Ross School - Senior Projects 2011
Mentor: Mark Foard
Domain(s): English, Performing Arts
Title: “(not) a normal girl”
“(not) a normal girl” is an hour long mixed-media performance piece that I wrote, directed, choreographed, composed, and performed in, exploring the identity of a teenage girl. I wanted to look at the moments of transition from childhood to adulthood and the requisite independence and accountability that entails. As children and as teenagers, we identify ourselves stro ngly by the relationships we have with other people and, in growing up and leaving home, we are forced to define ourselves increasingly in relationship to ourselves. As a senior in high school about to leave home and go to college, this project is largely self-reflective, and uses monologues, songs, dance, film, and scenes to develop this theme.
My senior project is called “(not) a normal girl.” It’s a performance piece about identity, what it means to be a teenage girl, and growing up and leaving home. I definitely think the project was almost directly inspired by the particular phase of life I’m in right now, being a teenage girl about to leave home, but, through songs, monologues, dance, and film, I tried to make it less about me personally and more about some girl, or group of girls, going through this transition or at points along the way. I chose this project because it seemed, to me, to combine a lot of my interests. I love writing (though I have trouble finishing things or coming up with plots-as my mentor can attest), I love acting, and I’ve wanted to create a larger scale work of theater for a while.
Originally, it was going to be a one-woman show built around monologues. Then I pushed all thoughts of senior project from my head and went to Vassar College three days after school ended to be an acting apprentice at the Powerhouse Theater Company until August first. When I got home, my thoughts on the project had definitely changed. While at Powerhouse, I was involved in a lot of new theater and got to witness new projects by amazing writers and directors at their very earliest stages. One of the projects while I was there, was Eve Ensler’s new piece (the lady who wrote ‘The Vagina Monologues,”) called “I am an Emotional Creature.” The piece is structured around monologues given by teenage girls, and I talked with a lot of the cast members who attested to the fact that the piece was much more powerful because there were multiple perspectives and people being represented. It made me realize that I wanted to try to capture something universal as well, more than just my own story.
My project began to morph into a mixed media performance piece. I still needed to figure out what it was about, though, so I wrote a lot in August. I wrote one piece that was a bit like a poem, another that was sort of a short story, a monologue, a couple of songs. I started gathering material and then tried to come up with a narrative arc. The narrative arc wasn’t fitting. I didn’t know what the piece was about, or even if there was a piece. I began to find the commonality in the things I was writing. Everything seemed to be, first and foremost, about me. Most things were about relationships (with boys, friends, parents), and a lot of it was about trying to be myself. Maybe, I reasoned, it was about the simple struggle of what it means to be a girl?
I wondered what that actually meant, and got in touch with a few of my close friends. I asked them to fill in this sentence: I am blank, I am not blank. Almost everyone responded, honestly and pretty personally. From that, I started to write the opening of the piece. The opening of the piece has girls coming out on stage one at a time, and saying “ I am this,” “I am that,” using my own ideas and things my friends had told me. As the opening progresses, negative labels creep in, and the opening gets increasingly negative. At the end of the opening, all the girls look at the audience and say, “Perfect.”
Writing the piece was a struggle for me. I ran up against a lot of internal resistance, simply from not knowing what to write about, or from judging everything before it had a chance to be written. I met with my outside consultant, Kate Mueth. Kate was wonderful. She got me excited about the project from a whole new light. One piece of advice she gave me was to make sure I was paying attention to where I was leaving the audience at the end of each piece.
Kate also placed a lot of emphasis on the first few words that come out of anyone’s mouths on stage. It starts with “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a lover” and she said that, if I was going to introduce those concepts and categories, I had to follow through on them in some respect. She also told me to make sure I was picky about every word that I wrote because it all meant something.
One night in October, I had a brainstorming session with my dad. I improvised pieces and put piles of paper in various configurations across my living room floor, trying to come up with some sort of narrative arc. That was actually enormously helpful and, after that, I had a loose concept of what the piece was about.
I realized that the piece was about identity, and learning to define yourself without always doing it in relationship to other people. Then I divided the piece into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning portrayed complete dependence on other people, the middle fierce independence, and the end some sort of healthy compromise. When I broke up the material I had already written into three parts, I found that I had tons of stuff in the first part, less stuff in the middle, and nothing at the end.
I’d written a song at Powerhouse that summer for a piece I was in there in which a girl is singing to her mother. I really wanted to use it. It seemed to fit the ending of the overall piece perfectly. It was called “let me go,” and the refrain goes, “I told you I was ready for the world. I told you it was time to let me go.” I sang it for my mom and she cried. (I think in a good way). I thought about places in the piece where other songs would go as well and I realized that I definitely wanted to include songs and thought they would strengthen the piece overall. I printed up song lyrics to accompany the stacks of paper on my living room floor. I put everything in the paper-clipped stacks of beginning middle and end that had come to completely and totally signify my senior project.
A lot of my project relied heavily on an element of collage. I think this was because I was trying to integrate so many different media into one cohesive piece. The stacks of paper and song lyrics were the first step in the collage aspect of it. I needed to figure out what else to incorporate into the overall piece, and realized that what I was missing was physicalization.
One of the major challenges for me in this process was the visual aspect of a mixed media performance art piece. I’ve come to realize that my visual-spatial intelligence is really not as embarrassingly weak as I had thought, though it is still by no means my strong suit. Somehow, though, I had clear ideas about movement in the piece.
