After a challenging year facing the COVID-19 pandemic and the several social restrictions that ensued, the performers of the Penguin Project are ready to return to the theater.
The Penguins will be performing an adaptation of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a classic musical from 1960 about a rock star by the name of Conrad Birdie. The production will take place at 7 p.m. June 17 to 19 and at 3 p.m. June 20 at the Historic Ritz Theatre, 1530 Newcastle St., Brunswick.
Cast member Daniel Jackson said he is excited about the show, and he enjoys being back together with all of his friends after a long year away from the group.
“I was excited getting to see everyone. I missed them all a lot last year,” Jackson said.
The rest of the troupe smiled and nodded their head in agreement.
Fellow castmate William Gibson also stepped forward to express his appreciation for performing and being part of a group.
“My favorite part so far is singing and acting and getting along with all my new friends,” Gibson said.
The Penguin Project, established in 2004, is a national program with multiple chapter sites around the United States.
The program aims to provide those with disabilities a supportive environment in which to explore their creative talents.
The executive director of the Golden Isles chapter, Heather Heath, said she was drawn to the organization due to her experience in theater and teaching it.
“Theater is my background, and I know the benefits of working in the theatre. I have done lots of programs with young people and lots of summer camps working with kids in the theater, and I know what it can do in terms of self-confidence and communication skills,” Heath said.
She added that many of the performers have been with the program for several years now, performing in past shows such as “Annie Jr.” and “Shrek the Musical Jr.,” and have shown noticeable growth from being incredibly shy to laughing, joking and making friends.
“Some of our kids that are born nonverbal have even started to speak,” Heath said.
The performances prove to be an emotional experience not only for the performers. The audience always takes something special away from each show she said.
“You can expect to see a truly awesome and amazing show. It is super fun with great singing and dancing,” she said. “Every single production we have done the past four years, what comes across is absolute passion, joy and excitement about being up there and sharing all of their wonderful talent. That is what rolls on over into the audience, and there is nothing like it.”
She also added that the productions would not be possible if not for the many people who support the Penguin Project, such as parents, local special needs teachers and volunteer mentors.
Volunteer mentor Ami Bishop said she and her sister, Mackenzie, were fascinated by the program because of a relative who sparked their interest in theater at an early age.
“My sister has special needs, and we love acting. Our grandmother also used to be an actress, part of the theater in Columbus called the Springer Opera House, and that was always really fun when we were growing up,” Bishop said.
Ami enjoys acting and performing with her sister and hopes that the production shows people that those with special needs can perform too, she said.
“People usually think that people with special needs cannot act. There are a lot of things they think they cannot do, especially acting, cooperating and looking at an audience,” she said. “But that is not true. They can totally act. It is just giving them a chance to.”
Another mentor, Sara Giannakakis, added why she believes the Penguin Project is such a unique experience.
“We are showing that anything is possible and that every single person has a lot to give, and this gives everyone the opportunity to shine,” Giannakakis said.