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.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Muraleandas - or - How Art Can Save Lives

            There was only one chair left with a decent view of the stage, but it was smack in the middle of the first row.  I hesitated. The center is not a place I like to be in a small theater, but I really wanted to hear and see as much as possible. Tired after a long day of touring, I decided that my mind might drift if I sat on the edges of the evening’s entertainment.  I took the seat.

Fourteen other Americans made up the rest of the audience. All of us were part of a group visiting Cuba on a Road Scholar program that promotes people-to-people connections. The presentation we were about to see was part of an evening packed full of opportunities to learn about a community arts organization known as The Muraleandas.

The Muraleandas sprang to life in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana that had deteriorated into not much more than a garbage heap during what the Cubans ruefully refer to as the “Special Period.”

“What was so special about the Special Period?” our Cuban guide asked us. “Not what you would think.  Nothing good, like a 16th birthday or a wedding celebration,” she said, with an ironic smile.  The “Special Period” in Cuba, she explained, started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary trading partner, in 1991 and lasted more than 10 years. The US also maintained a strict embargo on Cuban trade, as it does today.

Cuba is still recovering from the severe shortages of food, oil and other resources that resulted from the Soviets’ abrupt withdrawal of economic support to this island nation. The neighborhood where The Muraleandas live, however, is a bright spot on the landscape and a beacon of hope for a better future. Despondent from lack of meaningful work and troubled by the sight of too many idle hands in their homes during the “Special Period,” a couple of young local artists decided to do something about it.  They put the neighborhood to work cleaning up their garbage filled streets.  Enlisting the help of anyone with time to spare, children and seniors included, the artists salvaged what they could to make art. They gathered hubcaps, wheels, spokes, car engines and anything else that would withstand the test of time to build the sculptures that now stand proudly on their street corners.  They also beautified their deteriorating buildings with colorful murals. They taught their neighbors how to paint and sculpt too, and before long they were leading art workshops for people of all ages.

Today, this little corner of Cuba is a thriving arts community. The neighborhood takes so much pride in their street art that it still looks brand new. No one has defaced it. The Muraleandas have expanded their operation too; they now offer classes in music, dance, and theater in addition to the visual arts. The performance we saw featured a film made by one of the group’s young filmmakers about how The Muraleandas reclaimed their neighborhood, a Cuban band, and several young dancers.  One of the dancers was only six.  Dancing a fabulous chachacha not more than two feet away from me, she captured my heart with her bright eyes, confidence, poise, and talent. 

When the bandleader asked audience members to join the kids on the dance floor, we didn’t immediately respond.  I think we probably were feeling shy about putting ourselves in the spotlight. A few more minutes passed, but still, no one moved.  “It only takes one to get things started,” I said to myself, and for other reasons I did not entirely understand at the time, I suddenly found myself on my feet, moving to the stage, and stumbling through the unfamiliar dance steps with the kids. Later I realized that I had been acting partly in response to the good will and generous spirit of our hosts.  How could I refuse the sweet faces of those children?

It took a little time, but eventually other members of our group joined the dance. As the music built, I felt confident enough about the dancing to take my eyes off of my feet and look around.  Everyone was smiling, dancing, or clapping to the music.  People of every age, from 6 to 84, were hugging and laughing as the dancing drew to a close.  Music had united us and given us permission to forget the differences in language, culture, and life experience that separate us.

We had dinner with our hosts at long tables in a big hall above the performance space afterward. As we passed platters of food and picked up our forks, we talked about our lives, our work, and our families.  Dinner was followed by more music – some Cuban, some American – and, of course, more dancing.

One of the most interesting stories I heard during our visit was how The Muraleandas built the beautiful art complex where they had entertained and fed us. Their home is a recycled concrete water tank that once supplied the steam engines that ran through town on their way to and from Havana. When steam engines became obsolete, so did the tank, and for many years it sat full but useless. The neighborhood kids used it as a swimming hole.  During the “Special Period” the trains stopped running altogether, jobs were lost, and the tank started to crack and crumble.  Not only was it a serious physical threat to the community; it also cast a dark, ugly symbolic shadow over the houses below - a constant reminder to the people within of their fragility and suffering.
While the tank stood empty, The Muraleandas were hard at work below, transforming their neighborhood and trying to figure out where to hold their increasingly popular workshops.  The makeshift tables they had set up outside when the project first got started were useless during the rainy period. The teaching artists needed a more permanent solution to house their expanding operation. Long deprived of the material goods that we enjoy on a regular basis, they had learned to scavenge for scraps, and the tank looked like a scrap with possibilities.  They decided to appeal to the government to give them equipment and tools in exchange for cleaning up the hazardous tank. The government agreed to the deal. The Muraleandas dug out and rebuilt the entire multileveled space they now call home by hand. Deprivation had taught them the value of creativity, flexibility, hard work, collaboration, thrift, and optimism.

