Putting Girls’ Stories on Stage

On Friday September 9, a group of girls arrived for an audition in Manhattan. It wasn’t like other auditions in the city. There was no profile to match, no script to memorize. Instead, the girls were encouraged to perform their own material.

That’s what Girl Be Heard Theatre Company is looking for: girls who are brave enough to share their own stories.

via Girl Be Heard Theatre Company
via Girl Be Heard Theatre Company

Fifty girls, ranging in age from 12 to 21, waited in the hallway that morning. They pulled folded paper out of their purses. They were mouthing their own handwritten monologues and songs, waiting for their names to be called.

“I wrote about racism and stereotypes,” said Yeshiah, a soft spoken 14-year-old whose sister is in the troop. “[When it was my turn] it was hard to say out loud because these are real issues I face. I stopped for a second but they encouraged me to keep going.”

Founded in 2008, Girl Be Heard helps 170 girls tell their stories annually. By using their own experiences, and the experiences of international pen pals, the girls create productions covering everything from body image to child marriage, trafficking to gun control. This year, one of their biggest shows will tour high schools and college fraternities – detailing the realities of campus assault.

Nightwood Theatre Company is also putting women’s voices front and center this fall. Founded in Ontario in 1979, the company focuses on women’s lived experiences. In its 37 years, Nightwood has explored: motherhood, religion, the breakdown of marriage, midlife crisis, breast cancer, girls’ sexuality in the digital age and more.

“While representing half of the population, women’s voices on stage still act as a counterpoint to the dominant male culture of today’s mainstream theatre,” says Nightwood Artistic Director Kelly Thorton. “In terms of the representation of female playwrights, directors and artistic directors whose numbers lag at around the 28 to 32 percent mark [in Canada], Nightwood has been very involved in advocating for the female voice and for gender equity.”

via Nightwood Theatre Company
via Nightwood Theatre Company

Both theatre companies invite women into every step of the creative process. “A girl might come to the group thinking she’s just a writer or performer,” says Girl Be Heard Communications Associate, Juliany Taveras. “But then she learns she can do more. It is important girls see themselves as multifaceted.” Nightwood agrees; all four of their plays this fall are being performed by the women who wrote them.

Both theatre companies embrace a range of styles. If you stop by a Nightwood production one night this month, you can see Anna Chatterton using a microphone, laptop and vocal processor. She embodies every character in Quiver, the story of a single mother at odds with her teenage daughter. The next night, you can see MouthPiece, where actresses employ acapella harmonies, physical movement and text to tell the story of their modern female lead, who is in the midst of processing her mother’s death.

“It’s always about igniting a pertinent conversation with society,” says Nightwood’s Kelly Thorton. Both groups agree that there’s something beautiful about the nature of theatre: it requires presence and can evoke visceral human reactions. “There is power in a room full of strangers experiencing an immediate community in a theatrical space,” says Girl Be Heard Executive Director Jessica Morris. “We are sharing knowledge, love and information.”

As for Yeshiah, that 14-year-old who auditioned for Girl Be Heard, she is joining the troop. She’ll spend this fall coming up with original songs, dances, raps, and monologues which have a tendency to be performed everywhere from low income schools in New York to rooms with decision makers in the White House and State Department. Last year, Girl Be Heard even did a special performance for Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Malala Yousafzai.

“You don’t hear many people my age getting to talk about controversial issues,” says Yeshiah. “I’ve seen Girl Be Heard performances where they’re all standing up together. They’re talking about problems women face as a group. It’s something you remember.”


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.