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An opportunity to soar: The Penguin Project gives participants with special needs rare theater experience

Actors with special needs gain confidence, establish new friendships

Photo courtesy of The Penguin Project of Central Wisconsin

An innovative program that empowers young people with special needs through song, dance and theater is preparing for its next performance in Wausau, offering a one-of-a-kind experience for both participants and their families.

The Penguin Project of Central Wisconsin pairs actors who have special needs, called “Penguins,” with mentors who help them learn their lines, sing songs and navigate stage choreography, culminating in an annual performance that delights audiences and teaches valuable lessons about acceptance and unity.

This year’s production, “Shrek the Musical, Jr.,” premieres June 13 at Wausau East High School. Participants with developmental disabilities, ranging in ages 8-22, have spent the past four months preparing for this year’s production.

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For Greg Goetz, The Penguin Project experience is a family tradition that began in 2015 after seeing the group perform “Annie.” Since then, his daughter, who has special needs, has been an actor as well as a mentor, and Goetz himself has been part of the stage crew, handled publicity and is now president of the board of directors.

Goetz said watching the actors grow as they gain confidence and establish new friendships is exhilarating, while the mentors themselves come away with a greater understanding of children with disabilities.

“It’s amazing to see the kids come away with pride and come out of their shell,” Goetz said. “It’s amazing to see the change from when the kids start the first day of rehearsal, to how different they are after the last show is performed. You can see the kids just become more comfortable in everyday life, and they’ve made friends in The Penguin Project that they might not otherwise have been introduced to.”

“Shrek The Musical, Jr.” is set for June 13 through 16 with more information at www.grandtheater.org

Greg Goetz spoke with WPR’s Shereen Siewert on “Morning Edition.”

The following transcription was edited for brevity and clarity.  

Shereen Siewert: First, let’s talk about the name. Why is it called “The Penguin Project”? 

Greg Goetz: The tagline that was used when this was originally started was that the Penguins don’t fly, but Penguin artists can soar on stage, given the opportunity. That’s where it came from in the first place.

SS: How did this all begin in Wausau? 

GG: The original idea started in Peoria, Illinois, with a fellow by the name of Andrew Morgan, a pediatrician. He thought it would be a good idea to have kids with special needs be able to act, and how nice that would be for them. So he started the program in 2004, and it was a smash success down in Peoria.

Then Dr. Morgan had another idea and created a replication program so it could happen in other communities, too. Groups around the country heard about this and they said, “Well, why can’t we do it in our town?” So in 2015, Central Wisconsin Children’s Theatre here in Wausau decided that we would be the first one in Wisconsin to do a Penguin production. So our first was Annie in 2015 and we’ve had successive shows after that. Since that time in 2004, the Penguin Project now has 53 replication chapters across the country in various different states. 

SS: I’m curious what the experience is like for the actors with special needs who take the stage. What do you hear from them? 

GG: Well, a lot of the kids may not have a lot of friends, and The Penguin Project allows them to interact with other similar kids and young adults to where they become friends.

And I know one real success story we have had locally here. There was a kid who was nonverbal, and basically didn’t talk much at all when he started the program. And now through the program, his mother relayed to us, he came downstairs for breakfast one morning and was singing one of the songs that he had learned at The Penguin Project. And his mother was kind of astounded that her son went from being nonverbal to actually knowing a song and verbalizing it. It was a moving moment for his mother and his family.

We have other similar success stories, and everybody is more or less a family. 

SS: What do you find most inspiring about being part of this group each year? 

GG: When we went to the first show, we were convinced that this was something that we wanted to get our whole family involved in, with my wife and my daughter. My daughter is a special needs person, but she’s also fairly high functioning, so she has been an actor and a mentor in different performances. We just decided as a family that this was something that we wanted to pursue in the future. So we’ve been involved in the program ever since. We go to many plays and movies and things like that, so this whole program was basically right up our alley. 

If you have an idea about something in central Wisconsin you think we should talk about on “Morning Edition,” send it to us at central@wpr.org.

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