Aug. 17—Theatre Workshop of Owensboro will premiere a production of "Annie Jr.," which will feature performers with developmental and learning disabilities through the national program The Penguin Project.
The title sponsor for the production is the Kiwanis Club of Owensboro.
Established in 2004, The Penguin Project was created to have a group of children perform a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical, where all the roles will be filled by young artists with developmental disabilities such as down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairments and other neurological disorders.
Additionally, the performers are joined by "peer mentors" — children the same age without disabilities — who will work with the performers during rehearsals and performances.
The production of "Annie Jr." is calling for those between the ages of 10-21 and will be staged Jan. 13-15, 2023, at the RiverPark Center.
Jody Hulsey, Kiwanis Club of Owensboro member and production coordinator for the program, learned about The Penguin Project during the Kiwanis International Convention in June 2018 before becoming a TWO board member, and he wanted to find a way to use the organization's vision "to instill the love of theatre by creating a role for everyone" effectively.
"(T)hat word 'everyone' really struck me," Hulsey said. "Having just learned about The Penguin Project, I recognized that there was an existing program that could help us bring the joy of theatre to a larger group of children in our community.
"Both Kiwanis and TWO are constantly looking for ways to do more to serve the children and families in our community, and the TWO Penguin Project offers a unique developmental opportunity for many children."
Jacob Hein, who will direct the production, is looking forward to being part of its inaugural year and echoes Hulsey's statement about The Penguin Project and TWO's vision connecting with one another.
"...The Penguin Project is one of the best ways to promote that vision and truly live it out," Hein said. "If a person wants to be on stage or part of a production, as a director, I want to do everything I can to give them the opportunity to do so and to make sure that the experience is worthwhile."
Todd Reynolds, executive director for TWO, said the production has been in the works for a few years but was put on hold due to COVID.
This is the first production in Owensboro that is in association with The Penguin Project and the second in the state alongside Playhouse In the Park in Murray, according to Reynolds.
Brett Mills, who has been involved with TWO since the late 1980s and is on the autism spectrum, said theatre has been a good outlet for him to thrive in and is happy to see a program like The Penguin Project helping those similar to him.
"Theatre is one of the most accepting environments that people with disabilities can possibly experience because there's so much opportunity to be what your imagination allows you to be," Mills said. "...You don't have to necessarily fit into certain boxes to be successful."
Reynolds and Mills believe theatre is an ideal medium to promote inclusion.
"It's nonthreatening," Reynolds said. "You can engage at whatever level we find you at."
Reynolds feels programs like The Penguin Project can help with improving quality of life and can benefit people beyond the performers and mentors such as families, schools and the overall community.
"This brings everybody together," he said. "...It's life changing and not just for the children who participate. Everybody's affected."
An information session for prospective performers, mentors and families will take place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Daviess County High School choir room/auditorium.
For more information, contact Hulsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.