When Wendy Durant enrolled her 12-year-old daughter, Cadi, in the Community Theatre League’s newly founded chapter of the Penguin Project — a nationwide effort to empower young people with special needs through theatre — she wasn’t sure what to expect. The program, implemented at the local theater in 2016, seemed like a possible way to coax the painfully shy Cadi out of her shell.
Five years later, Cadi hasn’t just peeked her head out of that shell — she’s burst out — dancing and singing.
“Every time I see her perform on stage, my heart swells,” Wendy said, smiling. “I’m so proud of how far she’s come and what she can do when she puts her mind to it.”
From the beginning
From a young age, Wendy knew that Cadi was different. While she was well familiar with Cadi’s sweet, silly personality, teachers said that, in the classroom, Cadi stuck by herself, quiet and withdrawn. Soon after, she received a string of diagnoses, including Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and anxiety. All three made connecting and socializing with her peers difficult.
“She wouldn’t volunteer a lot of information. She would keep to herself a little bit on the playground … like she had a couple friends, but not too (many).”
But at home, Cadi had a creative side. She loved to sing and had been taking dance lessons since the second grade. The Penguin Project, which involves members (called “Penguins”) working with peer mentors over a six-month span to put on a full-fledged performance, would allow Cadi to share her talents with others. After securing the comedic role of the Genie in the project’s first show — Aladdin Jr. — the once-timid girl’s confidence started to soar.
“One day, they finally had some rehearsals down in the basement rehearsal room, so I was able to see a little bit of rehearsal,” Wendy recalled. “And Cadi did the song ‘Friend Like Me.’ There she was in front of all these people, singing and dancing. She knew all her lines, and she was funny. I was just like, ‘Who is this child?!’ I was in tears.”
The Penguin Project
Five years and a handful of musicals later — including Aladdin Jr., Beauty and the Beast Jr., The Jungle Book Jr., and a concert version of Annie Jr. — the Penguin Project at CTL is still going strong. Young people with developmental disabilities (ages 11-21) participate as Penguins, while kids without disabilities (ages 10-18) can sign up to be peer mentors. In a typical year, there are about 30 people in each group.
In the beginning of each rehearsal process, the artists and mentors mingle, trying on different “pairs” and mixing and matching until they find a partner they click with. Once this is decided, the two work together to learn a role. Each rehearsal, time is dedicated to line memorization, group choreography and music.
While the mentor is prepared to perform in place of their Penguin if something happens, they are encouraged to start allowing the actor to try scenes or songs on their own as they feel comfortable. Seth Sponhouse, executive director of the league, sees this “buddy” system as essential.
“This form of scaffolding is an educational theory of allowing the student to have only what they need, instead of having their partner the entire time. Usually by showtime, we have a couple artists who are ready to do the show by themselves, without the mentor on stage with them at all.”
When COVID hit
Typically, Penguin Project shows are put on no differently than any other production at CTL. Scenes are performed in their entirety, with set, lighting and costume changes included. But when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the show the Penguins and mentors had been rehearsing for, Annie Jr., had to be canceled. Sponhouse hated the idea of all the hard work the group did going to waste and decided to put on a concert version of the show this August instead.
“With COVID and the rushed schedule of the summer, we felt it best to set our Penguins up for success by altering what we typically do. Presenting Annie Jr. in a concert format was the perfect solution,” he said.
In the time that has passed since Cadi first enrolled in the Penguin Project, a lot has changed. The formerly shy girl has blossomed into an engaged high school senior, talking in class and planning a career in graphic design. She has made good friends, both in and out of CTL. Most importantly, Wendy notes, Cadi now has something she’d always hoped for her daughter: the confidence to be herself.
“To know that she’s capable of doing pretty much anything if she puts her mind to it has been huge,” Wendy said. “I’m really not sure what she would be like, where she would be socially or developmentally, if we hadn’t had the Penguin Project. It’s changed her life — it really has.”