by Paula Davidoff
I’m sure that all professional storytellers have had an epiphany about a tale in their repertoire as they worked on its retelling. It has even happened to me in performance: the story that I have deconstructed, reconstructed, practiced and, perhaps, told to audiences many times, shows me something new and important midway through a telling. I think people have similar experiences with true, personal stories. Telling it over and over leads to deeper understanding.
For the past eleven years, I’ve taught a writing and theater program for teen girls called Girls Surviving. Twice a year, the girls in the program write, rehearse, and perform a new play that is based on stories from their own lives. Although we use traditional oral storytelling in the program, it’s not a central focus, but a few weeks ago, something happened that reminded me how important it is to tell stories out loud.
To set the stage, the Girls Surviving playwriting process goes something like this:
- the girls chose a topic or theme they want to write about (past topics include racism and stereotyping, parental desertion, parent/teen conflict, sex and dating)
- program directors introduce texts – oral and written – that might stoke ideas about the theme,
- girls listen to or read the material and begin to discuss and write about it,
- they create characters who have problems related to the chosen theme,
- everyone writes independently; writing is shared with the group,
- each day’s writing, which is done longhand in notebooks, is typed by group leaders and copied for everyone,
- and, finally, the girls construct scenes using pieces of everyone’s writing.
This last part, putting together a scene, is very intense. It demands a great deal of concentration as girls read and re-read texts created through several weeks of writing and fit pieces of them together into a dramatic scene of dialogue between characters. It’s not unusual for some of the girls, especially those new to the program, to lose focus and interest during this part of the process. So, a few weeks ago, while we were struggling to put together a new scene, my colleague and co-director asked the girls,
“Can you think of an easier way to do this?”
Another staff member suggested using computers, that is, giving each girl a tablet or laptop so that she could work on a screen, cutting and pasting text. After a short discussion, the girls rejected the idea. My colleague and I thought it was interesting that the girls, who spend a lot of their socializing, entertainment, and study time in front of screens, rejected the idea of bringing computers into our workshop, but we were glad that they did.
I have often used laptops and tablets to facilitate collaborative writing projects for students, and these tools do make some things easier for me. No transcribing and making copies of student writing. Everything is on a Google doc which is available for minilessons on various writing elements. Students can revise and critique each other online – cutting, pasting, and rearranging each other’s contributions as they perfect the text. But in the programs in which students use computers to organize a collaborative text, a final, polished text is the overriding program goal.
In Girls Surviving, our focus is different. Our main program goal is to help the girls find their own voices and feel comfortable using them as they navigate their way to adulthood and beyond. Although each season’s culminating performance is an essential part of the program, it is not the most important element. It is the give-and-take between the girls, as well as between the girls and program staff, that allows participants to gain confidence in their own ideas and abilities, and to bond them into a cohesive collaborative troupe of actresses. This back and forth happens in conversation: before and after independent writing, during the sharing of the writing, in improvisational theater activities, throughout rehearsals, and in putting together the scripts. And, as with all artistic processes, results come through practice. They often come surprisingly – a flash of insight; a breakthrough piece of writing or performance that comes seemingly out of nowhere after days or weeks of tedious work; or the moment a scene comes together, actresses all in synch with each other and the script.
Something like this happened in the workshop I referred to above. The girls had been creating the scene they were struggling to put together since well before winter break. For weeks, they had been writing, reading, discussing, and analyzing the characters and the action. Then, on the evening they were trying to construct a completed script, Bianca, one of the freshmen in the troupe, said, “You know, I just realized that this scene is a lot like something in my own life,” and she told us a story that was very similar to the one the girls had created in the scene. It was a tale of heartbreak and resilience, and listening to Bianca tell it was a moving experience for all of us.
It’s not unusual for Girls Surviving scripts to reflect episodes in the girls’ lives, but we never consciously retell a girl’s story in our plays. I think in Bianca’s case, she really did become aware of the connection between the script and her real life for the first time on that night. Sometimes we need to hear our story told by another before we can recognize that it is, in fact, our story. Life has a definite beginning, but it doesn’t unfold like a plot. Our lives unfold so slowly and so seamlessly that we don’t realize that, in the eyes or ears of others, some of our experiences tell like stories with rising action, high points, and, sometimes, resolution.
Bianca discussed, wrote, and listened, examining a crisis in the life of a fictional character, and when, that night, she recognized in it a part of her own story, she was able to articulate, maybe for the first time, the details of a defining life experience. I don’t think that would have happened if we had been working on laptops. I think that she may have recognized the similarity between our script and her real experiences, but I doubt she could have shared it with – told it to – the group. And I believe that telling is crucial to making meaning of experience.