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Northern Starz Children’s Theatre experiences tremendous growth in “The Penguin Project”
by Tru Newman

Once a year, a magical and touching celebration of the human spirit unfolds at numerous theaters across the country. A group of children in a program called The Penguin Project take to the stage to perform a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical. This year it was Aladdin Jr.

Northern Starz Children’s Theatre, based in Ramsey, started the Penguin Project in 2018, being the first and only program of its kind in the state. Northern Starz is a replication site for this innovative program that helps children with special needs gain confidence, work with mentors and perform on stage with opportunities they never had before. Developed by Dr. Andrew Morgan, an Illinois pediatrician, the Penguin Project began 16 years ago, and is now in 16 states with 32 replication sites.

Since starting the program in 2018, Northern Starz has experienced tremendous growth and interest in the program. The performance of Aladdin Jr. included 56 people -- 28 special needs actors and 28 mentors -- up from 33 overall participants in its inaugural year of 2018. The growth and success of the program points to the demand and interest in the community for specialized theatre programs, according to Rachel Bohnsack, Executive Director of Northern Starz Children’s Theatre.

Win-win for Everyone!


Bohnsack says, “We are so excited to offer this theatrical opportunity to children with special needs. As the word has spread about our program, parents are calling asking about opportunities for their children and they are thrilled to hear there’s a place for them – a place where they can perform and act where their special needs are celebrated. Being involved in the program is not only beneficial for the actors with special needs, but for the mentors who are learning how to work with others who may learn differently than them. It’s a win-win for everyone!”

All roles in Aladdin Jr. were filled by young artists with developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other neurological disorders.

The actors are joined on stage by a dedicated group of “peer mentors” – children the same age without disabilities, who have volunteered to work side-by-side with them through four months of rehearsals and through the final performances.

The community was treated to performances of Aladdin Jr. from July 31 through Sunday, August 4th at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

 





 
 

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