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East Peoria Times-Courier - East Peoria, IL
  • East Peoria youths participating in Penguin Projects' "Little Mermaid"

  • Eastlight Theatre and the Penguin Project are sending Central Illinois under the sea.
    Since 2004, the Penguin Project has been performing a play a year at Eastlight Theatre with developmentally disabled children and their mentors. The theater is located inside East Peoria Community High School.

    This year the group will perform "The Little Mermaid."
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  • Eastlight Theatre and the Penguin Project are sending Central Illinois under the sea. Since 2004, the Penguin Project has been performing a play a year at Eastlight Theatre with developmentally disabled children and their mentors. The theater is located inside East Peoria Community High School. This year the group will perform "The Little Mermaid." East Peorians in this year's production are: Mason Becker, Olivia Coombs, Naomi Hardesty, Nathan Lambert, Ryan Shanahan, Taylor Graves, Jamie Huebsch, Tori Tondre, Tyler Troyer (Creve Coeur), Elizabeth Coombs, Marissa Corder, Erin Hale, Kristina Ingold, Stephanie Leverton, Stephanie Reeves, Abigail Roberts, Hannah Schultz and Bailey Schultz. “I am a developmental pediatrician,” Dr. Andy Morgan, the founder and show director, said. “That's my job, I take care of children with developmental disabilities. I have also been involved in theater most of my life. “Recognizing how theater helps enhance social skills, I thought it would be a nice mesh in terms of trying to get kids actively involved.” Jake Grys, a Pekin resident and two-year veteran of the program who plays Flounder in this year's production, said thinking of happy things gets him through his nerves to perform in front of a packed house. “I like dancing and singing and having a good time,” Grys said. “I'm nervous and excited for the show.” For Olivia Coombs, an East Peoria resident and fifth-year veteran of the project, this year will be her first lead role as Ariel. “This is my first big role I guess,” Coombs said. “I'm excited that I get to be a mermaid.” Coombs' parents, Bill and Gina, said the growth of Olivia through her time in the Penguin Project has been tremendous. “We heard about the project through an occupational therapist,” Gina Coombs said. “She was a little overwhelmed with all the people at first and I made her come back. That was all it took, she was hooked. “The people love each other and can't wait too see each other. Every day they come it's like they haven't seen each other for a month.” Bill Coombs said the friendship and sense of community with the other actors has given Olivia a boost in her confidence. “A few years ago they asked her to sing,” Bill Coombs said. “Someone was missing and they asked if someone wanted to sing the part. Olivia stood up and Gina and I just looked at each other. We really didn't know she could sing like that. “For a lot of these kids, this is it. This is the greatest thing there is for them. Charles Blackwell, a Peoria resident, will play Prince Eric in the production, which will be his second year with the Project. “It gives me the opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and try new things,” Blackwell said. “As time went on, it all started to come together and through our interactions with one another on stage, we began to bond.” As the years have gone by, the show has gotten more and more intricate due to the growth of the actors. “What is really nice is that we always have a core that comes back and the new kids seem to feed off the experienced kids,” Morgan said. “After the first year, we really gathered momentum and, probably, the most striking thing that has happened within the program is that our choreography has gotten more and more complicated. “We don't just do step-touch-step-touch-turn your head. It's stuff that a lot of adults could not handle.” While the show itself may only take a few days for performances, the company rehearses for four months prior. “This is a lot of work,” Morgan said. “I'm at every rehearsal and rehearsals are two hours by the time we are done.” Besides the show, the project also holds a one week theater camp over the summer and has helped other communities develop their own version of the Penguin Project. “We actively seek out other communities as possible replication sites,” Morgan said. “That's what we do in the offseason, so to speak. Right now, all our focus is on the show.” That replication process is something Morgan said he wants to see expanded on. “I want to take it nationally,” Morgan said. “I want to take it to other states. We are looking for our breakthrough to get us into other states.” The show takes place at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18 and 19 and at 2 p.m. Jan. 20. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for youth with a $1 per ticket service charge for online orders. For tickets, call 699-SHOW or visit www.Eastlighttheatre.com. Tickets for students are available only through the box office. “This is the best thing that I have ever done,” Morgan said. “I have been involved in working with children with disabilities for 30 years and I have been involved in theater for more than 30 years. Everything I have been involved with, there has been a downside. This, there is no downside. None.”
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