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When A Penguin Met A Peach

Laura Kennedy

The Penguin Project of McLean County is staging the musical James and the Giant Peach, Jr. this weekend in U-High's Stroud Auditorium.

Not just any theater company, The Penguin Project takes a unique approach to staging musical theater.  The troupe partners kids and young adults with disabilities with a peer mentor.

"They learn a full scale Broadway musical together," explained director Jackie Gunderson.  "We modify it a little bit so everybody can be successful.  their mentor is right there on stage with them if they need them, or just a nice safety net if they can fly a little more solo."

Joshua Kothe is playing the Grasshopper in this year's production. "In the first part of the play, they're just measly insects. So what we did is we got puppets of all the insects.  They're kind of a little creepy if you look real close." A veteran of nine years with The Penguin Project, Kothe said doing the shows is fun and allows him to meet new people and make new friends.  

The peer mentors make real connections with the actors with whom they work, explained Gunderson. "I have a lot of favorite parts about Penguin Project, but the mentor system is my favorite., because teenagers are busy and teenagers have a lot going on.  And these mentors sign up for this four month process knowing that by then end, their goal is to be as invisible and as unneeded as possible.  They put all their energy into making someone else successful.  We have such a wide range of abilities and we switch up artists and mentors each year. So each year they have to learn how to help that artist be successful.  It's really cool because you see this friendship develop and you see them figure out together as a partnership how to make them successful. A lot of our artists and mentors say their favorite part of doing the show is the friendships they make."

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.