls to wrap up, our hostesses begged us to stay a few minutes longer so that more people could share and discuss their writing.  Enthusiasm for the work filled the space. 

As we were leaving, one of our girls called out,

“If you girls form a troupe, let us know.  We’ll come see your play.”

“Maybe we can come see one of yours, too,” exclaimed someone from St. E’s.
Smiles lit up the library. 

Have our girls inspired the creation of a sister troupe in nearby Bernardsville? I think so. The generous exchange that we observed during the workshop offers us hope. What we know for sure is that the workshop brought together two groups of girls of different ages and from very different towns and schools in pursuit of a common interest.  Is there a better way to usher in the holiday season?