The Penguin Project®


The Penguin Project®

The Penguin Project
Foundation, Inc.

306 West Morningside Drive
Peoria, IL 61614
Phone: 309.691.5315

Focus: Musical Theater

Annual Number Participating: 715

Ages: 10–25

Annual Budget: $71,273

Partners: Easter Seals of Central Illinois; Illinois–Eastern Iowa District of Kiwanis International; Music Theatre International

Funders: Heart of Illinois Down Syndrome Association; Kohl’s Cares; National Endowment for the Arts

True stories of getting young actors with special needs to perform in a production by The Penguin Project are about as dramatic as the tales that they present onstage. For example, a child with cerebral palsy stood up on her own for the very first time during a performance. One youth with Down syndrome hid in a supply closet during several rehearsals, but after saying his lines, did not want to leave the stage. And, a girl with an intellectual disability who would barely speak to people offstage shared her beautiful singing voice.

Live theater is a give-and-take medium, capable of offering much more than mere entertainment value, as evidenced by the thespians of The Penguin Project (TPP). When the curtain rises on TPP stages from coast to coast, these young actors prove to society—but most importantly, to themselves—that there are no limits for those with developmental and neurological disorders.

TPP’s casting calls pose no restrictions based on cognitive ability, mobility, communication skills, or behavioral development. Modified versions of musicals are the vehicle of choice because there are fewer spoken lines and plenty of singing and dancing to keep the young actors engaged. A high-quality, full-scale show with lighting, sets, and costumes takes about four months of rehearsals to produce. To assist with programmatic and behavioral issues, the stage crew includes a certified music therapist, a registered counselor, and a behavior analyst, as well as the program’s founder and director, who is a developmental pediatrician trained in the diagnosis and treatment of developmental disabilities.

Each young actor is paired with a typically developing peer mentor volunteer, who guides them. For about 100 hours throughout the production cycle, they work together to learn lines, songs, and dance routines. Because most young actors are socially isolated, this relationship is the first step into a new world that encourages creativity and friendship, while bolstering communication and social skills, plus self-confidence.

Since its opening night in Peoria, Illinois, in 2004, this after-school program has successfully produced musicals in 18 locations. Last year, the program touched more than 700 families, giving children with special needs (and their fans) previously unimagined opportunities. And, by 2018, 8 more sites are set to launch TPP productions. The Penguin Players, a spin-off, comprises primarily TPP graduates who don’t want to relinquish the spotlight.

By collaborating to tell a story onstage, young actors form lifelong bonds through TPP. Many return as backstage crew or attendees, while a number of peer mentors choose careers working with those who have disabilities. In addition, TPP alumni, crew, and their families stay connected via social networks and continue supporting each other, long after the final curtain call.

This year’s show featured a cast of 80 children performing Crazy for You—a production replete with nuanced comedy, challenging choreography, and complex harmonies. Through this inspiring performance, the audiences were not only entertained, but also educated about the powerful vehicle that the arts provide for these incredible young performers to achieve their full potential.

Jenn Gordon Executive Director, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois