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The Penguin Project

For nine years, a special troupe of actors has taken to the stage in Bloomington to perform a “junior” version of a well-known Broadway musical that has been professionally modified for young performers. This production is unique, however, because all of the roles are filled by individuals with disabilities. The Penguin Project® McLean County is this group and they will be presenting their 10th production in June 2018.

The Penguin Project gives children, teens, and young adults with special needs an opportunity to star in a community theatre production. The young artists have a wide spectrum of special needs, including Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, intellectual and physical disabilities, cerebral palsy, and ADHD. Participation in the program enhances social skills, communication skills, and self-esteem.

 

The Penguin Project utilizes a “peer mentor” system, linking each young artist with an age-level peer who does not have a disability. Mentors must be at least 12-years old and can continue up through age 24. The peer-mentors work side-by-side with their partners, assisting them throughout the entire rehearsal process and on stage. The mentors are responsible for knowing all of the lines, songs, and blocking of their partners. They are on-stage during the production, costumed to match or compliment their partners. They participate in the group production numbers, but are trained to remain “in the background” and provide direct assistance to their partner only as needed.

 

Started in Peoria, Illinois in 2004, The Penguin Project has become a national program with 26 replication sites in 15 states throughout the country. The Penguin Project McLean was the first replication program presenting Annie, Jr. in June 2004 at Central Catholic High School. These are the other productions staged by the company:

2010     Music Man, Jr.
2011     High School Musical, Jr.
2012     Beauty & the Beast, Jr.
2013     Peter Pan
2014     Little Mermaid, Jr.
2015     Bye Bye Birdie for young performers
2016     Alice in Wonderland, Jr.
2017     James & the Giant Peach, Jr.   

   
The Penguin Project strives to demonstrate that individuals with disabilities are fully capable of participating in community activities with the same dedication and enthusiasm as others. The artists are provided with an opportunity to display their creative talents and also enhance social interaction, communication skills, assertiveness, and self-esteem.

 

Friendships among artists, mentors, and family members have been a natural outcome of the program. Many parents say their closest friends are other Penguin parents. Some of the parents have spoken at community events about the program and stated the benefits to their child. They pay for speech therapy, but participating in The Penguin Project has been free therapy for their child. It’s also been a safe environment where they can drop off their child for rehearsal then leave to run errands, take a class, or just have a little respite time.

“The Penguin Project was founded on the principle that children with special needs can participate in and excel at community activities when given the opportunity and support. We have seen young people who had no friends, would hide when they met people, and feared interaction with others blossom into engaged and confident individuals who proudly show their talents,” said Andrew Morgan, M.D., founder of The Penguin Project. “To see this program grow as it has and benefit young artists with special needs and their families across the country is immensely gratifying. We’re incredibly proud of this award and of the young people, volunteers, supporters, board, and staff across the country who made it possible.”

The June 2018 show will feature a cast of 40 artists and 42 mentors in a production of Madagascar, Jr. on June 1 to 3 at University High School’s Stroud auditorium. We will be inviting all past artists and mentors to join us on the stage each night at the end of the show. In the 10 year history, there have been 99 individuals involved as artists and 174 individuals have been involved as mentors. Many lives have been touched by this program.

Visit our website at penguinprojectmclean.org for further information.

 

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