The Play's the Thing: Disadvantaged Kids find their Onstage Voices

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With Broadway as its star attraction and a wide range of theatrical venues dotting its streets, New York City is known for its excellent selection of plays. But some of the most influential musicals don't even qualify as off-off-Broadway: The performances put on by the Manhattan-based Possibility Project (TPP) transform more lives for the better than a red carpet full of golden statuettes ever could.

Moving beyond simple entertainment value, TPP uses theater to help disadvantaged teens confront real-world issues and devise strategies to combat them. It organizes three programs in New York City, each of which spans the school year: One meets on Saturdays; one meets twice a week after school; and a third, which also meets twice a week, is specifically for youth in foster care. The latter, whose inception in 2009 makes it the newest of the programs, is buttressed with special components geared toward the additional needs of these children--namely, learning how to respond positively to the major life transitions that they frequently endure.

"They're given an opportunity to model different behaviors and explore things, experience different things that they're facing or have faced, and instead of looking at it from a distance or just writing about it or something to that effect, they're actually able to pick it up and really engage the things that they're facing, you know, the negative forces in their lives," explains Kenny Phillips, director of the foster care program, adding that being able to "deal with the emotions as characters...makes it easier for them to bring those things into their lives in their relationships in their group homes or with their foster parents."

"What we were really responding to was the youth violence and racial conflict that was happening among young people," president and founder Paul Griffin says of TPP's creation. "And the fact that there were too few opportunities for them to do other things, and that they needed opportunities to lead, to determine how they were going to respond to those issues."

A typical TPP session revolves around an issue relevant to participants. "We explore a curriculum around power and non-power groups in society, power dynamics, the causes of violence--pretty much anything that ends with an -ism," Phillips describes. The youth then share stories of personal experience about struggling with that meeting's "-ism" and use the theater skills they've learned in the program to present creative ways to resolve these problems.

"We use the material that they create through improvisations and through the trainings to build an outline for a public performance--that's how we create our shows every year," Phillips says.

The end-of-year shows are a compilation of scenes and ideas culled from those discussions, and the performers act out their fellow participants' stories. These musical performances are the highlight of the TPP experience, as the adolescents perform for thousands of audience members in the hope not only of developing personal strategies to cope with issues, but of sparking community-wide change.

"It's not hypothetical," Griffin stresses. "When you're watching the story, you're just watching the way it happens as opposed to sort of pedagogical conflict resolution. And that's important because...we're not preaching, we're trying to keep it very honest and very real and make sure that the stories we're telling are the conflicts that they're actually having... We don't shoot for the happy ending; we shoot for something a little more."

Converging with the community aspect of the performances are one-day events, termed "community action projects," in which TPP participants plan and execute a creative project in the community to raise awareness about an issue they have discussed as part of the curriculum. Recent examples include setting up a catwalk to highlight the importance of a positive, healthy self-image and constructing a miniature cemetery to memorialize teenagers who have committed suicide after being bullied due to their sexual orientation.

"The community action projects were added in response to our young people questioning whether or not doing the show was enough," Griffin says. "And I think that says everything, which is that young people are motivated to do more and if you give them the opportunity, they will."

"It's kind of an exclamation point on the end of the sentence for the year," Phillips adds. "Because the idea is for them to leave knowing that they can do that on their own, that that's how they can spend their time, and they have a sense of control over their future and an idea for where they're going next and what they're capable of."

The results are tangible as well as internal, particularly evidenced by the participants' continued pursuit of education. As given on the project's website, 99.3% of TPP youth since 2002 have stayed in high school, as compared to only 71% of their peers. For the foster care program, this disparity is even starker, with the percentage of TPP participants earning a diploma or GED nearly doubling that of non-participants. Moreover, around two-thirds of participants have been suspended from school in the year before joining TPP; that rate drops to nearly 0% once they have begun instruction in the program's curriculum.

Griffin cites a number of reasons that TPP, and the performing arts in particular, has such a significant impact on its teenage participants: It gives them a voice, provides a foundation for building relationships and a sense of community, and is simply fun.

"One of the things that we often miss with young people in care in particular is that not only do they have special needs, they also have the basic needs that every other young person has," he explains, "which is to have a voice, to have a community, to have a group of friends, to meet adults who are willing to listen and understand, and when they get to just be themselves, whatever that is. I hear it all the time: the best thing about the Possibility Project is that I get to be me."

In acting out others' stories and devoting themselves to theatrical characters, TPP's teens are able to develop their own identities. And by providing a safe environment for both education and entertainment, the program succeeds in helping its participants through their turbulent teenage years and preparing them for adulthood.

Zachary Kram, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, was an editorial intern at CWLA during the summer of 2013.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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