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Program opens a whole new world for kids with disabilities

By AP | Aug 1, 2022

Cast member Charlie Soderhom, 7 gets help from mentor George Eastman, 15 as they learn the lyrics for a new song during rehearsal session for "Aladdin, Jr." under the direction of Ian Mairs at Apex Theatre Studio, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at the World Golf Village, Fla. Children with disabilities are pair with mentors who don't have disabilities. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The joy in the room is palpable when the cast of “Aladdin Jr.” closes out its performance by singing the “Glee” version of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The song isn’t even part of the show, but it’s the traditional show-closer for Penguin Project performances, which pair kids with special needs (known in the program as “actors”) with theater kids (“mentors”) to put on a show and, hopefully, foster some new friendships.

“I think that the goal is that they build their own community,” said Ian Mairs, director of Apex Theatre Studio, the organization that is bringing the national Penguin Project to St. Augustine. “Some of these kids were not even talking for the first two weeks. The difference is amazing.”

Mairs has put together a cast of about 20 kids, who will put on performances of “Alladin Jr.,” based on the Disney film, July 23 and 24 at Flagler College in St. Augustine. They’ve been rehearsing three times a week for 16 weeks to get ready for the shows.

They rehearse in a strip mall near the entrance to the World Golf Village, in a room with black-painted walls and parents sitting on one side, copies of the “Aladdin Jr.” script book in hand. The kids bounce a ball and sing silly songs as they wait for their castmates to arrive, then get down to rehearsing the 15 or so songs in the show. A staff member, Isabel Dondero, sits at a piano and rhythmically speaks the words to a new song, then leads the cast as they sing it, accompanied by the soundtrack.

They’re serious about learning their parts, but not so serious that they can’t break into a game of Duck-Duck-Goose. When they are working through a new song-and-dance routine, though, they’re all business, with mentors working one-on-one with the actors.

On stage, the actors will have the showcase roles.

“I always wanted to be the Genie,” said 13-year-old Sophie Somaru, who said she has a little theater experience and, in fact, is the Genie in “Aladdin Jr.” Mentors don’t have any lines but will be there, right next to the actors, in case the actor needs to be fed a line or needs to be reminded of where to stand for the next scene.

Actors, mentors paired so audience members can’t tell which is which

Andy Morgan, a developmental pediatrician in Illinois and founder of the national Penguin Project program, said the pairing of actors and mentors is designed so audience members can’t tell which is which. “On stage, I don’t want you to know who’s who,” he said this spring during a visit to Jacksonville, where he and Mairs launched the St. Augustine program.

Morgan, who has a background in theater, put on the first Penguin Project show in 2004. It has since spread to 51 locations around the country, including Bunnell, Winter Haven and Tampa in Florida and Brunswick, Statesboro and Forsythe County in South Georgia. The Brunswick program held its sixth annual production last month and the Bunnell program, at Flagler Playhouse, is planning its first performance, “Annie Jr.,” for summer 2023.

The national program is for ages 10-23, but Mairs has several actors who are even younger. Many of the actors in the national program are autistic or have severe ADHD, but Morgan said he’s worked with blind children and kids in wheelchairs. The only restriction he has is on behavior — absolutely no bullying is allowed.

“We do not discriminate based on disability or special need, and everyone is nice to everyone else,” Morgan said. “People are often afraid to talk about disabilities. The bottom line is you are what you are. We all have challenges, one way or another.”

The actors might be out of tune, in the wrong place or unintelligible. So what, Morgan said. “Intelligibility is not an issue; it’s heart.”

There is no charge to participate for actors and mentors. That’s not a mandate from the national organization, but none of the chapters charge to participate, and none of them have lost money since the program started, Morgan said.

For many of the actors, the Penguin Project is their first chance to go on stage, and, almost without fail, they end up loving it, Morgan said.

“These children have very few social interactions. Their parents have very few social networks. They love coming because they have friends,” he said. “This has become the primary extracurricular program that these kids are in.”

Morgan said he’s still not sure who gets more out of the program, the actors or the mentors. He’s not aware of any mentors going on to become professional actors, but he said several have gone on to work with special-needs children. “It’s life-changing for everybody, for the actors, for the mentors, for the parents,” he said.