By Michael Fitzgerald
Niquana Clark of Harlem never imagined she’d become a famous actress. By the end of high school, she hadn’t performed in front of a large audience, was living in foster care, and was on the verge of dropping out of school. Seeking distraction, she signed up with the Possibility Project, a small New York-based nonprofit that helps at-risk youth write, produce and perform stage plays for paying audiences.
The program, based in a culturally rich corner of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, supports roughly 150 teens through four performances each year. With the Project, Clark helped produce and starred in a musical called “Know How,” which she and her castmates then adapted into a 106-minute film about five teenagers navigating life in foster care.
They released the film in 2015 with the hope that it would get seen by the employees and the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) — an agency that had changed the lives of all of the teens who produced the film, by placing them in foster care. Not only did that ACS chief, Ronald Richter, see it, but so did countless child welfare workers, foster families, film festival judges and movie critics nationwide.
The Los Angeles Times called the film ‘Rent’ for a new generation,” while the influential film site IndieWire gave it a “Project of the Year” award. It has been screened at film festivals around the world, and even took home a few festival jury prizes. It was an overwhelming experience, Clark says. “People were looking at our personal stories like they were a work of art to be picked apart,” Clark said. “I didn’t think we’d be getting reviews. None of us realized it was about to be this big thing.”
However modest their expectations, the program’s approach was intensive: The 34-day shoot included 12 cast members, dozens of teenagers and Possibility Project alumni, 46 adult actors and 44 crew members working in 33 different locations.
“The critiques that mattered most to me were other kids in foster care. If they thought it felt real, nothing anyone else said mattered,” Clark adds.
Clark, if not quite famous as a result of the film, has gotten stopped on the street by teens who related to her character’s experience. The film production, and her years of commuting hours to the Possibility Project’s space in Manhattan between classes and overnight shifts at a pharmacy, also helped her begin to imagine a new future for herself. She finished high school and entered college, and is now part of Possibility Project’s seven-person staff.
The film version of “Know How” was an unusual venture for the typically stage-focused Possibility Project, but it wasn’t the first time they’ve gotten national attention for their work. Now entering its 17th year in New York and with their 40th stage performance coming up, the Project started in Washington, D.C., as an organization called City at Peace. The founder, a former professional actor named Paul Griffin, was horrified by the daily violence in Washington — the city and the nation’s violent crime rate in the early 1990s was more than double today’s — and started gathering neighborhood teenagers to produce plays.
By the time HBO broadcast a Barbra Streisand-produced documentary about City at Peace, cities nationwide began replicating the approach. “We empower teenagers to transform all the negative forces in their lives and communities into positive action. They learn by writing musicals from the stories of their lives — focused on the most serious issues they face and the root causes, from their perspective, as well as their ideas for change,” Griffin said. “That means putting them through a creative process where, ideally, they learn to build relationships and lead across differences, resolve conflicts and engage in community action.”
The typical Possibility Project play takes nine months to produce. It starts with a group audition to evaluate candidates not for singing, dancing and acting talent, but for group diversity, enthusiasm and schedule availability. Then, roughly 6 to 10 of each incoming class will assume producer-style leadership roles and set policies and schedules. By month two, all the students are involved in acting, improv, dance, voice, movement, singing and playwriting classes, plus conflict resolution, leadership and diversity training, for roughly six hours per week for three months. The conflict resolution discussions and other less structured group dialogues cover the teens’ lived experience, which they then use as fodder for dramatic scenes in the capstone performance.
Casting and rehearsals begin around month four, culminating in a performance at the end of eight months. Since making a move to New York City and a name change to the Possibility Project around the time Clark joined in 2010, they’ve added a program exclusively serving teens who have been in or are currently in foster care. The Possibility Project has been especially focused on foster youth in recent years, partly thanks to feedback they received from alumni who said the program could uniquely benefit that population.
The Doris Duke Foundation funded a study looking at outcomes for 48 foster youth who had been through the program. Each student completed a 60-question survey and participated in interviews covering their post-program lives. The study found that foster care alumni, when compared to a national dataset of foster youth, had lower rates of teen pregnancy, arrest or criminal conviction, enhanced communication skills, and higher rates of volunteerism and political engagement. The study has not been peer reviewed, nor was its design strong enough to make its findings conclusive, but it echoed an earlier study of the Possibility Project funded by the Lumina Foundation, and what Griffin has long suspected about his program.
“Theater mimics the way we learn how to be people,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you’re imitating what’s around you, you see people do it, then we imitate it; we’re absorbing from people around us. Everyone is an actor in a way. We are leveraging that.” In the wake of the recession, a few of the organization’s affiliates nationwide had to close due to the lack of funding.
But New York’s Possibility Project has seen 5 to 20 percent funding growth over the past few years, says Griffin, and is actively looking into how to support more adolescents — while not overextending and diluting the quality of the program. If Clark’s perspective is any indication, that could be a boon to a lot of kids. “You’re learning a lot about people you don’t really know, really quickly — more than you’d learn about classmates you’d studied with for four years,” Clark said. “When I was added to the production team [in 2010], it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Fitzgerald reports on child welfare in New York for The Chronicle of Social Change. He has also written for Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and Outside Magazine.