The Muraleandas are proud of these past accomplishments, but they are not at all complacent now that the Cuban economy is beginning to revive.  They realize that the scars left by near starvation run too deep and were inflicted too recently to have healed completely, and they want their story to serve as a reminder that history repeats itself. They tell their story to all who visit; they continue to engage hundreds of people from all age groups in their workshops; and they sell their art and that of their students to tourists from around the globe. Art is what helped them survive their past, what is sustaining them still, and what gives them hope for the future.
           My visit with The Muraleandas couldn’t have occurred at a better time.  The future of Girls Surviving is fragile. Once again, Paula and I are trying to figure out if we can keep the program running.  Funding for the arts is always hard to come by.  Now, with the future of the National Endowment for the Arts threatened, everyone involved in arts education is doubly worried.  So many worthwhile programs will be scrambling for scraps to stay afloat if the N.E.A. disappears. Many will not survive the cuts.  As we assess the future of our program during this difficult time, I’ll keep in mind the remarkable story of The Muraleandas and the lessons it teaches about surviving.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Recognizing Each Other

Sandra is a fourteen year old girl from Honduras. She has come to the U.S. on her own, sent by her parents who want to protect her from the violence that is rampant in their city. She is living  in NJ with her mother’s sister, a woman she had never met before coming to America. Everything in her new home is strange: the house, the streets, the school, the language. Sandra is lost.
Sandra is not one of the Girls Surviving troupe members. In fact, she is not an actual person. She is the main character in the third vignette of the girls’ 2017 play which is about different ways of being lost. Although Sandra is a fictional character, she represents many children who immigrate to the United States on their own, and some of her experiences have been shared by several girls in the troupe.

Last Wednesday evening, the girls read aloud the second scene of the new play, the scene they finished pasting together the week before. After the reading, they began to discuss a third scene. Since GS plays are usually composed of three scenarios based on a central theme, this will probably be the last big thing they write before casting and rehearsal.
The first scene they wrote this year is about emotional loss. Its central character is a girl who, coming upon a trove of letters from the mother whom she thought had forgotten her, begins to distrust her father and stepmother who had kept the letters hidden. In the second scene, three siblings become physically lost in NYC.
“So, we’ve written about being lost in emotion and being actually lost in a place,” said Cora. “What other kind of lost can we write about?”
There were several suggestions:
“Lost in a dream?”
“Lost in a relationship?”
“How about someone lost in a country where she doesn’t understand the customs or the language?” suggested Bianca.
“Like lost in Europe or Asia?” asked Gabi. “That might be hard to write about because we don’t know much about those places.”
This comment generated some talk about the places some of the girls do know. For example, the Central American countries where several of our girls visit family in the summer, or where they lived before coming to the U.S. During this discussion, Karen, our counselor, said,
“Actually, there are students here at the high school who are experiencing this country as a new and, sometimes, upsetting environment. Some of them have even come here on their own, without parents, to live with relatives or friends.”
As Karen said this, I looked around the circle. Five the seven girls who were at the workshop that night were either the daughters of immigrants or immigrants, themselves. One girl, Eva, has been in this country just over a year.
“We could write about a girl like that,” I said, “a girl who feels lost right here.”
“Yes!” said Eva, “and she would have a hard time communicating in simple things, like going to buy something at a store. That has happened to me when I couldn’t think of the English word for something. You feel embarrassed.”
The girls began talking all at once. A couple others had had similar experiences, and they were excited by the idea of writing about them.
“I can see how this scene opens,” said Gabi. “It begins with a monologue in Spanish. The character is talking about how lost she feels, but since she will be talking in a language that many in the audience don’t understand, they will feel lost, too.”

The girls started to create a backstory for their new character, the description that opened this piece. Then they each began to write a version of an opening monologue in which Sandra, who has been sent by her aunt to buy groceries, expresses her sadness and frustration. The girls who could wrote in Spanish. Gabi, who was born in the U.S. but spends summers with her family in Colombia, asked Eva for words she didn’t know. The two girls had a lively back-and-forth in Spanish, the first really fun talk I’ve witnessed between those particular girls.
When the girls shared their Spanish monologues, Vanessa, one of our English-only freshmen, shook her head in amazement.
“I… I’m just wondering,” she asked Eva, “is that what it sounds like to you when we’re talking fast in English?”
All of the Spanish speaking girls laughed and told Vanessa about a YouTube video that shows how English sounds to non-English speakers.
The workshop ended on a high note. Eva, whose mastery of English is impressive for someone who has been speaking it for such a short time, but who is sometimes reticent in workshops, led conversations in both languages, and Vanessa and Cora, the two non-Spanish speakers in the workshop, had epiphanies about what it must be like to be a stranger in a strange land. I think the workshop brought all of those girls a little closer together. And we got a start on the final scene for the play.
GS troupe members at the unveiling of Totems celebrating
the diversity of the Morristown community,
photo by Christy Ward