"... I can't shop there I'm overweight, have to say it like it's a curse word. Only the skinny can joke about how fat they are because they know how much they aren't; all they want are the compliments. I know I won't get compliments..."
— Amy Hunt, 16
Teenage girls used to keep their secrets — those they dared to record — locked away in diaries. These days, many express their most intimate thoughts on paper or in cyberspace, often rendered in language surprisingly (to adults, at least) frank, funny and sophisticated.
Amy Goldwasser, a New York editor and writer, recognized the power of such personal prose while volunteering as a writing coach at the Lower Eastside Girls Club. She e-mailed friends and colleagues for help in seeking submissions for a possible book and received about 800 essays — 58 of which she included in "Red: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today."
Since it was published in 2007, the collection has spawned a website, workshops and a new student-oriented stage production.
"Bloody Red Heart," which opened last week, is being performed by the Theatre Academy of Los Angeles City College at the Odyssey Theatre in west Los Angeles through Nov. 21 and at the college Dec. 2-4. The show features eight actresses, ages 19 to 22, presenting dramatized monologues inspired by the book and by essays selected in a contest for L.A.-area teens.
In her introduction to "Red," Goldwasser says the authors "explode the puffy pink stereotype of the American teenage girl," revealing "their complicated interior lives and intelligence."
"Bloody Red Heart," based on a stage adaptation by Goldwasser and Tom Bryant, illustrates just how varied those lives can be. The first monologue describes "the petty things that upset one girl when she's at school," says Leslie Ferreira, the show's director and an academy professor. "Lunch lines, disgusting bathrooms, the teacher's boring PowerPoint demonstrations — all the things that seem like disasters when you're 14."
The play ends with a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. "She was a writer and all of her work was destroyed in the flood," says Ferreira. "She is upset with herself because she is more concerned about her pieces of paper than the bodies that got swept away."
In between, kids talk about foster care, sex, families, gym class, a friend who cuts herself and the not-so-"Brady Bunch" realities of life after parents separate.
"There are some tough topics and language," says Beth Hogan, associate artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. "But these are from real teens' stories. We'd be happy to talk to people beforehand if they have questions about the material."
The actresses of "Bloody Red Heart" are in their second or third years of training at LACC's 81-year-old academy. "So they are prepared," says Ferreira, "and yet there is something unprofessional about their performances in the best sense of the word. They are playing either girls they were or are or have known."
"I went through the exact same thing as my character, the whole body image thing, when I was growing up," Noa Medford says as she and the cast's three other 19-year-olds relax in the Odyssey green room one recent afternoon. Medford, a Tennessean, plays Amy, the girl who wrestles with her weight. "It's not only like telling her story to the audience, it's like telling my story."
"Exactly," agrees Rene Michelle Aranda, who is from Chino Hills. "My parents split up when I was 11, about the same age as my character. Everything she is saying, I wish I had the voice to say."
An earlier version of "Bloody Red Heart" premiered at the college in 2009. Hogan says the play is an ideal choice for the Odyssey, which for three years has brought in productions staged and performed by LACC as part of an attempt to reach out to younger actors and audiences. "The other things were written by adults, so we were excited to do something written by teens," says Hogan.
The production, which is being presented by the Odyssey and the academy, is being funded in part by grants, as is the essay contest — which Goldwasser, the book's editor, calls an example of the local participation "Red" encourages. She adds that a commercial theatrical version of the book is being developed in New York.
One local essay is being integrated into each performance. The opening-night piece was written by a 17-year-old named Rebecca. "My life was far from perfect and only bearable because my mom was by my side," it begins. "She was my lion, powerful and brave, yet protecting and caring. This is why my world was destroyed on July 21, 2008, when my mom committed suicide..."
Rebecca, whose full identity has been withheld by the theater because of the nature of her essay, says her school drama teacher suggested she enter the contest because she is an aspiring writer and "it would be a good opportunity to see my work performed. ... I also thought it might help me in my process of dealing with my mother's death" and it might help others too.
After attending the show, she found the experience "wasn't as scary as I thought it might be."
"I've got a longer way to go," she says, but "I feel like this was a big breakthrough that has helped start my healing process."