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.”

Program Description

Girls Surviving is an ongoing program in writing and performance, free to girls 13-18 who are students in the Morris School District, in Morristown, NJ. It provides theater arts programming to teen girls who may not otherwise get the experience. Participation in Girls Surviving offers girls a safe and comfortable environment to discuss and write about issues that are relevant to their lives. In Girls Surviving, a diverse group of girls come together to tell the stories of their experiences growing up in their shared community, and to read literature that both challenges and supports their perceptions of the world they live in. Over time, the girls develop the bond that supports their collaborative work in the program. Working together, they craft an original play, create an acting ensemble to perform it for their community and, after the performance, answer questions from the audience about the content and process of their work.

As an arts education program, Girls Surviving offers unique opportunities. The girls thrive on the variety of activities offered to them. They read literature, listen to and tell traditional stories; they act out scenes from plays.  They write and revise poetry, monologues, and dialogues. They create characters, participate in acting games and improvisations and rehearse a play. While the program culminates in performance, the writing process continues throughout the rehearsal period. Performers carry their scripts on stage, allowing for constant revision.  This process-oriented approach removes the pressures inherent in  other performance-focused programs. The relaxed environment allows the less experienced girls room to grow as actresses and the veteran troupe members mentorship opportunities. Since no one has to memorize lines for a particular part, the instructors can relax, too, if a girl has to drop out at the last minute because of a family emergency or a girl misses a rehearsal because her work schedule can’t be changed to accommodate ours.  Because the program is free, fluid and varied, girls who might otherwise not have an opportunity to participate in such an extensive arts program discover their talents, learn new skills and become more flexible with life’s expected demands.  In essence, they learn to improvise, both on and off the stage. And, because the program is ongoing, they have an opportunity to hone their writing and acting skills and develop into troupe leaders.  Long time troupe members even become paid interns in the summer program, responsible for leading exercises and group discussions. Girls who stay in the Girls Surviving troupe year after year respond to the opportunities offered to them as well as the excitement and challenge of expressing themselves artistically in a relaxed and positive setting.

Girls Surviving is a yearlong program divided into two semesters with identical outcomes: the writing and performance of an original play.  Each semester consists of three phases:
Phase 1 – creating the bond
Phase 2 – writing the play
Phase 3 – rehearsing and performing

During the school year semester, the girls meet weekly for two hours in the early evening from mid-October through mid-June.  During the summer semester, girls meet Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10-1:00 for a total of six weeks.

While the semesters share the same process and objectives, they differ in intensity.  The weekly school-year workshops allow for slower, more relaxed and reflective work.  With time compressed into 19 sessions over six weeks in the summer, that program is more engaged and focused on the end product. By participating in both programs, the girls have the opportunity to connect and work in different ways.

The Girls Surviving program builds community through collaboration and communication. It was created in 2005 by professional teaching artists, storyteller Paula Davidoff, and playwright/director Carolyn Hunt. Theirs is a community-based collaboration that has been built in the town where they have lived and raised their families. Since the program’s inception, community members and organizations have supported Carolyn and Paula in the development  and implementation of the program. Partners include the Arts Council of the Morris Area which has supported the program from its earliest days, the Morris County freeholders and Juvenile Justice Commission who have funded the program through a State/Community Partnership grant, the Morris County Community Foundation which introduced the program to one of its staunchest supporters, Dr. James Gallagher, and the Morris School District. Counselors from the high school and middle school collaborate in the teaching of the workshops, and the schools also provide the classrooms and performance spaces that serve as home base for the troupe. Countless other members of the community, including the parents and grandparents of our girls and the girls, themselves, participate in an ongoing effort to sustain and promote the program.

Girls Surviving creates a safe community in which girls can express their thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes and fears. Building a sense of community within the troupe and strengthening the troupe’s connections to the greater community are central to with work of Girls Surviving.  Part of its mission is to build lasting bridges between people of different ages, races and ethnicities through the arts. 

Girls Surviving troupe members come to feel part of a community with something important to say to the larger community in which they live. When they meet each other on the first day of the program, they talk about the outrageous prices at the local frozen yoghurt store, the teacher they despised in third grade, or the kid who held that crazy party at his house last Saturday night. Where they live and go to school ignites their first conversations. Further talk of town and school unites them in a dialogue that opens and deepens their discussions about specific experiences in the town or school that have informed their lives. Over time, they create a safe, non-judgmental community in which they can express their own deepest thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes and fears. The girls who come into Girls Surviving and tend to stay seem to have a strong desire to form a bond through shared experiences. They realize they have an important role to play in the future of their own community. As a result, they unite around the idea that they have a purpose and learn to take ownership of the program

1 comment: