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, January 25, 2017

Art and Lessons for Living

Scene one, first draft of the 2016-17 GS play:

The bedroom of a 16-year old girl named Sammie.  Sammie is cleaning out her closet because she, her dad and her stepmom (Isabel) are moving. Her life-long friend, Chili, is helping with the packing. 

Chili enters, carrying a box she found in the attic.  It consists of letters, songs and poems written by Sammie’s biological mother, who left home to pursue her music career when Sammie was five. As the girls sift through the contents of the box, Sammie realizes that her “real” mother has been trying to contact her for some time. Believing that her father has been hiding the box from her, she angrily confronts him.  When he seems as surprised and confused by the discovery as she is, she accuses the stepmom of hiding the letters. An argument between father and daughter ensues about the stepmom’s motivations. Dad suggests that Isabel is trying to protect Sammie.  Sammie believes her stepmother’s motives are more sinister.

When our GS playwrights read the draft in a recent workshop, they knew it was unfinished but thought it could be resolved without too much effort.  To their surprise, finding an ending was more complicated than they imagined. At first they tried to tag on a scene segment that had been written in a previous workshop.  They soon realized, however, that the segment, as much as they liked it, would take the play in an entirely new direction.  It was a direction they said they preferred not to pursue. They decided they should write new material to resolve the conflict, but seemed lost about how to get started.

I suggested that they generate ideas by improvising the ending. Three girls jumped at the chance to act, took parts and plunged into the improv. Within minutes, those of us watching sat wide-eyed and amazed as the characters’ tempers flared. The Dad blew up at his wife for hiding the letters and threatened to leave her.  Sammie, equally incensed by Isabel’s attempts to justify her actions, stormed out of the room, leaving Isabel alone, stunned and confused. The actresses left the stage breathless and everyone started talking at once. The characters had behaved in ways that surprised us all (including the actresses) because the script lacked that kind of emotional intensity.  A rush of questions about the characters and plot followed as the actresses took their seats in our circle. The girls now saw their characters as real people.

First, there were questions about Isabel.

Why would Isabel hide the letters? Isn’t it creepy for her to say that she did it out of her love for Sammie?  Is she the stereotypical evil stepmother?  Or, is she uncertain of how to communicate with a teenage stepdaughter?  What is her backstory?  Had she failed to protect a daughter from a previous marriage and somehow “lost” her as a result?
Next, there was dad to consider.

Is he lying to Sammie too? Is he colluding with the stepmom?  Or, is he a flawed character who has made poor choices of life partners?

And…what about Sammie? 

What does she remember about her mother?  Does she remember her parents fighting?  Does she remember her biological mom leaving?  Is she still mad at her mom?  Or, does she idolize her?  If so, how does her fantasy mom compare with her stepmom.
            Finally, there was the mystery of the letters to discuss.

How long have they been coming?  Did Dad know about them before he remarried?  Did he demand in the divorce that his first wife stop all contact with their daughter?  If so, for how many years?  Or, did the real mom decide on her own to maintain silence?  Did she start sending letters only after her music career stabilized?

The girls tossed around questions and their possible answers until, spent with talk, they fell silent. They knew what they had to do next: Sort through their mess of ideas and find the threads they wanted to follow. To begin, they once again sifted through writing from previous workshops. Bits and pieces of dialogue that they had deemed inconsequential before their discussion suddenly seemed relevant. They immediately inserted those lines into their draft. Rereading the script yet again, they discovered small gaps in the plot that they filled with improvised lines.  They rearranged and cut other parts of the scene to improve its flow and meaning. Finally, with ten minutes left in the workshop, they picked up their pens to write new material to add to the ending.

The girls will read the new writing at our next meeting.  When they do, we know that the scene will still demand more of their attention.  Even as the girls resolve some of the questions they have about their scripts, old questions can hang around unanswered for a while, and new questions seem to appear from out of nowhere. 

Because GS is ongoing and the writing process takes precedence over everything else, the girls can take their time revising their work. Not until they get out of their seats to block and rehearse their play will they add the finishing touches. With time and freedom to explore artistic alternatives, the girls learn to embrace to the process –  allow it to carry them in unexpected directions and along paths that dig deep into the mysteries of human nature. They learn what art teaches so well: to be patient with ambiguity and understanding of people. They learn, too, that life offers up many more questions than it does answers.  They learn lessons for living.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Tribute to the Senior Girls

