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Tennessee playwright Vali Forrester wanted to give her 12-year-old niece a space to explore herself and get inspired by others after watching her struggle with criticism from her teachers about her writing.

“She was shutting down a whole side of herself without exploring it because of what some teachers said,” Forrester recalls. In response, Forrester wanted to create a nonjudgmental community where girls could be, in her words, “as dark or as light or as silly or as serious as they want to be.”

That was in 2004. For the past 10 years, Forrester has built her Act Like a GRRRL camps into just that. The Nashville-based nonprofit has helped teen girls age 12-18 craft personal narrative writing, dances, and songs exploring what it means to be a teen girl. The camp ends each year with a series of performances developed and performed by the girls. A Northern Virginia chapter, held at the Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Fairfax County, joined the original Nashville chapter in 2013. There have also been variations of the program in Costa Rica and Bolivia as well as in a women’s prison in Tennessee.

“We as women and girls are fed the lie that we can’t trust each other and have to fight each other for seats at the table,” Forrester says. “Eliminating that can change the course of a girl’s life.” Building self-confidence and self-understanding through personal narrative, song, and dance are at the center of the program.

This is the first year Act Like a GRRRL will be performing at Capital Fringe, via its NOVA chapter, although it’s been part of the Nashville Fringe Festival for years. The show will include two personal narrative pieces from each camper, at least one collaborative song, and a few dance numbers. But the actual content, until very recently, was a mystery: This year’s NOVA camp began on July 6, and its eight campers had only two weeks to put the show together, after a first week mainly devoted to individual writing assignments, guest speakers, and bonding.

“I’m excited they’re getting tied to Fringe and exposed to a larger audience,” Forrester says. “The show is always very Fringe-y.”

As a group the girls work together to workshop the two individual narratives from each participant that will form the show, as well as a collaborative sing and a few dance numbers, developing an accompanying structure and emotional arc. In choosing narratives, they look for writing pieces with the most universal themes.

“I hope I can affect someone with my writing,” said veteran camper Erin Villaronga, a 14-year-old from Falls Church. “That’s the goal.”

Villaronga, who has attended the NOVA camp since its inception, said she keeps returning because she’s seen the difference it’s made in her life. “The biggest thing I learned is you don’t have to be perfect to be the best you,” she says. “I’m fine with not being normal. I’m comfortable with myself.”

Those who are moved by Act Like A Grrrl‘s stories can tell the teens directly. During intermission and following each show, audience members will be encouraged to leave notes for the performers in the Appreciation Box—Forrester’s idea. The girls also use the Appreciation Box during the camp to leave positive notes for each other. Each day of camp ends with appreciation, where each girl shares something she appreciates about herself and the girl next to her.

“It’s simple but radical to have to acknowledge our own worthiness and accept compliments from others,” Forrester explains. She notes that former campers have taken their boxes with them to college and read them for moral support during tough times.

“People usually flood into the lobby during intermission to leave notes for the girls,” Forrester says. “And some stay for a long time after the show, still writing.”

Act Like a GRRRL performs at Dance Place in the Brookland Artspace Lofts Studio tonight at 8:00, July 18 at 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., and July 19 at 5:45 p.m.

Photo courtesy of Act Like A Grrrl