If all the world’s a stage, the teens at The Possibility Project (TPP) aren’t merely players — they are the future.
TPP is a New York City-based nonprofit that uses the power of the performing arts to instill confidence in urban youth and inspire them to make social change. The members are teenagers from different backgrounds who get together over the course of nine months to work on a play that represents their life experiences, eventually presenting the finished result off Broadway. Everything — from the scripts to the production to the casting — is all done by the members themselves. According to the program, which recently received a $25,000 grant from the Starbucks Upstanders challenge, 99 percent of participants graduated from high school or obtained an equivalency, and 92 percent have gone on to college.
Drama Serves As Inspiration
President Paul Griffin, an actor by training, founded the organization 23 years ago when he was living in Washington, D.C., and disheartened by the situation he saw around him.
“At the time, kids were dying at an incredibly high rate [from crime] and nobody was doing anything about it,” he says. “I thought, well, if this problem’s going to get solved, young people will have to take the lead.”
The operation moved up Interstate-95 to NYC and now includes four programs, two open to all young people, one for those in foster care and one for those in the criminal justice system. Recruitment, says Griffin, is done through “hundreds of partnerships” with various city agencies and community organizations. And also word of mouth.
That’s how Maria Jimenez came upon the project. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Washington Heights, Jimenez was interested in acting and heard about TPP through a friend when she was in her sophomore year of high school. “I thought it was just a program about singing, acting and dancing, but soon realized that it was something more than that,” she says. “It was life changing.”
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It's a very emotional program because we deal with very serious things, but we're also interested in our young people gaining a new vision for their life.
Like all TPP participants, Jimenez, was encouraged to share experiences and thoughts on the social issues closest to her as part of the creative process. That therapeutic brainstorm then informs the four-to-six mini stories within each theatrical production. For example, one play that Jimenez was involved in was called “In Theory” and touched upon a female valedictorian ostracized for her sexual orientation and a young man trying to cope with the death of a beloved family member. Another play, “Know How,” was about the struggles of kids in the New York foster care system (it was also turned into a movie that won 11 awards from various film festivals and aired on iTunes, Amazon and Netflix).
“You have a voice,” says Jimenez, 21, who now serves as an assistant director at an after-school program. “As teenagers, often nobody is listening to us. But the project gives you an opportunity to speak up about what’s going on.”
It also doesn’t end when the spotlight goes off. After each play ends its run, participants organize community action projects, whether it’s arranging a flash mob to raise awareness about teen suicide or raising money for a local shelter that helps homeless LGBT youth. They are also encouraged to participate in a leadership training program, which helps them prepare for the next phase of their lives.
“The idea there is really around their agency,” says Griffin. “We help participants understand that they can make an impact in the world beyond the stage.”
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