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Penguin Project Annie

A production of Annie by the Penguin Project.

A new program revolving around incorporating youth with disabilities into the theater is coming to the newest theater troupe in Siouxland, the New Stage Players.

The Penguin Project takes disabled youth, or “artists,” from the ages of 10 to 21 and pairs them up with non-disabled “mentors” to give the artists an experience they may not otherwise be able to have in the form of stage-acting. The Penguin Project was started in 2004 in Peoria, Illinois, by Dr. Andi Morgan, professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

“I am a pediatrician specializing in the treatment of children with disabilities,” said Morgan. “I’ve been in the field for almost 40 years. I’m retired, but I’m still working. In my spare time, I’ve been involved in theaer since I was in high school. When I moved to Peoria, I got extensively involved in community theater, and subsequently my family got involved. I watched my children grow up in the theater and saw them become much more social and confident. I recognized that these were the things that many of my patients were having trouble with, so I decided to put my profession and my avocation together and created the Penguin Project. That was 15 years ago.”

Penguin Project Glasses

An artist wearing over-sized glasses in a Penguin Project production.

Since then, the project has grown immensely. There are now 31 chapters in 16 states across the country.

How does the project work?

“The program is designed with two particular groups of participants,” said Morgan. “We have the young artists with disabilities; they are the stars … they get all the roles. They are matched with what we call a peer mentor; a normally developing child who is often the same age. We let them choose who they want to be paired with. That is the backbone of the program; it’s not just about putting on a play … that is the byproduct. The real part of the program is the relationships that develop between the mentors and the artists. Some of these children with special needs have very few friends and absolutely no social networks…their parents are often as isolated as they are and this program supersedes it. It creates an environment where the children and the parents thrive. The children with special needs form friendships and gain tools having to do with theater. The mentors develop a sense of purpose; a sense of being a helper. The parents, who have always been isolated, start to develop connections and networks.”

The experience of the project doesn’t stop there; the benefits to those involved run deeper.

“The way it benefits the artists the most is they develop friendships,” said Morgan. “The best story I have is of a friend’s daughter who has autism spectrum disorder. I called my wife and told her she’d never guess what had just happened … this girl had just gotten a phone call. In 16 years, she had never gotten a phone call. Period. Ever. The call came from another girl involved in the show this girl was in and she was asked if she wanted to go out. These people love being able to have friends and spend time with each other. When we interview the children and ask what the most important part of the program is, they say they love spending time with their friends. That social networking would never have happened if it weren’t for this project. The parents also develop these social networks.

Penguin Project The Little Mermaid

A production of 'The Little Mermaid' by the Penguin Project.

“We want to break down the barriers. We want people to recognize children with special needs are just like any other children. They want to be friends, they want to be understood, they want to be accepted … the most important thing that has happened with this experience is they have gotten that acceptance. They have been able to create those friendships. This is about change. It’s about changing people’s lives. That’s what’s happening here.”

When it comes to the show, the artists are the ones who perform, but the mentors are always there to help guide them.

“The mentors are costumed similar to their artist partner and they are also singing and dancing,” said Morgan. “However, the mentors will not be doing solo work. For example, if Annie starts singing ‘Tomorrow,’ the mentor will be next to the artist or they will fade into the background. It’s only the artists with the disabilities that will be in the big parts. The mentor is there for guidance and support. If the artist forgets a line, the mentor is there to help.”

This is a project that changes lives, according to Morgan.

“This is a quote from a 10-year-old mentor,” said Morgan. “’When I heard about this Penguin Project, I knew that people’s lives would be changed. I didn’t know that that life would be mine.’ I still get choked up whenever I say that. I can see her saying that.

“We’ve had children with cerebral palsy who stood up for the first time in the middle of a performance. We’ve had kids with autism who were not able to touch others and are now hugging. Not only are they making eye contact, but now they are allowing hugging and even reaching out for hugs. We have seen children and their families become engaged with theater when it was something foreign to them previously. Now they have become big supporters of local theater and try out for plays when they would never have been able to before. The number one thing the children like about this program, though, is the fact they have friends.”

Penguin Project Peter Pan

A production of 'Peter Pan' by the Penguin Project.

"Annie" by the Penguin Project will be playing at New Stage Players on June 15 and 16. There are still positions open for both mentors and artists, so if you are interested and are between 10 and 21 years old, contact New Stage Players via Kristy Tremayne at 402-922-1661. Also, be on the lookout for followup stories on this event.

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Weekender Writer

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