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Sixteen-year-old Erin Forrister had heard ad nauseam the platitude that women can be whatever they want, but she didn’t fully grasp the truth behind the cliché until she met women working as rabbis, filmmakers, and lobbyists.
“Girls are taught we are supposed to follow certain career paths, but to see these women living their passions really made me see that women can do whatever they want,” says Erin.
The women shared their stories with Erin and her peers as guest artists of Act Like a GRRRL, a writing and performance program designed to boost confidence and foster camaraderie among teenage girls.
The process of sharing writing with peers as it is developed is the engine that powers ALAG. For two weeks, the girls gather at Blueberry Hill Cohousing in Vienna, and respond to writing prompts. As they share their writing with the group, they gather feedback to hone and revise for performance, integrating choreography and singing along the way.
“We start on day one with nothing,” says Erin. “By the end of two weeks we have every girl sharing two or three prompt responses, several dances, and an original song. It always comes together like a professional performance and now that we are part of Fringe it feels even more professional.”
Vali Forrister—Erin’s aunt and the artistic director of the Actors Bridge Ensemble—created ALAG more than a decade ago in Nashville, and three years ago the organization expanded to the D.C. area. This year marks the group’s second performance at Capital Fringe. Vali started the program in response to another niece’s negative experience with writing at school.
“She showed me a poem she had written, and it was really good,” says Vali. “But her teacher told her it was too dark. I wanted to give girls a place to explore all sides of their voices, the dark and the light.”
Guest artists likes the ones who are so memorable to Erin are integral to ALAG’s mission of developing leadership skills, but it’s the girls’ own stories that matter most. Amirah Banker, who will be a freshman at Wakefield High School in Arlington next year, was 12 when she joined.
“I was nervous, because I was the youngest one, and I didn’t know if I would fit in,” Amirah says.
Later this month, she’ll write and perform with ALAG for the second time at Capital Fringe. She talks about the upcoming show with excitement and an easy air of self-assuredness; there’s no trace of stage fright in her anticipation of opening night.
“I’m not worried about whether or not people will like what I’m going to say, because the girls in my group have already told me they like my writing,” Amirah says. “If you make a mistake on stage, the other girls are there to help you, and the audience is supportive.”
One of Amirah’s favorite prompts evolved into a piece she performed at Fringe, entitled My Mask, which explores her relationship with her father, who lives in New York. It reads, in part: “I show my feelings for a second/ Then they disappear/ Until next time it rains.”
Family is a running theme in Amirah’s writing. She’s grateful for her moth-er, who she says has always encouraged her creativity, and her grandfather, who has helped raise her. Knowing they will be in the audience at Fringe gives her a sense of pride.
If building confidence and instilling the importance of self-expression aren’t sufficient motivators for girls to participate in ALAG, consider this: One hundred percent of ALAG graduates to date have gone on to college. And the all-girl factor makes it a statistically high-achieving space, according to a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. The report found that girls attending all-girls schools—or in the case of ALAG, an all-girls program—have higher aspirations and greater motivation, are challenged to achieve more, and have a higher rate of participation in activities that prepare them for the world outside of school.
Rhonda Eldridge, who co-founded the local chapter of ALAG with Vali, says the girls inspire her.
“It’s an opportunity for young women to speak their truth in a public space,” Rhonda says, “to claim themselves as they navigate their way to adulthood.”
July 21–24. MLK Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. $17. actorsbridge.org/act-like-a-grrrl-nova.