The Penguin Project®, founded by Dr. Andrew Morgan in 2003 in Peoria, Illinois, is a national non-profit organization with the vision of creating unrestricted access for children with special needs to the performing arts. This is accomplished with the assistance of multiple sites across the U.S. that produce a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical. What makes these productions unique is young artists with special needs fill the acting roles.They are joined on stage by their “Peer Mentors,” a group of children the same age without disabilities, who have volunteered to work with them side-by-side and guide them through four months of rehearsals and the final production. The Penguin Project® demonstrates that the special challenges of a disability need not handicap a child’s ability to participate in life’s experiences.The origin of the name “Penguin Project” comes from the unique characteristics of penguins. 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. Instead, penguins waddle and toboggan on their bellies over the snow, and are excellent swimmers in the water. 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.The origin of the name “Penguin Project” comes from the unique characteristics of penguins. 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. Instead, penguins waddle and toboggan on their bellies over the snow, and are excellent swimmers in the water. 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.
Artists: The Penguin Project ® is open to any individual age 10 to 21 with a developmental disability. This includes children with cognitive, learning, motor, hearing, and visual impairments, genetic disorders, and neurological disorders. There are no restrictions based on the level of cognitive ability, restriction of mobility, or lack of communication skills. Because of concerns for safety, however, we are unable to accept anyone whose behavior might endanger himself/herself or others.
Peer Mentors: 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 10 years old and can continue up to age 21. 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.
Families and Adult Volunteers: The Penguin Parents are the “backbone” of the program. We depend on them to assist their children in learning lines, songs, and dances outside of the rehearsals, since rehearsal times are limited and need to focus on interactive processes rather than memorization. Family members and other adult volunteers also help build sets, sew costumes, and find props. They coordinate the backstage area during the run of the show, and are often called upon to assist the staff at rehearsals.
Structure Of The Program
Productions are staged at Eastlight Theatre in mid January. The process begins each year with an organizational meeting in late August before Labor Day. The meeting is publicized through announcements and flyers throughout the area. The meeting date and time are also posted on this website. Anyone interested in participating must fill out an application form each year. There are separate application forms for artists, mentors, and adult volunteers. There is no audition process, but the cast is limited to 80 participants. If there are more applicants for the cast than spaces available, the cast is selected randomly based on age and the needs of the show. There is no cost to participate in the program.
Artists and mentors are paired at the beginning of each of the initial rehearsals, and partners are free to switch to find the best possible match. After three to four weeks, the matches are finalized, and continue for the rest of the production process. Some of the more experienced and independent artists may not have mentors, but are paired with each other so no one is ever alone. Blocking rehearsals (lines and scenes) begin in mid-October on Mondays and Wednesdays. Artists with lines and their mentors may rehearse up to two additional times per week, depending on the size of their role. There is no formal audition process for the lead roles – these are assigned by the production staff, based on their observations during the group rehearsals. Rehearsals increase up to five times a week for everyone as we near the production dates. We do rehearse over the winter break, taking a few days off for Christmas and New Years.