A little more than a year ago, 18 Central Kentucky high school girls gathered for the first meeting of The Girl Project, a pilot arts and activism program designed to improve the self-esteem of girls.
"We were really timid at first," says Ella White, a School for Creative and Performing Arts sophomore who says she joined the program because it offered an experience she could not get in school.
"At the beginning, I was scared of the other girls," SCAPA junior Mariah Mowbray says. "I thought, 'Are you going to judge me?'"
"I know we were in The Girl Project, but you know how it is," Mowbray says, echoing the anxiety and fear of judgment and competitiveness that too often plagues teen girls.
The participants spent one Saturday each month in The Girl Project, and those fears have long since melted away.
"We call each other sisters," Mowbray says. "There are no cliques in The Girl Project."
Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's educational staff, Vanessa Becker and Ellie Clark, founded the initiative because they wanted to "make a difference," Clark said.
Funded by the Kentucky Foundation for Women, The Girl Project aims to make a fundamental positive impact on the lives of young women during a crucial stage of their development. It has tried to accomplish that goal by engaging the girls, who were recruited through social media, theater contacts and schools, in creativity workshops, relationship-building exercises and mentoring by positive female role models.
The project culminates in an original play, performed and written by participants. It debuts Aug. 29.
The show tackles humorous and heavy material that the workshops unearthed, and reflection on a spate of staggering and disturbing statistics. For instance, six times as many girls 18 and younger underwent breast augmentation surgery in 2007 than in 1997. Also: 95 percent of the 8 million Americans with eating disorders are girls and women ages 12 to 25.
"It opened my eyes a lot," says White, who cites as one of her most compelling moments with The Girl Project a group discussion about last year's case in which a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was repeatedly raped, with the attack documented on social media.
"Because of the group, I was paying attention to things like that, and when it happened, there was a realization of just how bad it is," White says. "It's definitely changed my perspective."
Mowbray echoes White's sentiments.
"I am way more aware now of how degradingly women are portrayed in mainstream media," she says. "Little boys are taught to treat women like things, and little girls are taught that they are things."
In addition to discussing relevant current events, such as the line of Victoria's Secret underwear marketed to middle school girls, the workshops include an hour of "closed container" space: The girls could anonymously put any topic that was affecting them in a basket, and the group as a whole would discuss it.
"Some of the topics included grief, sexual assault and self-mutilation," says Clark, who co-directed the workshops and the play with Becker and Christy K. Burch, the arts and advocacy director for The Girl Project.
"I can tell you that now, because they've written about these topics and they're in the play," says Clark, suggesting that many other topics remain in the "closed container."
The workshops included a two-hour creative component facilitated by guest artists from the community and around the nation: Elizabeth Beck, Sullivan Canaday White, Lora Wilson Mau, Pam Welsh-Huggins, Caroline Harvey, Bianca Spriggs, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Ellen Hagan and Adanma Onyedike Barton.
Mowbray says that the stories shared by the guest artists helped the girls expand their ambitions and buoyed their confidence.
"Knowing how they got through some of the stuff that we're dealing with was really helpful," Mowbray says. "It's really inspiring to see what they've made of themselves."
One of the 18 girls is now away at college, but her presence lingers in the play's multimedia and visual components. The remaining participants all perform in the show and contributed to the writing and multimedia presentation.
Each girl is not necessarily performing the piece that she wrote. To ensure the integrity of the emotional safety the girls cultivated during their yearlong journey, the author of each piece is anonymous.
"Some girls did write pieces and said, 'I can't deliver this but I would like for it to be included,'" Clark says.
"A lot of these pieces hit too close to home," Mowbray says. "Sometimes you have to distance yourself from a piece before you can perform it."
The inaugural year of The Girl Project will wrap up when the play closes, but leaders plan to continue the program with a new group of girls in 2014.
"We hope to create a template that can be shared with other communities so that people can take the same action," Clark says. She also says that keeping the project theater-based is important.
"You can do things in the theater that you cannot do in school," she says.
"I had this idealistic view that we were going to change the world," Mowbray says of her experience.
"Obviously you can't do that in one year, but I think we have made an impact," she says. "We've all learned more about what we can do to spread that and then make the difference that I'm hoping for."
IF YOU GO
'The Girl Project'
What: Theater and multimedia piece that is the culmination of Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's yearlong project exploring teenage girls' self-esteem and their place in society.
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 29-Sept. 1
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 seniors, students and children. Available at (859) 225-0370 or Lexarts.tix.com.
Learn more: Thegirlprojectusa.org, Mykct.org, On.fb.me/16M4cc9
Also: Screening of the documentary Miss Representation, about the mainstream media's portrayal of women. 2 p.m. Aug. 31. UK Memorial Hall, 610 S. Limestone. Free.
Candace Chaney is a writer based in Lexington.