Pictured on the back row are Sara Giannkakis, mentor and artist coordinator; from left, and Will Ours, actor. On the front row are Hailey Kuykendall, mentor; from left Nataly Beard, actress; MacKenzie Bishop, actress and Daniel Jackson, actor. The group will open ‘Shrek Jr. — the Musical’ at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick.

One by one, the young thespians began slipping in to the lobby of the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick. Some were dressed in matching costumes, while others popped in wearing their regular clothes.

As the sound of chatter began to rise, it became clear that something very exciting was afoot. In the next few days, the group will stage the third incarnation of the Penguin Project, a national program that highlights the talents of young actors and actresses with special needs. The thespians, who range in age from 10 to 25, are accompanied by mentors who help them learn their lines and prepare for the show.

On the theater lobby bench, Nataly Beard, actress, and her mentor, Hailey Kuykendall, sat side by side dressed in identical outfits, patiently waiting for the rehearsal to begin. Nataly is portraying a couple of characters in this year’s production — “Shrek Jr.” But her primary role is as the Dragon in the modern fairytale.

“I like the wings,” Nataly said of her Dragon costume.

Hailey sat beside her grinning at her response. For her, like all of the participating mentors, working with the Penguin Project is a dream come true.

“I actually had a friend who did it before and told me about it. It sounded really great so I told myself ‘I’m doing it this year.’ I moved some stuff around and was able to,” Hailey said. “It’s been really fun ... I haven’t stopped smiling.”

That’s the general consensus for the actors and the mentors, as well as the other volunteers who have signed onto the program. This production will see 30 artists and 35 mentors take to the stage, as well as dozens who have worked behind scenes to help get the show off the ground.

Roughly half of the performers have participated in the project before including stars — Daniel Jackson, who plays Shrek, and Will Ours, who plays Donkey. Both were leads in previous productions, including the 2018 show when they squared off onstage as Captain Hook and Peter Pan respectively.

The two and their close friendship is a prime example of how the Penguin Project can enrich the lives of its artists. They met during the first year’s rehearsals and have since become best friends. Together, they have helped one another grow and blossom as performers.

Daniel’s help has been key for Will, who has had to learn more lines this year in his role as Donkey.

“I sometimes have trouble with my words. I’m autistic,” Will explained. “This year, I had more lines to learn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels that way. It is a lot of fun though.”

MacKenzie Bishop agrees wholeheartedly. Another multi-year performer, she played Tinkerbell last year and this year will be taking in three parts complete with quickie costume changes.

“I love this. I love this,” MacKenzie said of the program, smiling and holding the ends of her dress.

The Penguin Project began locally when program was brought to the attention of Allyson Jackson, Daniel’s mother. Originally founded by a doctor in Peoria, Ill., in 2004, the program’s name was a way to reflect the unique beauty of those with special needs. Like penguins — birds who cannot fly but have other impressive qualities, such as swimming, the young artists should be celebrated for their uniqueness and talents.

Allyson Jackson felt the program would be a perfect fit for the area. She approached Heather Heath, executive director of Golden Isles Arts and Humanities, who was quick to get on board. Since that time, the Golden Isles Penguin Project has staged “Annie Jr.” in 2017 and “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.” in 2018.

It has been well received each year, with sell-out crowds packing the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick.

This year, doors will open at 7 p.m. Friday for “Shrek Jr.” The show will continue at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets may be purchased at the Ritz or online at goldenislesarts.org.

When the show opens, it will be the culmination of many months worth of work from all involved.

This year, the cast began working in February to stage the musical and Heath feels it will be the best show yet. And the show itself — a story about an outsider with many gifts to offer — is perfect for the Penguin Project, Heath feels.

“Shrek is a fun, funny, irreverent show but its message is extremely powerful and apropos for The Penguin Project. We are all different, we are all special – and what makes us special, makes us strong,” Heath said.

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