Time is short, and pages of the script are flying among five girls and a young woman who sit cross-legged on a worn blue carpet.

No one is clear about who should read which role.

"She's the mom," one girl declares, nodding toward a friend.

"I am?" the other answers.

"Can I not be the mom?" comes a third voice.

"I am really confused," says a fourth.

This is how plays get made, ideas knocked around like volleyballs in places like this, a borrowed classroom at the Reformed Church of the Ascension in Jeffersonville.

What's different here on this cold December Saturday? All the contributors were adopted from China. And all are helping craft scenes for a play based on the hard realities of that experience.

They're led by 27-year-old playwright Sarah Mitteldorf, who was among the first - possibly the very first - to be adopted from the Middle Kingdom. She came to the United States as a baby in 1986, five years before China changed its laws to permit foreign adoption and a decade before it started sending big numbers of children here.

Only the resolve of her parents, and help from a friend in China, made her adoption possible.

Now more than 81,000 Chinese children, almost all girls, have been adopted. Researchers and parents wonder how they'll interpret their rocky beginnings: abandoned because of their sex, swept into state orphanages, then borne to new homes in largely white families. They wonder how that experience might translate into major pieces of sculpture, painting, and music.

Mitteldorf, of the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, offers one answer. Because she went first - through adolescence and college, through the trials of growing up in a country that didn't know quite what to make of her. She wants her play to encompass all of that, and since the fall has led five girls, ages 9 to 12, in hashing out scenes and dialogue.

They've gone straight at the tough issues: Birth families. Race. Identity. Friendship. Acceptance.

If you're adopted from China, are you Chinese or American or Asian American? How do you grow up in a family where you're the only one who looks different?

"They have a great deal of nuance in the way that they think," Mitteldorf said. "They have a sense of solidarity I have not encountered in my own life, because I was so far ahead. They're 12, so they're running around, bouncing off walls, and then all of a sudden they're understanding you at a level that you don't find in some of the adults that you meet."

Now, at the church, a first, rough reading of several scenes is minutes away, a small audience of parents and friends already seated.

The first big wave of international adoptees were Korean, arriving here in the post-war 1950s and 1960s. As adults they created paintings, plays, and memoirs that examined the internal dissonance of being both this and that.

The Chinese art may be different, experts say, because their experience is in many ways discrete: Their numbers are huge, equal to a city the size of Danbury, Conn. They're almost all girls. Generally they're growing up knowing other adoptees, and with the support of groups such as Families With Children From China.

Many are willing to take on projects that explore discomfiting issues - including those raised in Mitteldorf's untitled play.

"It's an opportunity to get my thoughts out about adoption," said Jenny Landells, 11, of Lower Gwynedd. "At school people don't understand me like these people do." She, like the others, responded to a call for interested girls put out through the local chapter of Families With Children From China.

Cassandra Montgomery, 10, of Jeffersonville, said she wanted the script to educate people who might not understand her Chinese beginning and American upbringing. "I'd like people to know that just because you were adopted, you're like everyone else."

For the girls' parents, the weekly work sessions offer a way to open conversations on difficult topics, such as discrimination.

"I don't come with that life experience," said Lucy Demitrack of Phoenixville, mother of Maia, 11. "I feel really grateful to have somebody like Sarah."

Mitteldorf learned about theater at Reed College and never looked back.

This year she directed Nobody But Somebody at the Strawberry One-Act Festival in New York, where she was nominated for best director. She cowrote and directed two recent works in the Philly Fringe Festival, Eurydice in Market East and Spill.

Writing a play is all challenges, and this one is no different, despite sharing the work with the girls.

"There are days I feel completely up a creek," Mitteldorf said. "There are days when they have completely reinvigorated me, and I feel awesome."

In one scene, an adopted girl imagines what it's like to be an adoptive mother. In another, a girl in a nurse's office picks at her scabs, figurative and literal.

Mitteldorf and the others sit at a round table, each holding a stack of pages as they start-and-stop their way through the reading. A third scene, where an adopted girl has brought home a friend from school:

"So, where's all the Chinese stuff?" the friend asks. "The spiritual stuff, the red and gold?

"What?"

"Aren't you from China?

"Yeah, I was adopted when I was 14 months old."

"But in the movies," the friend continues, "Chinese people have all that spiritual, voodoo stuff."

The girl says China's religions aren't voodoo - at once willing to help a friend understand and exhausted by always having to explain her homeland, as if she was its official spokesperson.

The reading lasts 20 minutes. The lines in the final script, where the play might be staged, those are questions for the future.

"We're still developing and sharing material," Mitteldorf said. "It's time to zoom out again, and think about, given what we have, how do we move forward in a way that's more cohesive?"

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage