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.

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