For the last couple months Stacy Carson has been sitting in on weekly rehearsals of “Annie Jr.,” the first Penguin Project production in Glynn County.
She’s watched the show’s 21 actors, all of whom are local children and young adults with special needs, blossom from shy strangers to a close-knit group of outgoing performers.
“The first day, a lot of the kids were shy, they were withdrawn and there wasn’t a lot of interaction between them” said Carson, the mother of 12-year-old Abbi, who has been cast as the play’s lead, Annie. “And now, there’s been so much socialization among all of them. It just touches your heart, because they’ve been given this opportunity.”
The Penguin Project provides local students with special needs the chance to perform in a Broadway-style show. There are 18 Penguin Project programs around the country, and it was brought to Glynn County this year by Golden Isles Arts and Humanities.
Each actor is paired with a mentor, who learns their lines and takes the stage with them for support.
Allyson Jackson, one of the show’s coordinators, helped bring the program to Brunswick because she wished to provide special-needs students with the opportunity to shine on stage and find fellowship with their peers.
Since the first day of rehearsals, she said, the transformations among the students have been radical.
“Each parent has a different story,” she said. “And we always laugh, saying there’s at least one parent that breaks down every week, because they’re seeing their child do something they’ve never done before. And it’s the most amazing thing.”
Jackson hopes for the Penguin Project to continue here for years to come, and she said donations are currently being sought to keep the program going.
“This is going to be an ongoing project, not just a one-time thing that is this year only,” she said. “We’re trying to build a foundation to be able to keep it going.”
The program is currently short by about $3,000 for this year’s $15,000 budget. Jackson said any donations will help.
“This is the first project for theater opportunities for special-needs kids throughout Glynn County — for them to be front and center and have the spotlight on them instead of being on the sideline,” she said.
The students began earlier this year with once-a-week practices, and as the show’s June 15 opening night nears, the group has started practicing three to four times a week.
Jackson’s son, Daniel, is playing Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire who adopts Annie. He said the project has been incredible so far.
“I’m usually shy around most people, but I would say having a lead role has helped me get over that,” he said.
Daniel’s mentor, Craig Spradley, said the show is coming along well, and both young men encouraged the community to attend one of the performances, which will take place at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Brunswick from June 15 to June 18.
“We’ve gone through ups and downs with rehearsals, and there’s been challenges,” Spradley said. “But for right now, everyone’s doing very good.”
Mentor Shae Johnston, a junior at Glynn Academy, has acting experience from her school’s theater program and from the Island Players. She said she has enjoyed seeing the participants in the Penguin Project enjoy the same experience she loves.
“Everything is just coming together really well,” she said. “They’re starting the dances and they’re singing, and everyone’s really picking up on everything. It’s just lots of fun to see all the students do this.”
Carson said the hard-working students will be deserving of their spotlight when they perform this June.
“The Penguin Project allows these children to shine and, for a lot of them, to come out of their shells,” she said. “It allows them to be in something that otherwise they might not get the opportunity to do.”
Those interested in donating can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 262-6934.