From homeless to actress
A theater class helps marginalized women reclaim their lives.
"Squirrels," said Vanity Reyes, a young woman wearing a New York Yankees cap and sweats, with a confident tilt of her chin.Skip to next paragraph
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"Vendors," shot back Claire, an older woman with pressed black pants and perfect makeup, who asked that her last name not be used.
With lightning speed, the improv partners parlayed back and forth everything one could spot in the Boston Common, a mile from the church where they were practicing. The exercise ended abruptly when Claire missed a beat – though she stole the show with a conciliatory fall to the floor.
It's hard to imagine that any of the gregarious, outspoken members of Girl Talk Theatre ever felt invisible. Yet that's precisely the feeling that being homeless, or struggling with an addiction, unemployment, domestic abuse, or other trauma can lead to, these women say. But while varying hardships may have led them to join Girl Talk, a Boston-based nonprofit theater troupe dedicated to sharing their stories, performing has only been empowering. Speaking their minds on everything from public policies to prejudice has transformed their lives – and challenged their audiences to reject stereotypes regarding the disenfranchised.
"Homelessness is not just being without a home. It changed me from head to toe," says Claire, who is no longer homeless. "Being able to go out and tell your story and have someone listen for a change without judging you – I've found 95 percent of who I was."
Claire met Girl Talk Theatre founder Stephanie Cotton-Snell in 2007, when Girl Talk was offering a new theater class at Rosie's Place, a Boston women's shelter.
"I worked for a long time as a professional actress and felt a great deal of my life was spent on self-promotion. I began to think that wasn't what I was about," says Ms. Cotton-Snell. After wining a fellowship, Cotton-Snell created Girl Talk Theatre, a curriculum of weekly drama classes that culminates in a performance written by the theater students she teaches: marginalized women, most from area shelters. Cotton-Snell has taught courses in three Boston shelters to date. An additional class of 10 alumni has performed their own play in shelters, a YWCA, and a local theater, and is writing their second play, which they'll perform next fall.
For some, Girl Talk is the first time they've shared their story. "They've been walked by and ignored and treated badly but [here] they have a place where they are lifted up and literally given a platform," Cotton-Snell says.
Together, members shape the play. Last year's show chronicled the difficulty of obtaining Section 8 housing vouchers, a key for many transitioning from homelessness to stability. This year, it will be the long and devastating shadow a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) form can cast.
Girl Talk alums Vanity and Claire role-played one such scenario at a recent class. Vanity, the employer, interviewed Claire's character – a retail applicant with a criminal record from years previous. As Claire tries to explain that the retail theft charge was dismissed, Vanity cuts her off: "Are you telling me this is wrong? But it's in the form," she says. "I [won't] hire you."
After the scene, Claire ponders her character's quandary. "Should I have spoken more for myself? It's like an albatross: [The record] just won't go away."