I’d written a piece in August called “the boy who loved everything and the girl who couldn’t love,” and I really liked it as a piece of writing but I didn’t want to use it or know how to use it, really, because it was very much a written piece of work. Then I came up with the idea to have a dance accompany the pre-recorded voice recording of it.
Actually choreographing the dance was definitely a challenge for me. I am not a dancer, and don’t really possess the language to convey dance steps to a dancer. Luckily, my mom is a former professional dancer and choreographer and so she helped me formulate and communicate my ideas. The choreography was for a duet between a young girl and her first love, illustrating the characters in the short story.
I did the same thing with one more of my pieces, called “The Perfect Free Spirit,” which I also liked but had no real venue for. Initially, I wanted to have a dancer dancing with her filmed image, while the voice was pre-recorded and I played the first Chopin prelude on the piano. Then I realized that was much too much busy-ness on stage and would probably detract from the imagery of each separate component. I settled on having a film, a pre-recorded voice, and the piano. I liked that the film added another texture to the piece.
This meant that the girl in the film could be me. I borrowed a camera from Kenny to shoot the film. The story clearly specified that the girl had to be barefoot. Mom and I went outside for about an hour the first day of Christmas break in 20 degree weather and shot the movie. I began to think about the balance between pieces. This piece and the dance with Emily and Max created a symmetry that I really liked. They were similar writing styles, and both used unfamiliar media for me (The “Boy who loved everything” is choreographed, and the “perfect free spirit,” uses film, dance, and music). I started to see when I had those that they did sort of balance each other.
As I was putting together the order of things, theatricality took center stage. I started to look at the piece as a collection of strong smaller pieces and ways to get from one to the other. I kept the idea of a narrative arc leading to a realization of identity in the back of my head, but balancing the piece and creating a natural theatric arc was much less rational and much more by feeling. Often, it was simply a matter of the audience needing to laugh at a certain point in the script.
One example of that is a piece I call “body parts.” It has three girls in front of a mirror, looking at the parts of their body that irritate them, with a voice over recording of “their thoughts” on the sound system. At the end, the girl in the middle looking at her nose comes to terms with it and “owns” it. Her voice says, “There is a bump…but it’s kind of….cool.” Which I really liked. But in the performance people were laughing too loudly to hear that line.
By the time Foard wanted a full first draft of the piece, I’d rearranged the order of things a lot since that day in October with my dad and the living room floor, but it still wasn’t perfect. In particular, there were two turning points in the piece that weren’t adequately covered yet and I didn’t quite know what to put there. I drafted dummy-monologues for them, sort of place-holders, held my breath and sent it off to Kate and Foard.
Kate wrote me back. She said it was “beautiful” but read “a bit like a diary,” and asked if being a teenager was ever fun? Then she said:
I knew she was right.
I added in the monologue about yoga, “a better yogi,” which I’d been struggling to write for a while. This monologue is about a girl who takes up yoga and falls head over heels for her yoga teacher, encountering competition from his ex girlfriend, but not much yogic tranquility. It’s based on an event that actually happened to me, and I think I sort of had to make piece with everyone involved before I could feel okay about using it to make art.
I also added another funny monologue literally the week before the show called “Laundry Fiascos.” I knew I needed more comic relief, and I also needed another real monologue. This monologue was about achieving independence, which was a narrative point in the piece that needed more material. Perhaps most importantly, though, I heard Lexie Kelly!’s voice in my head when I was writing it, and I knew she would be awesome at it.
These two monologues directly replaced the dummy writing I’d stuck in the first draft, and I think they were very, very necessary. The two pieces balanced each other out, like the two dance pieces from before. I also had two smaller pieces that were sort of like poems and were, again, similar to each other, at either end of the “climax” of the piece. The opening and the closing mirrored each other, too, creating a symmetry that I thought worked pretty nicely.
My biggest challenges in this whole process were staying motivated to finish the project and not questioning myself, coordinating all of the various aspects involved and allotting necessary time to get everything done. Along these lines, my product was a performance piece with seven other people in it. I needed a lot of rehearsal time and relied a lot on other people to come through (which they did, because they are incredible), but organizing around other people’s schedules was difficult. The piece, by its very collage nature, required time and organization as well. I had to get together all of the different elements of the piece, stage, choreograph, and teach the blocking to my cast, film, and do many voice over recordings. I learned that collages are hard.
I also performed in most of the piece, and had to direct it while being on stage. This was hard because I had no outside vantage point to view some of the blocking or get a removed perspective on the piece, and had to rely on other people for this. Sometimes, I drafted people to stand in on stage so I could sit in the audience and see how it looked. Truly, I’m not really sure how the piece came together at all, but somehow it did.
A number of people who came asked me if I would do it again, or bring it to a school, etc. I would like to pick up the piece again and rework it in a few years, when I have more distance from what it means to be a teenage girl growing up and leaving home. It was a very self-reflective, highly personal, piece, and I need some space from my own head for a while. That said, I would be completely open to going back and doing more with it at some point. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to have a 2-week workshop for with zero other commitments and a bunch of people who had nothing better to do than work on it with me.
I’ve wanted to be an actress literally since I was six years old, and this piece hasn’t changed that, but it has made me realize how much fun writing and directing can be as well, and that I’d ideally like to write, direct, and act in my own work. I think that would be incredibly fun. I’d also like to write a straight play at some point. Who knows?
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Kate Mueth, Actor/Director/Choreographer, has created similar pieces.