My name is Jenna Stotts. I am a twenty years old, and I have been a part of Act Like A GRRRL for eight summers, seven as a participant and two as a co-leader (I co-lead in Northern Virginia the week after my last performance as a grrrl). Throughout the past eight years with ALAG I have learned so much and grown exponentially. Since I have been exposed to the greatness that this program is from the age of twelve, I rarely think about how different my life would be without it. Recently at the Actor’s Bridge Ensemble’s twentieth birthday party, I was asked multiple times if I thought my life would be the same had I not participated in ALAG, and my answer without hesitation was always, “Absolutely not.”
When I came into the program at twelve, I was one of those girls who believed that other girls created drama and therefore I was safer to only be friends with boys and never trust a girl a day in my life. I also grew up with two brothers, so I had no scheme of reference as to what a healthy relationship with a female my age could look like. I thought that somehow my tomboyish thought process made me cool and edgy, until I got to Act Like A GRRRL and was gently nudged away from that by the eight other grrrls I met my first year. As the month of June went on, they tried their best to make me see that by refusing to have female companions I was falling into the trap society has set up on teenage girls. You know the trap, the one that says teenage girls are just wildly emotional beings who will backstab and gossip about any friend they have just to win some boy’s attention. And while I will be the first to admit that it took a while for me to grasp this, when I finally did, I never let it go.
Eight years later and most of the best and longest lasting friendships I have stem from Act Like A GRRRL and the grrrls I met there. Even if we go months without seeing each other, when we are together it’s like we were just cuddled up on the couch last week. All of my friendships, whether or not they were formed through ALAG, are stronger because of the communication skills and compassion I learned through the program.
All of that is only a slice of how different my life has become since I started Act Like A GRRRL. Every aspect has changed for the better and the people I need to thank for that are all connect to this program in one way or another. Ever since the party I’ve been mulling over how to show my gratitude to everyone at one time, then I realized there wasn’t a more fitting way than through written word. If you have been connected to Act Like A GRRRL in anyway, this letter of gratitude is for you.
First and foremost, I want to thank Vali Forrister for the vision and faith in herself to bring her dream of this program to fruition. Also for continuing to believe in the program and all the grrrls that have and will go through it. Along with Vali, I would also like to think everyone who supported her in the very first year: whether you were a grrrl, co-leader, a donor of time or money. I also want to be sure to thank the ones who continue to support Vali’s vision: the Actor’s Bridge Ensemble board, current coleaders, parents/friends/fans, and the current grrrls. Without everyone from the first year and the continued support since the beginning, Act Like A GRRRL would not be going into year twelve.
From this point on I’ve made a list, to try my best to ensure I get to thank every person possible.
To the co-leaders (past/present/future): I never truly understood how much behind the scenes work each of you do until I became a co-leader and I began planning for the next day or running errands outside of the allotted ALAG time. Thank you for giving up a month of your time to help guide grrrl through the peaks and pitfalls of adolescence; for being so willing to teach but also learn; and for always believing in us especially when we doubted ourselves. The love and support each of you gave me, and continues to give me even now, has truly shaped how I lead and how I love both in the circle and in my life.
To Jessika Malone, Mitch Massaro, and every other person who has done tech for an ALAG performance: You all spend so much time to ensure the grrrls shine as brightly and confidently as they can on stage, and sometimes as a grrrl it is easy to take that for granted. But this summer when I helped paint the stage floor black, and got a tiny glance into all the work everyone does for the two night production, I realized this is truly a labor of love. Thank you for believing in ALAG’s work and spending so many hours year after year making the grrrls look good. You are all definitely behind-the-scene-heros.
To every guest artist, big grrrl, person who has donated even ten
minutes of your time to the grrrls: Thank you all for showing me a glimpse of what my life could look like in 5, 10, 20 years. Thank you for having enough courage to tell a group of teenage grrrls your life story, even the messy parts, and for showing us how we can truly grow up to be anything and anyone we dream of. You all have also shown us that the concept of being both/and is achievable; I can be both a mom and a professional, both a scientist and an artist. The time you give up to spend with the grrrls does not go unnoticed, and the love you show through your words and actions doesn’t either.
