"Squirrels," said Vanity Reyes, a young woman wearing a New York Yankees cap and sweats, with a confident tilt of her chin.
"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."
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.
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."