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By Vali Forrister
When my niece, Haviland, was 12 years old, she shared her poetry with me for the first time.
I told her it was good.
“No it isn’t. My teachers say I’m too dark.”
“You’re 12. Of course you’re dark. And, you are a great writer.”
“I think I’d like to be a writer when I grow up. But, I know a woman can’t make a living as a writer. So, I’m going to be a teacher or a secretary.”
I was stunned. This was 2004. For my niece to think these were her only career options horrified me. Don’t get me wrong; teacher and secretary are both excellent career paths, but for a bright, middle-class American girl to believe that those are her only choices sent me reeling.
I had to do something. I was in the process of leaving my “day job” to run the theatre company I had co-founded a few years earlier. With more time to focus, could I create an opportunity to blow Haviland’s mind with all the options her future could hold? Could I create a place for Haviland and girls like her to be both dark and light; angry and joyful; little girl and grown woman as they journeyed to discover who they are? I had to act fast before my niece settled for a future that some random authority figure had decided was the best available for her.
And so, Act Like a GRRRL was born overnight. It’s the closest thing to divine inspiration I’ve ever known. It would be a month-long writing and performance program augmented with visits from guest artists: empowered adult women living creative lives. The “grrrls” would write every day and read what they wrote in our circle, giving each other supportive feedback and encouraging each other to go deeper. The program would conclude with a public performance where friends and family could witness the grrrls in full voice speaking their deepest truths.
We chose the name “Act Like a GRRRL” to reclaim language that is often used as an insult. We weren’t going to be Acting Like G-I-R-L-S. In our culture, it’s never a compliment to be told you do anything “like a girl.” But a GRRRL is something entirely different. It’s a fresh word that allows each individual to define what those “extra Rs” mean for her.
In my experience, the way to connect girls is to remove competition and give them an impossible task that can only be accomplished if they work together. Today’s “girl culture” does not serve girls. It feeds them the lie that there is a limited amount of beauty, intelligence and attention in the world and they have to fight each other for it. This leaves them feeling separate and alone. Act Like a GRRRL exposes the competition myth as an artificial construction that distracts us from realizing our true potential. When we decide to create our own reality in an intentional way, we get to make our own rules. We all get to be beautiful, talented, and intelligent. The grrrls get to create the “sisterhood” they’ve always longed for.
Now, step back: they are about to start inspiring each other’s futures. These young women come from the most diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but they have two important things in common: they believe in the power of stories to change lives, and they fiercely support each other.
And so, they are able to accomplish the impossible: They begin on day one of the program with a blank page. Three weeks later, they have a finished script complete with original monologues, dances, and songs through which they take the massive risk of publicly declaring:
This is who I am.
This is what I believe.
Here’s what I worry about.
This is what I dream of becoming.
By the end of week four, they have a polished performance in which each of them takes turns being the star of the show. They play to sold-out houses and city buzzes about their work for months.
It’s rigorous work. I run a professional theatre company, and I hold these teenage girls to the same standard I demand from professionals. And, they have never disappointed me. As the lights go down on the final performance, they realize that they just completed their rite of passage. Their truths have been publicly witnessed. They have been heard. They are transformed, and the audience is reminded that it’s never too late to reclaim their own potential. I’ve watched it happen many times.
One year ago today, the grrrls performed at the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day in San Jose, Costa Rica. Act Like a GRRRL had been chosen to be the U.S. representatives for the gala and the only teenage performers. I was a little worried about how their work would be received. But, as soon as they took the stage, the crowd leaned in, talked back, and responded with a deafening standing ovation. Our fellow performers from around the world applauded madly from the wings and embraced the grrrls as they ran off stage.
Why had I been worried? The next day a visual artist from Costa Rica who now lives in Vienna came to us with tears streaming down her face saying that in spite of all the success she’s garnered as an artist, her mother sees her as a failure because she doesn’t have a husband. “I wish I had this program when I was a girl. It would have helped me learn to stand up for myself at a younger age.” She told the grrrls that when she becomes a millionaire, she’s going to send them into every school in Costa Rica. Invitations have followed for us to bring ALAG to Bolivia, Australia, and Norway in the next 18 months. It looks like hope and empowerment are universally relevant.
Over the last 8 years, I’ve watched dozens of girls become grrrls as they wrestle with the heaviness of confronting an abusive parent, a school bully, a possessive boyfriend, or their own internal demons. They’ve encouraged each other through crises as intense as rape and held each other tight when one of our founding members passed away from complications of a heart transplant at the age of 16. And, I’ve waved goodbye as these bold young leaders headed off to colleges like Florida A&M, University of Tennessee, Warren Wilson, Tufts, and Fisk. They still check-in when they need to make a tough decision or need honest feedback on which path to take. They know they’ve got each other for life.
And, Haviland? She just graduated from Agnes Scott College with a double major in astrophysics and philosophy. When I talked to her this morning, she was busy writing up her latest research from the observatory for a paper she plans to present in Greece later this summer. A far cry from that girl who thought her only options were teacher and secretary.
Vali Forrister is the producing artistic director of the Actors Bridge Ensemble. She has produced over 60 productions for the company, has acted over 20, directed more than a dozen, and authored four. She created and serves as artistic director of Act Like A GRRRL, a year-round autobiographical writing and performance program for girls 12-18 to gain public voice by articulating their lived experience. Vali holds a Master of Arts degree in Performance Studies. Her thesis wor,k in the scripting and performance of intimate personal narratives as a means of personal and social change, became the research basis for ACT LIKE A GRRRL. She is a recipient of the Women Mentoring Women Award from Vanderbilt University and a finalist for the Avon Hello Tomorrow Fund to Empower Women and Change the World. Vali serves on the steering committee of the Nashville Arts Coalition and is an adjunct faculty member at Belmont and Lipscomb universities where she teaches the Meisner Technique. She is often a featured speaker for organizations that work to end violence against women. She has presented at the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence state conference, Nashville Voices for Victims Crime Victims Rights Week Ceremony, and has served as keynote speaker at Take Back the Night ceremonies at Vanderbilt and Tennessee Technological University.