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, February 26, 2017

Face Time vs Screen Time

The students in other programs I teach have used laptops and tablets to facilitate collaborative writing projects for several years and these tools do make some things easier for me. No transcribing and making copies of student writing. Everything is on a Google doc which is available for minilessons on various writing elements, and students can revise and critique each other online – cutting, pasting, and rearranging each other’s contributions as they perfect the text. But in the programs in which students use computers to organize a collaborative text, the final project was the overriding program goal.
In GS, our focus is different. Although each season’s culminating performance is an essential part of the program, it is not the most important element. It is the give-and-take between the girls, as well as between the girls and program staff, that allows GS troupe members to gain confidence in their own ideas and abilities, and to bond them into a cohesive collaborative troupe of actresses. This back and forth happens in conversation: before and after independent writing, during the sharing of the writing, in improvisational theater activities, throughout rehearsals, and in putting together the scripts. And, as with all artistic processes, results come through practice. They often come surprisingly – a flash of insight; a breakthrough piece of writing or performance that comes seemingly out of nowhere after days or weeks of tedious and mundane work; or the moment a scene comes together, actresses all in synch with each other and the script.
An example of this happened on the evening Carolyn just wrote about. The girls had been working on their Sammy/Chili scene since well before winter break. For weeks, we had been writing, reading, discussing, and analyzing the characters and the action of the scene. Then, on the evening we were struggling to put a complete version of the script together, Bianca, one of the freshmen in the troupe, said, “You know, I just realized that this scene is a lot like something in my own life,” and she told us a story that was very similar to the one the girls had created. It was a moving experience for all of us, an example of the trust that has been built among the girls in the current troupe. It was a quintessential GS moment.
It’s not unusual for our scripts to reflect episodes in the girls’ lives, but we never consciously retell a girl’s story in our plays. I think in Bianca’s case, she actually first became aware of the connection between the script and her real life on that night. Sometimes we need to hear our story told by another before we can recognize that it is, in fact, our story. Life has a definite beginning, but it doesn’t unfold like a plot. Our lives unfold so slowly and so seamlessly that we don’t realize that, in the eyes or ears of others, some of our experiences tell like stories with rising action, high points, and, sometimes, resolution. Bianca discussed, wrote, and listened to writing about a crisis in the life of a fictional character, and when, that night, she recognized in it a part of her own story, she was able to articulate, maybe for the first time, the details of a defining experience in her life. I don’t think that would have happened if we had been working on laptops. I think that she may have recognized the similarity between our script and her real experiences, but I doubt she could have shared it with the group. And I think the telling is crucial to making meaning of the experience.

So, we’ll continue to work on paper. Last week the girls sat down to cut up scripts and begin pasting together a new scene for the play. The physical act of cutting and pasting should demonstrate for the newer girls how the scenes in a GS play come together. It will make the work less abstract, easier to follow, and because everyone will be physically constructing a script, the process should keep all of the girls engaged. As the girls worked last week, they questioned choices and discussed character motives, but they also joked with each other and laughed a lot. Which is what they should do. Face to face.

Friday, February 17, 2017

In Defense of Paper

            “Let’s put the scene together.”  That’s our catch phrase for sifting through multiple pages of monologues and dialogues written over time by each member of the troupe and identifying segments from the written material that can be linked together to build a complete scene. It’s the last step in the GS collaborative writing phase of the program and ushers in the revision and rehearsal phases of our season.

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard girls groan when we’ve announced that it is time to “put the scene together.” The exercise is complicated.  It demands concentrated engagement with others. Specifically, it involves: finding the lines under discussion from among piles of stapled pages; listening to a variety of opinions; following the often complex logic of a particular point of view; expressing personal preferences for certain lines; and reaching consensus about the direction the scene should take. Just keeping pace with the page turning requires patience.  Scanning individual pages for a few lines that might fit comfortably into a scene can be confusing because so much of the writing is similar in content and style. Deciding between the subtle differences in the girls’ pieces can be difficult. When a girl’s writing doesn’t fit stylistically or expresses a sentiment that might take the scene in a completely different direction, the process can bog down in seemingly endless discussion.

Those girls who can follow the thread of the proceedings and remain fully engaged usually are more experienced troupe members. Whether they’re experienced or not, however, some have trouble staying focused, especially when the pace quickens.  Those who tire of the page turning and lose track of the discussion drift off into side conversations.  Others sneak peeks at their text messages, excuse themselves to go to the bathroom, or simply stare into space.

We’ve tried doing it many different ways over the years, but we haven’t yet found a method that consistently involves everyone in the process. Just a couple of weeks ago I observed girls struggling to maintain their concentration. At that workshop, the girls flipped through stapled copies of their previous work searching for connections between writing segments, marked them off with pens, discussed their options, and kept track of their final decisions by writing down page numbers and crucial lines on a chalk board. We copied their notes so that we knew how to cut and paste the scene together on our computers when we got home.  We also tried to help the girls stay engaged by asking them to read selected lines aloud and taking a back seat to their decision-making.

While the scene they put together reads well and contains writing from every girl in the troupe, the process of creating it still did not involve everyone. I asked the girls the following week if they had any ideas about how we could fix the problem and achieve our goal of full participation.  Most said that writing their decisions on the black board helped them keep track of the scene’s sequence of events.  They acknowledged, though, that they got lost jumping back and forth between stapled pages of writing to find lines that were under discussion. 

Our counselor suggested that the girls use computers to make the job easier.  While we agreed that computers might speed the process and eliminate the page-jumping problem, we expressed our reluctance to give up pen and paper. It’s true that our methods are messy and “old school,” but we worry that substituting computers could discourage, rather than encourage, discourse. The primary goal of the exercise we call “putting the scene together” – and that of the program as a whole - is to engage every girl in an authentic, collaborative, artistic experience. Focusing on a screen instead of a face, we believe, is not the same.

The girls didn’t seem excited about the computer idea either. That was a surprise.  I expected the opposite reaction. Instead, they stayed silent during our back and forth about it. I was even more surprised when they unanimously agreed to this alternative: The next time we have a scene to put together we’ll bring unstapled copies of all of the writing, lots of blank paper, scissors, and rolls of scotch tape to the workshop. We’ll spread out the pages of writing on the floor for all to see, and we’ll cut and paste the script together.

Why did the girls decide to cut and paste?  We’ll find out, I suspect, after we try it. It’s another messy and old-fashioned way of doing things, and it probably will eat up tons of time.  In Defense ofMaybe the girls like the idea of adding a social component and physical activity to a task that involves lots of mental gymnastics. Cutting and pasting can be fun and yields a tangible product. As a reward for their hard work, the girls will have a paper script to read and enjoy at the end of the workshop.  Maybe the idea also reminds them of the kinds of activities they enjoyed when they were “just kids” – activities that, while demanding, allowed for play. We’ll see. At the very least, I hope, it will be fun – and inspire more enthusiasm for this important part of the process.