Art Talk with Janice Nepon-Sixt of Girlstories Theatre
from l-r: Girlstories Theatre Founder and Executive Director Fran Powers and Girlstories Theatre youth representative Naomi Diaz with First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards held last week at the White House. Photo by Michael J.N. Bowles
The White House was abuzz on October 20 when representatives from 15 arts and humanities youth programs arrived for an award ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. The occasion was the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards (formerly known as the Coming Up Taller Awards), and one of those 15 organizations was Girlstories Theatre of Tampa, Florida.
Girlstories Theatre helps middle school-aged girls gain self-knowledge and self-confidence to become who they dream to be. There are two Girlstories components: workshops in which middle school girls prepare an original show based on their own stories and perform for elementary school girls; and Girlstories Theatre, which uses storytelling, theater, and leadership activities to develop a young woman?s potential.
We had an opportunity to e-chat with Janice Nepon-Sixt, director of Girl Programs for Powerstories Theatre, the parent organization of Girlstories.
NEA: How do you find the girls to participate in a workshop? What do you look for?
JANICE NEPON-SIXT: We hold auditions, and put out fliers, ads, emails, etc. to inform as many middle school girls as possible about this opportunity. We do not require theater experience. What we are looking for is a very diverse group of girls who are strongly committed to being part of a team.
NEA: What kinds of exercises or techniques do you use to engage the girls during a workshop?
NEPON-SIXT: As an example, a workshop that our girls gave was entitled, "I am my own super hero!" In this workshop, the participating girls wrote stories about their lives and dreams. They also created hero capes that they decorated and then wore as costumes during a workshop performance.
In Girlstories Theatre, we have a six-week, full day summer intensive that is filled with team-building and leadership discussions and exercises, in-depth work on creating personal stories, and training in dramatics, music, and dance.
Using their personal stories, [the girls] create a script and rehearse until it is ready for performance. This year's play is called The Mighty M.E. Mission with a double meaning of self discovery and an abbreviation for Mother Earth. We continue to rehearse and perform throughout the year.
NEA: What are some of the reactions you get from the girls in the first few sessions?
NEPON-SIXT: In the Girlstories workshops, some of the girls are completely engaged from the beginning and some are unsure or even extremely shy. I can remember one girl, the daughter of a migrant farm worker, who could barely speak her name above a whisper when she first started. By the end, she would confidently tell her story with energy and smiles to an audience!
NEA: What kind of changes do you see in the girls that participate in the program?
NEPON-SIXT: Our latest survey by BMR Consulting, a performance evaluation firm, showed that 97% of the girls increased their skills in communication, performance and BELIEVING their dreams can come true. And these results are typical year after year.
We have had teachers and principals and agency heads tell us with gratitude and delight that they see marked improvements in the girls' outgoingness, confidence, and performance in other subjects.
Eileen, the mother of a current Girlstories Theatre participant said, "Kaylee is so chatty and happy. She is also showing much more ability to re-center herself and control her emotional reactions in a more positive manner."
Marcela, assistant principal of Wimauma Academy said, "Yesterday, we had the 5th grade graduation. The teacher asked all of them to say a few words, in front of parents and teachers, about their feeling. This was something that was not planned beforehand. The boys were all right, BUT THE GIRLS!! They all stood up in front of the microphone with such a self confidence. It was wonderful!!!!"
NEA: Anything else you would like to add about GirlStories?
NEPON-SIXT: We know that girls between the ages of 10 and 13 are at such a critical crossroads in their lives and this program increases their communication, confidence, and self esteem during this time. We teach hundreds of girls, (many of them living in very impoverished areas) theater, leadership, but MOST importantly how to honor and speak their personal story and then share them with elementary school girls. The troupe understands that if they share a story, they are truly giving a GIFT to the audience.
Imagine the impact on a girl hearing applause from an audience after telling her personal story! The truth is, when a girl finds her voice in this way she is forever changed positively.