Girls are referred to GS by school counselors and other outside sources for many reasons, but they all boil down to this – the girl in question will benefit from a program in which she feels safe to share, discuss, and think about how to deal with issues that are making her life difficult. When girls refer themselves to the program, it’s usually because they want a place to write and/or an opportunity to perform. But these girls also quickly find that they benefit from the freedom of expression they feel in the GS program. Many of the girls who come to us as 8th or 9th graders are socially insecure, emotionally fragile, or struggling academically. These days, when I’m working or chatting with the talented, self-confident senior girls in this year’s troupe, it’s hard to remember that, when I first met them, they were shy or silly or angry young adolescents. However, I had occasion to think about that this past weekend.
I often begin planning my weekend by reading The Morristown Green, an online newspaper that advertises community activities. It also reports on community events and this weekend, when I opened the site, there two stories about Morristown High School students. One was a about a group of students who took part in an Inaugural Day event to raise political awareness among their peers; the other advertised a project to raise funds to help the family of a terminally ill teen. Both stories featured pictures and three of our GS seniors were in one or the other of the photos – sitting front and center with lovely smiles.
Looking at these photos, I thought about all of the things our seniors do. Two of them are peer group counselors who help 9th graders navigate high school life. One is very active in the school sports program, two others are singers who participate in school theater and music programs. Four of them have outside jobs; the fifth tutors struggling students. They are all college bound and have spent long extra hours studying for SAT’s, writing college applications, and applying for grants and scholarships. They maintain good grade point averages AND they remain active and innovative members of Girls Surviving.
Participation in GS is probably partially responsible for helping these girls grow into the kind of young women who are confident in their abilities to lead and change their community. However, these girls have also had support from family, teachers, and from an amazing guidance counselor who arranged and facilitated their SAT/ACT prep. And, if GS has helped give these girls a leg up, they have paid it back in spades with their work and dedication to the troupe – organizing fundraising bake sales, teaching and recruiting younger girls, representing the program in the community, and just showing up to workshops week after week. They have also given Carolyn and me the gift of being able to witness their transformations into the dynamic young women they are today. Getting to hang out with awesome girls is the best perk of the program for us!

So, congratulations, Seniors, and thank you for making GS a part of your lives.

Monday, January 9, 2017

More Teaching and Learning

October through December were busy months for the GS troupe. The girls organized a bake sale, participated in a GS recruitment project, attended a public arts dedication, and planned and taught a workshop for younger girls. Even with all of this outside activity, they have managed to find a theme for their play in the writing they’ve been doing since workshops resumed in October.
At our last 2016 workshop, the girls began writing a scene – the first for this season. In previous workshops, they had written about being lost, and about the difference between privacy and isolation. They had also selected lines from everyone’s writing, done improvised readings of the lines, and rearranged them into a collection of poems about ‘lost.’ They spent our  penultimate 2016 workshop reading and analyzing these poems and identifying character voices for their first 2017 play.
The conversation continued the following week. Based on their analysis of one poem, the girls created a character who was afraid of change. They named her ‘Sammie’ and improvised interviews with her to learn her backstory and to try to understand her fear. After a couple of Sammies had told parts of her story, Cyndi, a senior who has been in the troupe for five years, said,
“I keep seeing her in a group therapy session. There are other people sitting around her in a circle of chairs and she says, “Hello, my name is Sammie.” The group says, “Hello Sammie,” and she says, “So, one day I got lost” and her story becomes the first scene. Couldn’t that group session be like a frame for all of our scenes?”

Everyone got excited. Cyndi’s idea gave all of the girls, even those who have not yet written or acted in a GS play, a visualized image of the stage and the characters, as well as a concept of how the play could work. I don’t think this has ever happened so early in a season. Usually, the girls come up with an idea for a theme, create characters, and write scenes without any concrete plan for weaving them together. For the past several years, Carolyn has invented a frame for their scenes just before the play goes into rehearsal. She has never explained to the girls how she comes up with the idea that melds their scenes; she just describes her idea and the girls put it to work. Carolyn is teaching by example and I think that Cyndi’s idea for the current play is a demonstration of how effective Carolyn’s modeling has been. It has helped Cyndi expand her thinking about playwriting.

As I thought about the workshop in the days that followed, I realized that I sometimes underestimate the power of modeling as a teaching method. Even in a program like GS where the girls are encouraged to experiment and take control of their own learning, I am usually focused on the scaffolding and gradual release of control that we practice to help the girls get comfortable with new ideas and activities. And, although we almost never tell the girls what to do, we often make suggestions that they end up using in their work. Cyndi’s breakthrough reminded me that even that routine serves a double purpose because regardless of how much support the girls end up needing from us, we are always modeling: modeling collaboration, modeling by doing, modeling our thought processes, and modeling by our confidence in the girls that, ultimately, they’ll be able to do it on their own.