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, May 24, 2017

Watching Them Grow

The girls have been in rehearsal for the past two weeks, and they have two rehearsals to go before their first performance on June 7. There was a time when having so few rehearsals would have worried them, but that time is gone. At least, for this troupe. Five of the eight girls who will be in the play are now experienced GS actresses. They know that they will be able to pull things together in the time they have to practice. As I watched them work on a scene during last week’s workshop, I shared their confidence.
They had begun their work on the “Sandra” scene the week before and, by the time they got through to the end of the scene, everyone agreed that it was a mess. The concept was great, the actresses did their best with the script, but the writing was so weak that the scene made no sense. The problems in the script weren’t apparent to the girls until they saw the piece on its feet. During previous readings, they couldn’t seem to get their heads around problems when Carolyn and I pointed them out; they needed to physically work through writing to find its weak points: speaking the dialogue as they interacted with each other, trying to visualize the setting as they moved in the performance space. Once they saw the problem, they sat back down to fix it, reading through the script, line by line, identifying problems, adding dialogue and suggesting character actions that would help the audience place the characters in the setting and understand the motivations behind their words.
This is part of the GS writing process and, although it is time consuming and can be nerve wracking, especially with show time right around the corner, it works because it is led by the girls. Carolyn and I could have fixed the script in days before the girls first rehearsed it, but we’ve learned that doing so would be counter productive. Last week’s rehearsal of ‘Sandra’ was proof that things work best when the girls do the work.

At the beginning of the workshop, Carolyn handed out new copies of the revised script and the actresses, in character, read it aloud.
“That’s it?” asked Claudia after the actress playing Sandra read her last line, “It just ends like that?”
“The characters are in a group therapy session,” we said, reminding them of the frame that connects the three scenes, “what might she say to the group as this re-enactment of her ‘lost’ experience ends?”
The girls looked back over the last lines and began to talk to each other.
“There are still problems with the Spanish,” said Lisa, whose knowledge of the language is primarily academic. “The word for joke is broma, not bromio.”
(I’ve noticed that the Spanish language skills of our English speakers, including me and Carolyn, have been improving through our work on this bi-lingual scene.)
“And,” added Carmen, who speaks Spanish at home, “I don’t think Sandra would call her parents ‘mis papas’. She would say, “’mis padres’. Papas mean potatoes,” she added.
It can mean parents, too. I say mis papas,” said Giselle, another Spanish speaker.
“C’mon, don’t argue; make a decision,” said Angel. “We only have three more rehearsals.”
“Only three more rehearsals?” This was from newer girls.
“It will be fine,” I said.
“It always is!” Lisa, who is a senior with three years in the troupe spoke with confidence, but I remember the time she was one of those most nervous about our scant rehearsal dates.

After fixing a few more problems, the girls began to rehearse in earnest. Carolyn reminded them of the blocking and the scene began. Angel, the actress playing Sandra, is a freshman who has never acted. As she worked on the scene, playing and replaying her lines at Carolyn’s direction, I watched her develop as an actress, right before my eyes! It was like watching a time-lapse video – one of those where you see a flower sprout, grow, and bloom in just a few minutes. This development is also apparent in the other new girls, and you can see them gain confidence as they begin to feel comfortable in their roles.
The girls worked on the scene, stopping to play something differently when problems developed. Carolyn directed; Renee and I observed and interjected with praise and suggestions. By the final run-through of the scene, near the end of the workshop, it was working.
Two weeks to go. One scene has still to be blocked and rehearsed. But the girls will pull it off and present an emotionally complex and moving performance. They always do.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Time to Act

“I’m so excited to be moving around,” Adrienne said as we gathered into a circle and stretched. The troupe was warming up for their first rehearsal. 

They were ready to act.  The girls don’t come right out and tell us when it’s time to put their pens down and finish writing their play on their feet.  They let us know in other ways. Discussions about problems with the script begin to bog down.  Last week for example, the girls spent about 30 minutes trying to rewrite one line.  Then they started giggling, peeked at their cell phones, chattered about school, the prom, and upcoming exams. Almost in unison, they asked to take a break and bolted for the bathroom. Sitting and talking can become counter-productive when it’s time to polish the writing.

After the girls’ break, we set up a stage area in the classroom we use throughout the school year for every phase of the program – writing, rehearsal and performance. Because it once served as the high school’s dance studio, floor-to-ceiling mirrors dominate two sides of the room. There is no stage either. Finding a place to put the stage, therefore, presents a logistical problem.

“Which is the better option,” we asked ourselves. “Place the stage facing a mirror or place the audience facing a mirror?  Who would be more distracted looking in the mirror, our teenage actors or the audience?”

Our final decision has a lot to do with the reason why we got the girls out of their seats in the first place: lack of movement can lead to distracted behavior.  During the performance, the girls will have too much to do both physically and mentally to notice the mirror, even if they are distractible teenagers.  The audience, however, will be stationary and some will be newcomers to GS performances. We decided that they would be too tempted to take a peek at themselves and check out what else is going on in the room if we stuck them in front of a floor-to ceiling mirror. If one of the goals of theater is to fully engage the audience in the lives of the characters in the play, our choice was clear. What we thought originally was merely a problem of logistics turned into an artistic one.  Logistics and art go hand-in-hand when creating theater.

Later, as we started to block the play, the girls, too, discovered that artistic decisions overlap with practical ones in theater. While they knew they had to get from point A to point B on the stage, they found that the route they chose and the way they moved across the stage could alter the meaning or the impact of the moment. The girls began to notice how some of their movement choices enhanced the dramatic effect of the text more than others. Even a seemingly insignificant change can make a huge difference in the way the audience perceives the characters’ lives and personalities.

We started the blocking with the entrance of a character named Chili.  Initially Chili entered the playing area from the side, but something about her entrance didn’t seem right.  We weren’t sure exactly what was wrong, but we decided to play around with other options. When we changed her entry point to an upstage corner, we knew at once why the first choice didn’t work. Entering from the side, she appeared in profile to the audience, and, as a result, her first line lacked punch. When she came in from upstage, far removed from but fully facing the audience, the character blossomed into the quirky, confident, “chill” 16-year old girl named Chili that our writers had envisioned on paper. Far from falling flat, her first line popped out like a bullet, demanding attention and smiles from the audience.  “Ok girl,” she says as she looks over her friend’s immaculate bedroom, “two words…NEAT FREAK.”

The blocking process also reveals flaws in the writing that the girls fail to notice when they’re focused only on pen and paper.  For example, we knew that the ending of one of the scenes they had been working on was insufficient. While we had been trying to explain that to them for several weeks, it wasn’t until the girls acted the scene out that they realized it too.

As soon as Kate, the actress whose job it was to end the scene, uttered her last line from the stage, she turned to us, incredulous.

“What!” she exclaimed.  “That (line) makes no sense at all!”

“This scene goes off, first in one direction, then in another,” added Suzanne, who had been struggling with her role in the play too. “All my character does is yell,” she also observed.

Staging had provided us with the “teaching moment” we had been waiting for.  Moving through the scene on the stage had allowed the girls to realize on their own what we had been trying to tell them during our writing and discussion workshops.  

Rehearsal invigorates our writing process. Exploring when and how to move with the dialogue frees the girls to explore the script in new ways. By activating another part of the brain, it allows them to discover nuances in the writing that would have eluded them had they never gotten out of their seats.  As a result, they gain insight into what distinguishes dramatic writing from other genres.  They learn how to transform their writing into the unique artistic experience we call theater.