Penguin Project in action

Participants learned a dance to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" as part of the first rehearsal of Tahlequah Community Theatre's Penguin Project production "Annie Jr." Performers include, front row, from left: Mark Payton and Xavier Briggs. Second row: Mallie Holt and Erin Bennett.

The Tahlequah Community Playhouse has begun work on a production like none it has done before. Following the structure of the Penguin Project, the group is producing "Annie Jr." featuring an all-youth cast, half of which have special needs or disabilities.

The Penguin Project was developed in 2004 by Dr. Andrew Morgan, a developmental pediatrician and the former head of the Division of Child Development at the University of Illinois in Peoria. Morgan is active in community theater and wanted to give children with special needs an opportunity to participate in the performing arts.

Children can display creative talents and have fun, and the program can enhance social interaction, communication skills, assertiveness and self-esteem, according to penguinproject.org.

The name itself did come to be because of birds.

"They are extremely playful and curious, and work well together. More importantly, they have a 'disability' that distinguishes them from other birds - they can't fly. So, like our young artists, they have adapted to the challenges of their environment, and have not allowed their unique difference to interfere with their lives," said Morgan on the Penguin Project website.

TCP member Bryn Smith met Morgan at a community theater conference and excitedly brought the project back to Tahlequah. So far, there has been one open informational meeting and one rehearsal.

"It provides the community an opportunity to see some of our members that don't always get the chance to shine. It's a way to see that all members of the community are valuable and worth celebrating," said Peggy Kaney, director. "This is the time for this. With Nicki Scott, the Wild West Fest and other events, and the accessible park being built, it helps us value the diversity we have in the community."

Almost all artists, ages 10-21, are encouraged to participate, no matter their developmental disability. Those whose behavior may endanger others or themselves are not accepted due to safety concerns.

Part of the success of Penguin Project shows is the mentoring structure and the production schedule.

The special needs "artist" is paired with a "mentor." The mentors are there to support the artists and learn all of the part with them. If, during rehearsal or performances, an artist needs help remembering a line or where to stand on stage, the mentor will help them.

The artists and mentors are paired by similar ages when possible, but the mentor coordinators try different pairings the first few rehearsals. Kaney said they try to let the pairs develop comfortably and naturally, but adjustments will be made when necessary.

The mentors are in costume and on stage with their artists. Kaney has seen two Penguin Project productions in other cities and she said they are "amazing."

"The mentors blend in. It doesn't feel clunky; they feel like part of the cast," she said. "Going into it, the mentor is the helper for the artist, but both end up gaining from the relationship. There's a balance. Many will develop a friendship that will extend outside the theater environment, so it's a new social interaction for both."

The artists who have attended the two meetings represent a wide array of needs and differing abilities, according to Kaney. Some artists have Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, sensory issues, communication issues, or are in wheelchairs. Kaney said the rehearsal space and performance venue are accommodating for all needs.

Allie Holt heard about the production from Smith. She attended the informational meeting Jan. 30 and learned more from the creator himself.

Holt and her family live between Tahlequah and Fort Gibson. Her daughter, Mallie, is a Fort Gibson third grader who loves musicals. She also has Down syndrome.

Mallie has participated in Special Olympics for swimming, 50-yard dash and softball throw, and she was a cheerleader for two years. Holt said Mallie enjoyed the Special Olympics, but this will be a different experience because it is art instead of sport.

"She likes to watch musicals, and when she finds one she likes, she'll watch it over and over. Then she'll act out the scenes and give a performance at home," she said. "I think [the Penguin Project] was incredibly smart and inventive and thoughtful. It's something really unique for children with disabilities."

Kaney, who used to direct TCP's children's shows, is directing "Annie Jr." and is glad more participants were at the rehearsal so that the minimum numbers needed were met. She said the community can help support the production in numerous ways.

"For those itching to get involved, we will have costumes to create and sets to build. We still have room for additional participants, and can fold them into the cast until the end of February. We are meeting the minimum numbers, but there are still places for a lot more," she said.

"Annie Jr." is a more concise version of the "Annie" movies and Broadway show. It still has all of the characters and songs people have come to love, according to Kaney.

"To the community at large, if you know someone with a disability - or even if you don't - you could help participate. We learn from each other and this is a growing experience. It's a group community project and we're helping one another," Holt said.

During the first rehearsal, the participants were all taught a dance to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." The dancers were so excited they asked to perform it for their parents who were filling out paperwork.

"There was so much emotion. They really enjoyed it. It was really great to see people from the community get involved. Being a mentor could be a really rewarding experience," Kaney said. "I know I teared up and saw a few moms with teary eyes."

The first few weeks of rehearsal will be spent building the ensemble with everyone learning the songs and choreography. This will give the cast time to get familiar with the participants, the show's characters and decide if they want speaking roles. It also allows the production staff the opportunity to figure out who can carry out the roles.

"It takes away the stress of auditions and let's everyone be more at ease. Dr. Andy said he sees that it can ease some of the disappointment if participants don't get the role they wanted. They see themselves as part of the show already and how they fit into the bigger show." Kaney said.

Following more of Morgan's structure, the rehearsals will last approximately four months. Holt said she likes the long time period.

"It's like a club they've joined. They set up bonds with the people they are working with. That link is beautiful," she said. "There's a certain isolation when you have special needs. You tend not to do things outside of the family. This can help us bond, especially with other families. They don't necessarily get the support regular school-aged children get. It gives us a chance to have this time together. To see her as a participant makes me so proud of her and what she doing. And it's something she loves."

Kaney said that TCP hopes to make this an annual event with other "Jr." shows that are available.

"Bryn is actively seeking sponsorships and, in the spring, we'll look for financial support from the community. The first year is always the hardest. We may have to be frugal. We always have to be frugal and creative when creating the magic of theater," said Kaney.

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