Unopening Night: Penguin Project Waddles On Amid Pandemic | WGLT

Unopening Night: Penguin Project Waddles On Amid Pandemic

Jun 5, 2020

"The show must go on" is one of the most repeated phrases in theatre, whether you're directing on Broadway or a children's production.

But for Jackie Gunderson, her show — which she looks forward to directing each year, and each day — was unable to go on.

Gunderson is the director of the Penguin Project of McLean County, a youth performing arts program specifically designed for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. She also works in the purchasing department at Illinois State University. 

The Penguin Project is a national nonprofit with 26 different chapters across the U.S.

The program was founded by Dr. Andrew Morgan in 2003 in Peoria, with the vision of providing children with special needs unrestricted access to the performing arts in ways better-suited for their learning styles.  Morgan is professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics, the former head of the Division of Child Development at the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine at Peoria, and central Illinois' leading pediatric specialist involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities for over 35 years. 

Gunderson explained the meaning of the program's name: "The (Penguin Project) name comes from a very special bird in the bird family — the penguin, which is the only bird that cannot fly," Gunderson explained.  "However, they do not let that stop them from getting around — they have all sorts of ways to get around just fine. So our penguins — they may not be able to fly, but that does not stop their spirits from soaring."

"They may not be able to fly, but that does not stop their spirits from soaring."

In 2009, the program's first replication site opened in Bloomington-Normal: Penguin Project McLean. The program is open to children with any type of developmental disability age 10-24.  

"We've been at capacity the last 5 years with 80 participants," Gunderson said. "They give us amazing talent and abilities that may not be recognized, celebrated, or supported in other places."

Each March after auditions, Gunderson pairs up each cast member (or "penguin") with a peer mentor.

Peer mentors, who are generally volunteers and not developmentally disabled, work side-by-side with their assigned "penguins," assisting them with one-on-one practice of their casted parts, the entire rehearsal process, and on-stage.

"We perform an unaltered script each year. We provide our participants the modifications and alterations that they need to be successful."

"The joy of it all is that the mentors learn how to make them successful and learn new ways to help each kid along the way," Gunderson added. 

In the past 12 years, the site had fileld up University High School's Stroud Auditorium each spring with feature-length productions of various broadway "junior" musicals.

That is, until this year. 

For the program's 12th annual production, Gunderson had decided on "Shrek The Musical Jr."

After the auditions, casting, and mentor-pairing process, the group had gotten four rehearsals in before being forced to shutdown due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. 

"We had tried doing virtual rehearsals and virtual one-on-one meetings between the peer mentors and penguins."

The cast of Madagascar JR., performed in Spring 2018 by the Penguin Project of McLean County.

Gunderson had originally planned to merely postpone the production until August, until Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced an extension to the order.

"When it (the stay-at-home-order) got extended, we decided to cancel the show. We didn't think it'd be fair to ask the kids to continue preparing for a show when they couldn't rehearse in-person for two months."  

Even though the final production, usually performed in front of audiences larger than 500 people, is of the utmost importance in the theatre world, Gunderson uses the program as a way to teach invaluable life skills to its' participants, presented in a fun and structured way.

"There are a lot of goals to the program that have nothing to do with theatre or the show," Gunderson elaborated. "Things like social interaction, creative expression, learning a sense of community, developing new friendships, communication skills — all these things help them do and achieve things that not even they thought would be possible."

Gunderson emphasized the importance of making sure her kids get a proper shot at succeeding.

"When we can give them a level playing field, they come out every year and surprise and amaze me by showing the things that they can do when given the resources." 

Even though the production, "Shrek The Musical Jr.," had to be cancelled this year, Gunderson organized a special fundraising event, doubly serving as a virtual ceremony to honor all of the participants.

The Penguin Project of McLean County's Unopening Night will be held virtually at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 5.

"We wanted to come up with a way to make them feel special on what would've been their opening night."

Gunderson named the event "Unopening Night." It will be at 7 p.m. Friday, June 5.

With help from the program's peer mentors, Gunderson has put together a video tribute that will play during the event, celebrating the resilence, accomplishments, and abilities of everyone involved in what would have been the program's 12th production. 

"Our kids thrive for that moment when the audience laughs with them and claps for them, after they've worked so hard on that show for months." 

Gunderson added that she plans to welcome back any/all cast members who wish to come back to participate in "Shrek The Musical Jr" in spring 2021.

Tickets to "Unopening Night" are now available. More information about the event, how to make donations to the program, and information about signup can be found by visiting the program's Facebook page and website.   

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