In 2008, Founding Artistic Director Ashley Marinaccio was asked to write and direct a “girl power” show at the EstroGenius Theatre Festival in NYC. She instead invited the cast of twelve young women, from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, to tell their own stories. The result was transformative. At the very same festival, one year later, Ashley invited Jessica Greer Morris to get involved with the GirlPower ensemble when the two were paired up to co-produce a show about teen girls in Niger. Jessica was so inspired by Ashley, co-director Elizabeth Koke, and the growing theatre ensemble of young women (ages 12-21), she soon gave up all of her theatre commitments to fully support the work of this new theatre collective, Project Girl Performance Collective.
When Project Girl began, bake sales were the revenue stream, street theatre was the norm, and it was a struggle to cover the cost of workshops/rehearsal space and fees to enter festivals such as The New York International Fringe Festival. Yet the theatre performances were not only transformative for audiences, there was a dramatic, positive, impact on the performers (increased self-esteem, healthier relationships, and decreases in self-harm, bullying and depression).
Soon the theatre collective began taking on global issues impacting women and girls abroad in partnership with youth advocates from the Man Up Campaign, which Jessica helped to launch at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Jessica brought in Congolese activists to do teach-ins and share the stories of girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the cast. The healing aspect and political relevance of our theatre company, in partnership with activists from the DRC, could not be denied after this first “across borders” show raised awareness about the rape epidemic in Congo. This show ended up going to the White House, toured the Holocaust Museum in Richmond VA, and was featured at the United Nations.
Jessica and Ashley were so inspired by and committed to the work, they decided to create a nonprofit organization to properly fund and expand the workshops and performances beyond the EstroGenius Festival. Ashley became the Founding Artistic Director and Jessica the Founding Executive Director. Founding Board Chair Jackie Shapiro, a United Nations Representative, helped make the work possible in the early days by funding rehearsal space and opening doors at the UN. 501c3 nonprofit status was attained in 2011, but due to the recession and limited bandwidth, the Co-Founders did not go on payroll until July 1, 2013, the same year that the organization was rebranded as Girl Be Heard. (It was learned later that another nonprofit owned the name Project Girl). This same year, Girl Be Heard’s program was taken “out of Ashley’s and Jessica’s heads” and into a formal curriculum thanks to Founding Director of Education, Dena Adriance. It is now being taught by 22 Teaching Artists in 12 Title 1 schools, two community-based settings, and detention centers, in New York City and abroad. The theatre company has toured eight countries (Bermuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, USA) and, in 2016, became an official NGO of the United Nations Office of Public Information. In 2017, Girl Be Heard received a major grant from the U.S. State Department to launch our program abroad, in partnership with the inspiring, spoken word nonprofit, 2 Cents Movement, in Trinidad and Tobago.
Under Ashley and Jessica’s leadership, Girl Be Heard has written and performed numerous award-winning shows directed by Ashley and produced by Jessica, including: Girl Power: Survival of the Fittest (2009), America’s Dirty Secret (2009) exposes the hardships of navigating the welfare system, food pantries, shelters, and foster care in the wake of the 2009 recession, Project Girl Congo (2010), Child Bride (2011), Trafficked (2012) about the $38 billion-a-year sex trafficking industry, 9mm America (2013), DisPlaced (2014) about the refugee crisis, Embodi(ED) (2016) illuminating girls’ struggles with body image, eating disorders, and the $55 billion-dollar diet industry.
In 2016, Ashley left Girl Be Heard to pursue her PhD at the City University of NY (CUNY). Girl Be Heard will be forever indebted to Ashley Marinaccio, Artistic Director Emeritus, for seeding the idea of Girl Be Heard in 2008 and having the vision to create a space for young women to speak out about the issues they care about most.
Since departing Girl Be Heard, Ashley is working on her Ph.D. in Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research interests include exploring theatre practices in war zones, applications of theatre in social justice movements, politics and performance in times of crisis, community-based theatre, intersections between anthropology and theatre, and documentary theatre.
Ashley has received numerous theatre accolades, including the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Lucille Lortel Women’s Visionary Award. As a director and playwright, her work has been seen off-Broadway, at the White House, United Nations, TED conferences across the United States, Europe and Asia. Ashley is a co-founder/director of Co-Op Theatre East (cooptheatreeast.org) and member of the Civilians Field Research Team. She is on faculty at Pace University.
Jessica brings a public health and strategic management background to her work at Girl Be Heard. She has formerly worked as a Global Consultant and Director of Community Relations at the NYC Department of Health. Jess was also a principal at Man Up Campaign and engaged 100 young activists from 25 countries to launch a global, youth-led campaign to stop violence against women in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
Jessica has been listed in Newsweek as one of 150 Fearless Women who “shake up the world” for her innovative leadership at Girl Be Heard and was just awarded SELF Magazine’s Women Doing Good Award. Jessica also wrote and starred in a New York Times-acclaimed one-woman show, Searching for a Mensch. She has produced theatrical work for the The White House, United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference, TED Women, the NYC Fringe Festival, and the Estrogenius Festival.