To every grrrl I was in the circle with: Even though most of us have graduated from the program and many of us no longer live in Nashville, I still feel like we are connected. Thank you all for showing me what sisterhood can feel like, what compassion and empathy really are, and most importantly for teaching me the lessons it takes some people a lifetime to learn. You have all made me a little wiser, a little more adventurous, and a lot more accepting. Without the friendships I had with all of you, I would probably have no idea about so many different ways of being, belief sets, and traditions. Thank you for gently correcting my mistakes, listening and giving feedback but never trying to fix me, and most importantly loving me unconditionally.
Now as some may know, Act Like A GRRRL has a satellite in Northern Virginia (ALAG NoVA), and I am lucky enough to be connected to that circle as well. I have a few specific pieces of gratitude for that group.
To Rhonda Eldridge, her family, and the Blueberry Hill Community: First to Rhonda, thank you for loving the idea of ALAG so much that you reached out to Vali to try and start it in your community. Your dedication to the process and the grrrls is awe-inspiring. Thank you for your love, support, and friendship to not only the NoVA circle but also the Nashville circle. Your family and community have supported us in such tremendous ways; inviting us in with welcoming arms, being sure we have everything we could ever need, and being excited to see the end product of our work. Thank you all for believing in this cause that is so near to my heart.
To my fellow NoVA groundbreakers: Gabrielle Saliba, Dylan McCann, Augusta Freeman, and Vali Forrister- this started with the five of us. Even as shakey and unsure as we all were, we made it work. Without all of us working in the ways we did, the grrrls we have worked with since the first year would have never known what the three R’s mean to them. Thank you all for taking the risk as a team.
To my fellow NoVA coleaders: Gabrielle Saliba- without your guidance my first year of coleading, I would be so lost. Thank you for mentoring me through that transition and being supportive and gently correcting me when I made mistakes. The friendship we have made through our DC explorations together means so much to me, and I am so grateful for you and your love. Tasneem Grace Tewogbola- Thank you for being both a mentor and a mentee, a dance partner and director, a co-worker and a friend. Experiencing my first co-director and co-choreographer job with you (for the Capital Fringe, no less) was an absolute joy, a stressful joy, but one regardless. I’m so grateful for our teamwork and how well we balance each other; I am so happy that I can call you my friend.
To the NoVA grrrls: You all have such a special place in my heart. Each of you, whether you have been in the program one year or all three, you all continue to teach me such important life lessons: how to be a good leader; how to listen to an issue without the purpose of fixing it for you; but probably most importantly is how to love and believe in someone unconditionally. Thank you for looking up to me as a mentor, but I want you to know that you all are also mentors and teachers to me in your own ways.
Now that I have shown gratitude to everyone who is part of the initial process, I want to thank those who support the GRRRLs outside of the circle.
To the family/friends/fans who come to the shows: Sharing any writing publically is scary, but sharing very personal writing on stage is terrifying. Thank you for coming in with an open mind: a mind ready to listen, learn, cry, and giggle. Thank you for being the silent head nodders the “Ooooo yes, girl!” in the crowd. Thank you for your appreciation notes, your hugs, your words of shared experiences. Thank you for helping each grrrl feel a little less alone in her journey.
To the donors: Without your fiscal contributions to this program, my life and the lives of many others would be drastically different. I would not have the friendship, the compassion, the opportunities that I have gained from this amazing program. It is because of you, and your belief in ALAG and the future of teenage girls, that I have become who I am today. Thank you for any donation you have ever or will ever make to Act Like A GRRRL, whether it’s one dollar or upward of one-thousand. Your donations have shown teenage girls the potential they have, given them hope for the future, and the confidence to strive toward their goals. Your dollars and cents have given me the courage to try and achieve every wild career idea I have ever come up with; given me the friendships that have taught me compassion and acceptance; and given me the confidence and tools to publically thank everyone who has gotten me this point in my life.
Every word of gratitude comes from the deepest part of my soul. Without this community of people, I would not be the Jenna Stotts I am today. I don’t know who I would be, but I don’t think I want to meet that version of myself. Because of all of you I am a more balanced, compassionate, and outspoken version of myself. A version that twelve year old Jenna never knew existed.