Heather Heath has always been good at helping actors blossom on stage. A thespian herself and executive director of Golden Isles Arts and Humanities, she has always understood how to breathe life into a production.
But three years ago, she was presented with an entirely new type of show, one that would prove to be challenging but rewarding beyond measure — the Penguin Project. The national program was developed by Dr. Andrew Morgan, a professor of pediatrics in Peoria, Ill., in 2004. The program brings young people — ages 10 to 25 — with disabilities together to stage a musical. These performers are supported by mentors who helped them learn their lines and settle in to the production.
For Heath, everything about the idea — including the name — fits perfectly.
“The origin of the name ‘Penguin Project’ comes from the unique characteristics of penguins. They are extremely playful and curious, and work well together,” Heath explained.
“More importantly, they have a ‘disability’ that distinguishes them from other birds — they can’t fly! Instead, penguins waddle and toboggan on their bellies over the snow, and are excellent swimmers in the water. So like the young artists, they have adapted to the challenges of their environment, and have not allowed their unique differences to interfere with their lives.”
The Penguin Project has given the young performers a place to share that fact with others. And it’s what Heath has seen in the local incarnation over the past two years.
“Allyson Jackson brought the program to my attention by bringing a group of folks together for a free lunch where we met some young ladies who had worked with the Penguin Project in Illinois. I went home that evening and told my husband about it and that I had to do it,” Heath recalled.
“But I made Allyson wait about a week as I thought about all the logistics of making it happen. She came to me and said ‘Well?’ and I said ‘Oh, we have to do this.’ Then we were off and running.”
The first project was “Annie Jr.” in 2017, followed by “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.” in 2018. This year will be the third incarnation when “Shrek, the Musical Jr.” begins at 7 p.m. June 14 at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick. It will continue at 7 p.m. June 15 and 3 p.m. June 16. Advance tickets are $10 for GIAH members and $15 for nonmembers. Prices increase by $5 on the day of show. Student admission is always $5 with proper ID. Tickets may be purchased at www.goldenislesarts.org or by calling the Ritz at 912-262-6934.
Taking a look back at the past performances, Heath cannot help but marvel at the journey.
“’The first year, we had no idea what to expect, and we were blown away. Almost all of our artists and mentors had never done a show before and they were exceptional,” she said.
“The following year, the growth in our artists that we had started to see really blossomed and again, it was a magical experience.”
Like the two previous years, this year’s process has been one of inspiration and growth. And with two years of experience under her belt, Heath is thrilled at what they will bring to the stage for 2019. The cast has been working hard since February to give their best to audiences.
“This year, I have to say, is going to be the best one yet,” Heath said. “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. Our Penguins are doing a phenomenal job this year and I hope folks will come out to support them.”
If the previous years are any indication, that will not be a problem. The Penguin Project performances have packed houses every time. And that community support is incredibly important to those involved.
“We have an amazing community with amazing support ... both years, we have sold out all performances,” Heath noted. “Our Penguins love to share what they do with an audience.”
The packed seats go a long way to encouraging the show’s stars and are critically important to the mission. Sponsors are also necessary to help fund the costs of the production — include royalties, sets, costumes and the like.
“There is no cost to participate in the Penguin Project, but, there are costs to putting on a musical,” she said.
This year’s sponsors include Rich Products Corp., The Rotary Club of St. Simons Island, The Driftwood Bistro, Christ Church Frederica, Georgia Council for the Arts, Ameris Bank and The Davis Love Foundation. In-kind supporters include The Brunswick News, Premier Printing, First United Methodist Church, and Flexer Enterprises. Many individuals have also stepped up to lend a hand.
While the sponsor’s assistance helps get the show off the ground, the impact on the actors lasts much longer than that the three day run. Since her involvement, Heath has watched some truly incredible transformations. Many of these will go on to benefit the participants for the rest of their lives.
“It offers young people with disabilities the opportunity to engage in an activity that focuses on socialization and communication and allows them to be in the spotlight. They discover their talent, their confidence increases and they can make friendships that can last a lifetime,” she said.
While the actors shine bright, the Penguin Project also gives much to those who serve as mentors and volunteers, Heath adds.
“It also allows young people without disabilities to interact with people they may perceive to be ‘different’ only to discover that they have much more in common than they may have thought. The members of the Penguin Project – artists, mentors, volunteers, parents and our production staff – become family,” she said. “This is the part where I get a little weepy. I am so proud of them.”