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, 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

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