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The Arts Scene

The Penguin Project

Jack Williams
MSM Class of 2017

(5/2016) Iím back from my stay abroad! And believe me, there are a number of different feelings and new perspectives associated with coming back home. Personally, the experience of returning to the United States was an exciting one, and I am eager to revisit my loved ones and my best of friends on campus.

One of the many perspectives you gain from traveling in different countries is a keener awareness of your environment. I have taken for granted, now that I have revisited Emmitsburg and the Mount, just how beautiful and warmly welcoming our little town is. Gazing in wonder at the architecture of the Louvre, the spiky castles of Frederick II and the beautiful layout of the Vatican makes you appreciate the simple beauty of our own homes and town buildings. The feeling which arises from this awareness is a new appreciation of this place we are lucky enough to call our home. It reminds me of what Marcel Proust wrote in In Search of Lost Time, "The real voyage of discovery consists in not seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Itís wonderful to be back, I hope all of you have had a wonderful past few months.

The last few editions spoke about upcoming theatre productions in our area. The Mount put on a praised production of The Secret in the Wings, and the last edition previewed the Totem Pole Playhouseís upcoming season. And, in kind, the Gettysburg Community Theatreís Penguin Project has also been preparing for their upcoming performance, Seussical The Musical Jr. this month. Each of these groups is different in some ways, but the Penguin Playhouse is noteworthy in its mission, a beautiful one which is certainly worth your interest.

The Totem Pole Playhouse gets its name from the totem pole outside of its theatre, but where does the Penguin Project get its name? Why penguins? The answer is tied to its mission. The performers, who are rightly called artists by the theatre, suffer from developmental disabilities. These artists include anyone who experience cognitive, learning, motor, hearing or visual impairments, genetic disorders and neurological disorders. Dr. Andrew Morgan, the founder of the Penguin Project, is a pediatrician who works with children who suffer from these disabilities. He called it "the Penguin Project" because, in his words, "Penguins are special needs birds, they cannot fly, but they thrive equally as well as any other bird in their own environment. Our penguins may not fly, but they soar on stage."

These artists can start working alongside their friends, starting at age 10 up until the age of 21, and work along with peer mentors who volunteer to help them soar on stage. These peer mentors themselves do not suffer from developmental disabilities, and assist the stars with the entire rehearsal process and while on stage. They also know all of the lines, all of the songs, and where to place their partners throughout the production. But they do not make themselves known! Their partners are the stars of the show, and they willfully choose to "remain in the background."

As a psychology major and an art lover, this mission speaks to me very strongly and very personally. The sad prospect for far too many people with developmental disabilities is a schedule of treatments, and their only socially guaranteed option being the use of social services. The most robust psychological approach to helping those with these disabilities is called person-centered theory, and itís exactly what you would expect! It is based in appreciation, an appreciation for who a person is from wherever they are, despite a presence or lack of a disability. As the Penguin Project advocates very strongly, everyone has gifts, everyone has the capability to soar in the proper environment. They argue, "So like our other 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 began 12 years ago in Peoria, Illinois. It was a great success, expanding and then finding a home in Pennsylvania at the Gettysburg Community Theatre. Chad-Alan Carr, the Founding Executive/Artistic Director of the Gettysburg Community Theater could not speak more highly of the project. Heís adamant about just how much of a help the Penguin Project is, "Weíre changing lives!" he says, "My favorite part is to see the compassionate bond that develops between the artists with special needs starring in the show and their peer mentors without special needs helping them along during what we call Ďthe process.í

The process which Chad-Alan is speaking of is the creation of a special environment where the artists feel comfortable enough to showcase their special talents. These performers often feel one step behind others who lack their disability, which can make them feel less willing to try and stand out from the rest. This "comfort zone," as itís called, is designed to help every performer explore their creativity and their communication skills, their socialization, and ultimately their self-confidence. The process then creates "the product," a special show where, Carr explains, "families have the opportunity to watch their children succeed in ways they never thought possible. Itís all about developing relationships and creating a very special family that extends well beyond the stage."

There are a number of repeat sponsors who help the Penguin Project keep their mission alive. The Gettysburg Community Theatre would like to especially thank UniqueSource, The Eagles of Gettysburg and The American Legion of Biglerville for continually supporting the group both financially and in spirit. If any of you are also interested in helping keep the Penguin Project afloat financially, and itís within your means, it would be greatly appreciated!

This year, the group will be performing Seussical Jr., a play that ought to be familiar to some of us. It is a charming play, an interesting mixture of numerous books written by Dr. Seuss in a musical format. It has many of the major characters, including The Cat in the Hat, Horton, Cindy Lou Who, Mayzie LaBird, and The Grinch. I will leave the more detailed points of the plot for the Penguinís to showcase, but it is a great, whimsical play which is another excellent addition to the long list of great plays being showcased in our area! Seussical Jr. will be performed in the Gettysburg High School Auditorium, located at 1130 Old Harrisburg Rd, on May 13 at 7 p.m. and on May 14 at 2 p.m.

Read other articles by Jack Williams