Flagler Playhouse President Jerri Berry first heard about the Penguin Project on a virtual conference during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Dr. Andy Morgan started the project in 2004 to give children with disabilities an opportunity to get involved with the performing arts.
Morgan, a pediatrician and college professor who specialized in treating children with disabilities, combined his profession with his passion. He had been involved with community theater for over 30 years.
Berry saw the parallels between herself and Morgan. She is a behavioral interventionist at Bunnell Elementary School. And before that, she was an Exceptional Student Education teacher. Like Morgan, she also has a passion for the theater.
She was hooked by the idea.
“It’s marrying both of my lives,” she said of the project. “I said we need to have it here. We asked to become a chapter. That became my mission.”
The Flagler Playhouse is now one of five Penguin Project chapters in Florida and is one of more than 50 nationwide. The Playhouse will be presenting its first Penguin Project show — “Annie Jr.” — on June 9-11.
The Penguin Project produces modified versions of Broadway musicals. The roles are played by young artists with developmental disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to visual and hearing impairments.
The project got its name because penguins can’t fly, but their spirits soar.
Each artist is joined on stage by a peer mentor who helps with lines and emotional support. They rehearse for four months.
There will be 18 artists and 15 mentors on stage at the Playhouse when "Annie Jr." opens at 7 p.m. Friday, June 9.
“Some of our students are flying solo, and we have a few swing mentors, who help when available,” said Berry, who is the show’s production coordinator.
Annabelle Kocher is playing the role of Annie. At 10 years old, the Palm Coast resident is a theater veteran.
She usually performs with the Children’s Musical Theater in Ormond Beach.
Annabelle has played the lead role of Matilda in “Matilda the Musical.” She played Peggy in “Camp Rock,” and has had some ensemble roles.
“In Pinocchio, I was a star,” she said. “Like, literally, a star.”
Annabelle has autism spectrum disorder. With the old diagnosis, she would probably be classified with Asperger’s Syndrome, said Annabelle’s mom, Rosanne Kocher.
We tried to find something that would work for her, because not everything always works for everybody. She just took right to it, and it brings out a side of her that you don't see when she's not on stage.”
— ROSANNE KOCHER on her daughter, Annabelle's, love for theater.
Annabelle started performing in plays when she was 5 years old.
“Annabelle started in theater when she was very young, because she had a skill of being able to memorize things very easily,” her mom said. “We tried to find something that would work for her, because not everything always works for everybody. She just took right to it, and it brings out a side of her that you don't see when she's not on stage.”
Annabelle recently won the elementary division in the Flagler Youth Talent show for her performance of “Naughty,” from Matilda. Her close friend and her peer mentor in the Penguin Project, Bianca Wright, finished third in the talent show.
Annabelle was asked if theater has helped her with her autism.
“If there wasn't theater, it definitely wouldn't be as good for me,” she said. “But I do love doing art, like painting, like making bracelets, like stuff like that. Even theater is art, like any kind of art really. I love art.”
Rosanne originally brought Annabelle to Flagler Playhouse to be a mentor in the project.
“I thought it was just amazing, the change I saw in her doing theater, and we wanted to help spread that to other children with disabilities,” Rosanne said.
But they needed an Annie, and the show must go on.
Micah Evensen, 10, is a peer mentor. His uncle, Keaton Wilburn, is one of the artists. Micah’s artist is Corbyn Kemp,12, who attends Indian Trails Middle School and plays the apple seller, Sandy the dog, and Mr. Pugh.
Micah said he’s been wanting to be in a play for a while.
“It’s a different experience,” he said. “It’s better for people easing into plays. You still have to learn their lines and know where they have to be. You have to learn how to help people with their disabilities. You also get to have fun and be social.”
Jackie Olson, whose daughter, Haley, plays Duffy, Annette and the usherette, said the mentors are the kids who are going to grow up to be doctors, teachers, therapists and nurses.
“When you don’t know about special needs, that’s when you see the bullying and isolation and non-inclusion,” Olson said. "(The mentors) are familiar with it and adjust.”
CHALLENGES AND HUGS
Director Marisa Glidden and choreographer Noel Bethea say the project poses challenges, but they are well worth it.
“Just the leaps and bounds that we've seen, and these kids coming out of their shell and shining their light, has been amazing,” Glidden said.
Bethea said she has had to rethink how to present material, but the kids in the show work hard and come prepared.
You come out of here and you're having a bad day, after rehearsal you have so many hugs and people patting you on the back. The love, it just fills your bucket.”
— NOEL BETHEA, choreographer for "Annie"
“You're learning that everybody has different talents, and to highlight those talents is so important, because it builds self-esteem. It builds confidence. And most of all, you come out of here and you're having a bad day; after rehearsal, you have so many hugs and people patting you on the back. The love, it just fills your bucket,” she said.
Marie Vetro said her daughter, Natalie, 17, who has cerebral palsy, has never been involved in a production before. She plays Star-to-Be and the orphan, July. And she has a solo, in the song, “N.Y.C.”
“She is blooming in the production,” Vetro said. “When I see Natalie perform that way, it just melts my heart. I’m just glad the Penguin Project came into our lives.”
The signature dance number of the Penguin Project is to the Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believin.’”
“Every night I’m overcome with emotion watching the happiness (when the kids dance and sing to the song),” Berry said. “I just love this project.”