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, June 20, 2017

The Spirit of GS

The GS Troupe, 2016-17

We are standing on the sidewalk outside the entrance to Frelinghuysen Middle School (FMS).  The troupe is going to perform their latest play for the very first time. Their audience?  About 20 8th grade girls selected by the middle school guidance counselors as potential candidates for the GS summer and fall programs.

Our actresses need reassurance that the event will go smoothly. Some have never performed before, others have switched or added roles at the last minute, one girl is new to the school district and has never set foot in FMS before.  None of them has run through the play from start to finish. So much writing had to be added during the rehearsal period that we never got around to having a dress rehearsal. And it’s the end of the school year with many other demands.

To ease the actresses’ minds, we decide to bill the FMS “performance” as a dress rehearsal.  Still, they’re nervous, even our seasoned seniors.
            “You are so brave,” I tell them as we wait to go inside.

“That’s the spirit of GS, don’t you think?” asks Paula.

“Yes, that is the spirit of GS,” I agree.

            It’s not just a pep talk. It’s true.  Over the years we’ve encountered nerve-wracking circumstances similar to the one I just described.  Every time we do, we watch the girls face down whatever obstacle gets thrown their way, rise to the occasion and finish strong.  That truly is “the spirit of GS.”

            Our girls are brave. The obstacles they face can be daunting. Sometimes they have to jump into new roles at the last minute because family, job or school obligations and emergencies arise that force a cast member to temporarily leave the program.  Sometimes our younger, less experienced girls think it’s okay to miss rehearsal because they don’t understand how essential every person is to the process. Our youngest troupe members are new to playwriting, acting, and the demands of collaborative theater making. It takes time for them to learn the ropes. If one fails to appear at the last rehearsal, someone else has to rise to the challenge of performing her part with almost no rehearsal.  When rehearsal time is extra short, as it was this year, the juggling act is a nail biter, even for a veteran actress.

            Most of our seniors have been in the program for many years and now feel comfortable with unpredictability.  They can handle last-minute casting changes and a shortened rehearsal period more easily than the girls who have never been on the stage before. Still, even seniors know it is risky going into performance without having a dress rehearsal.

Last-minute revisions 

            Experienced or new, however, this year’s troupe rallied, and the FMS “dress rehearsal” was a success. During the performance, audience members audibly expressed sympathy for those characters who suffered at the hands of the characters who behaved irresponsibly.  One scene brought a girl sitting in the first row to tears. After the play and during the talk-back, many of the 8th graders praised our girls for authentically bringing to life situations similar to those that they had experienced in their own lives.

Our girls came away from the performance exhilarated by their success, proud of themselves and their achievement, and primed for their final show.  A week later, they took the stage again, this time for an audience of mostly adults. Once again, as always it seems, there were last-minute surprises.  And, once again, everyone pulled together for another success. 

Year after year we watch the same phenomenal transformation unfold. How is this possible?  Something happened after the last performance that provides an answer. The mother of one of our newest troupe members asked the seniors to offer a bit of parting advice to the younger girls.  Here is some of what they had to say:

“Don’t take yourself too seriously. What’s the point of trying to be somebody you’re not?”

“Even if you don’t think you like writing or acting, give it try.  What have you got to lose?

“Learn to collaborate.”

“Be open-minded.”

Offering Advice
“Be flexible.”


           Their responses were unprompted and thoughtful.  Theirs is good advice for helping girls grow into confident, non-judgmental, generous and articulate young women who aren’t afraid to forge ahead despite the obstacles – or perhaps - to spite the obstacles.  That’s the spirit of GS.

Monday, June 19, 2017

GS Works!

On June 7th, the GS troupe performed their new play, So One Day I Got Lost, for the first time for a group of about twenty 8th grade girls at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown. This yearly event serves as an introduction to GS for girls whom guidance counselors have referred to the program. In their introduction to the play, GS actresses called this year’s performance a dress rehearsal, and it was. Before they performed Lost at Frelinghuysen, actresses had only one complete run through of all scenes with connecting material. Not only that, at that last, mandatory, rehearsal, we were missing a cast member so one of our freshmen girls, a first-time actress, stepped into the role at the last minute. This casting change forced another: to avoid possible audience confusion over the same actress playing two different central characters in two scenes, Elaina, the freshmen who stepped into the new role, and Keisha, one of our senior girls, exchanged roles in another scene. The fact that the troupe was able to present a realistic and moving performance the week after these changes were implemented, with no rehearsals in between, is a tribute to the confidence of the actresses who made the switches and to the flexibility of the other troupe members. It’s also a testimony to the effectiveness of the GS process.
Girls who enter GS don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers or actresses. Most of them have never participated in any theater activity before they join the GS troupe, and some of the girls enter the program with little writing fluency. Yet, after nine months in the program, insecure writers have contributed to deep, insightful theater scripts, and inexperienced actresses are able to realistically portray characters, even with scant rehearsal time. How does the change come about? For a complete and detailed answer, you need to participate in one of our training seminars and read our book, Girls Surviving: Teaching Teen Girls to Speak Out. But the short answer is that the program is designed to give girls a safe place to speak their minds and to take risks without fear of failure, and that the process we’ve put in place to meet those goals works.   

By her third or fourth week in the program, a new girl has begun to form bonds with her fellow troupe members and with program staff. By then she knows that she can say or write anything without being censored; that the group will listen thoughtfully and take her ideas seriously; and that just because someone doesn’t agree with her doesn’t mean she’s wrong. In conversations about writing, she’ll see veteran girls accept suggestions for revisions without getting upset, and she’ll hear staff members readily acknowledge that they may not have the best idea of how something should be done. She’ll also come to understand that, although staff members hold each other and the girls in the troupe to high artistic standards as well as high standards of behavior, that they realized all the skills they value need to be learned, and that it’s okay to be anywhere along the learning continuum, as long as you’re actively participating in workshop activities.
Unlike most conventional theater programs, any pressure a girls feels about the success of her performance comes from within herself. She doesn’t have to memorize her lines because all performances are staged readings. Through weeks of theater games and activities, she has gradually learned to how to embody a character, so, once gentle guidance from her director sets her on course, the rest comes naturally. Her fellow troupe members are flexible and forgiving; she know they make mistakes and need do-overs, too. Also, because they have truly formed a troupe, the girls support each other so that nobody ever looks bad on stage.  All of these things come together to give each girl the confidence she needs to perform successfully.
This confidence was evident in their June 7th performance and in the follow-up discussion with audience members. When asked about their writing and performance process, the answers of the veteran girls showed that they have completely understood and assimilated it. Even the newest girls seemed comfortable talking about their experience. Several moments in the play had elicited audible emotional responses from the audience. There were moments of laughter, but there was also a scene that caused the 8th grade girls to gasp in shock at the way one character spoke to another. Not only were the actresses able to play through these moments as they occurred, but they were also able to talk freely about their own feelings and listen carefully to those expressed by the younger girls in the post-performance discussion. Even (or, perhaps, especially) the actress who, speaking of her comfort on the stage, told the audience, “Right now I am terrified,” is evidence of the program’s success. She spoke with poise and complete confidence that her confession would elicit only sympathy and empathy.

There were years, early on, when Carolyn and I would be nervous wrecks as performance time approached. No more. We’ve learned what’s important, and we know that the girls will be fine.  After all, we’ve been working this program for 12 years.