Photo provided by The Penguin Project

Wausau Pilot & Review

Editor’s note: This regular feature shares the stories of locally-owned and operated businesses and organizations in the Wausau area, highlighting the products and services they offer and the ways they contribute to the metro area’s unique flavor. Learn how to feature your business by emailing [email protected].

This week, Wausau Pilot places the spotlight on The Penguin Project, an incredible theater program for people ages 8-22 with and without developmental challenges. This noteworthy program features artists with special needs referred to as “penguins” who have the lines and roles in theater productions, paired with age-appropriate mentors who guide and support them. Mentors help artists with their lines, their singing and choreography, all of which culminates in a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved. The organization puts on one theatrical performance each year, delighting audiences who walk away with a smile – and a far better appreciation of the challenges faced by children with special needs and their families.

For the artists, The Penguin Project offers an opportunity for children with special needs to develop creative skills by participating in a community theater experience while also providing a forum for support and interaction for their families. All who apply are accepted; there are no “try outs.”

Dr. Andy Morgan created The Penguin Project in 2004 to combine his professional expertise as a doctor with his passion for theater to give children with disabilities an opportunity to experience the performing arts. Following the advice of Penguin parents in Illinois, he subsequently developed a replication process to bring the program to communities around the country. In Wausau, the Penguin Project began in 2015 with a production of the play, Annie. This was the first chapter in Wisconsin to do a Penguin Production. Today there are 53 replication chapters performing programs, bringing joy and collaboration to communities around the country.

Past performances have included Seussical the Musical, Singing in the Rain, The Music Man and Beauty & the Beast. This year marks a new chapter for The Penguin Project, which was formerly affiliated with Central Wisconsin Children’s Theater. Now an entity of its own, The Penguin Project will perform Shrek the Musical Jr. on June 13, 15 and 16 at the Wausau East High School auditorium, 2607 N. 18th St., with tickets available at the Grand Theater Box Office or online at the Grand Theater website, at this link.

Board member Greg Goetz said the staff, board and participants have put in a tremendous amount of work to get to this point.

“We can’t wait to get this ‘show on the road’ so that the general public can witness what we’re so passionate about,” Goetz said. In addition to Goetz, the board includes Val Charneski, Wendy Megrgandahl and Amy Fronek. And the production could not happen without the unpaid volunteer staff of Julie Holdridge, Julie Burgess and Tina Shallock.

The impact of the program is incredible. The organization says 96 percent of participants surveyed reported feeling more pride in themselves since being a part of a Penguin Project production, while 100 percent of participating parents said they experienced growth in connections with other families of children with disabilities – as well as new friendships. All participating parents of mentors reported their children are more accepting of differences in others since being a part of the Penguin Project.

The testimonials say it all.

Elizabeth Blenker, who performed in a 2016 Penguin Project production, said she spent years struggling to get into plays, ultimately failing because she could not dance professionally. In a letter to the organization, she called the program “magical,” a way to bring people together.

“You don’t judge me, you’re not hard on me, and you care,” Blenker wrote. “I used to just think ‘oh I can’t dance’ because that’s what everyone always told me. I had no reason to question them until now. Now I think, why not? Disability does not define you. What does is your actions and you can’t just let people tell you what you can and cannot do. So thank you, Penguin Project, for opening up my eyes and for giving me something to look forward to.”

Directors from Penguin Project performances in other areas of the country say they, too, are seeing enormous enthusiasm and enjoyment from participants and audience members alike. Morrie Enders, executive director of the Lincoln Community Playhouse’s Penguin Project in Nebraska, said performances have a lasting impact on the people who experience each program.

“From the reaction of our audience, I believe wholeheartedly that they understood the major achievement that was happening on our stage,” Enders said. “Our audience saw the human connection being made, kindnesses shown and shared joy exploding from the stage.”

Caryl Foote, assistant mentor coordinator for the CWCT Penguin Project, called the experience life-changing for everyone involved.

“I have seen children do things that are not typical for some of them such as smile, laugh, verbalize, sing, dance, make new friends and get excited about working together in a group,” Foote said. “Some children have difficulty doing some of those things, but the Penguin Project seems to cultivate a motivation possibly not seen before in some of the artists. I have heard parents say how much their child looks forward to rehearsals, and how excited they are to learn their part in the production. They work hard and have fun doing it. The mentors are wonderful, dedicated, and are happy to be there for the artists. The staff seems to know how to bring out the best in both artists and mentors. If you get a chance to go and see a Penguin Project production, you will see that they give it their all, and put on a great show.”

Goetz said the biggest challenge the Penguin Project faces today is the lack of a place to build and store set pieces and rehearsal space. Ideally, the organization would like to have one local building for all those functions, but right now, that isn’t possible.

Despite that challenge, the entire team is enthusiastically preparing for Shrek the Musical Jr., with rehearsals underway now. This is a performance you won’t want to miss.

As for the name? Penguins can’t fly but they can soar on a stage. See it for yourself in June!

Scenes from past performances

If you go

  • What: Shrek the Musical Jr.
  • When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13; 6:30 p.m. Saturday June 15; 1 p.m. Sunday, June 16.
  • Where: Wausau East High School auditorium, 2607 N. 18th St., Wausau
  • Cost: $15 for ages 18 and up; $12 for ages 8-17 and $5 for ages 7 and younger
  • Where to buy tickets: Online at the Grand Theater website at this link, or at The Grand Theater Box Office, 401 N. 4th St., Wausau
  • More information: Visit The Penguin Project at this link, email [email protected] and follow on Facebook at this link.