From homeless to actress
A theater class helps marginalized women reclaim their lives.
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Introspection is par for the course, says Cotton-Snell, who carries a stack of Post-its to capture such moments, which she'll develop into a script the women will redact and perform. The group utilizes some of the tools of drama therapy, a field that emerged in the 1970s and "gets to the story to get to the cure," Cotton-Snell says.Skip to next paragraph
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Jason Butler, a licensed creative arts therapist who runs a theater group in New York for homeless individuals and those diagnosed as mentally ill, says the method can help rebuild normal daily routines.
"In lives that can seem so out of control, theater gives them something they can hold on to. People are so marginalized that when they are able to create and present it's empowering. They can say, 'I did something of value, that made others laugh or cry,' " he says.
Claire found "self-confidence, self-esteem, and a new way to express myself." She grew up with plenty, attending boarding school in Connecticut and even acting a bit in college. She worked. But Claire became homeless after moving to Boston 17 years ago. She credits Rosie's Place with getting her back on her feet when she felt invisible to the rest of the world.
"They all have such different stories," says Girl Talk volunteer Michelle Rogers.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness in a given year. Women currently comprise 32 percent of homeless adults, but that number is increasing.
"Especially in these economic times, homeless women need so much more support," says Brenda McNeal of the Boston Women's Fund, which recently provided Girl Talk a sizable grant.
Girl Talk members concentrate first and foremost on celebrating the significant successes of the other actors. Many of the women have taken additional positive steps, says Leslie Sears, a freelance stage manager and a Girl Talk board member. Vanity is attending college; studying theater arts. Others have found employment, exited violent relationships, or remained sober.
With Girl Talk in its second year, Cotton-Snell navigates dual goals: sustaining Girl Talk through grants and partnerships with local shelters and the Nora Theater Company of Cambridge, Mass. (which has donated space and assisted in script development), and continuing to develop her students, whom she pays a modest performance stipend.
It's a struggle during an economic downturn. But "I like to change perceptions," Cotton-Snell says, with a determined grin. "I was made for this work."
Girl Talk member Lois Frazier has raised five children, obtained her GED, completed a hairstyling program, and is in recovery from drug and alcohol use. She echoes Cotton-Snell's sentiment.
"Many didn't know a lot of us women were struggling the way that we're struggling – and that we can be helped. The audience gets that through our life experiences," she says. "Whatever level you are at in life, you don't have to stay stuck."