Augustana Observer

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Augustana Observer

Valentine's Day Bingo
February 24, 2024

Penguin Project gives young artists with disabilities a chance


A little over a year ago, theatre professor Jeff Coussens attended a theatre conference in Peoria, Il. that inspired him in a new and touching way. While at the conference, Coussens was introduced to Dr. Andrew Morgan, a retired pediatrician who specialized in working with children with special needs and disabilities, and the founder of The Penguin Project.

Stemming out of Peoria, The Penguin Project seeks to give artists with disabilities a way to perform on stage. According to Morgan, the program gets its name because “penguins are disabled birds that have wings but can’t fly, and they thrive in hostile environments.”

Each year, a production of a Broadway junior musical is put on with lead roles portrayed exclusively by young artists with disabilities. Alongside the main characters are peer mentors that the artists may know from the community or school. These peer mentors serve as a support system for the actors and help prop them when needed.

Coussens was able to see one of the productions, and says he “couldn’t tell the difference, they were so good and so well rehearsed.”

“If you asked me which ones were peer mentors and which ones had disabilities, I wouldn’t know,” said Coussens.

Coussens was so moved by the project, that he decided to launch a replication site right here in the Quad Cities.

In order to make this dream a reality, Coussens met with Dino and Tina Hayz at The Center for Living Arts in Rock Island. The couple already produced Broadway junior musicals on a regular basis at their theatre.  They were eager to help create a replication site for The Penguin Project.

Coussens is currently helping produce Annie Jr. the musical at the Center for Living Arts. There are about 15 penguins and 20 peer mentors working to make this dream a reality.

“They rehearse only several times a week for short periods of time, but the rehearsal process takes months,” says Coussens.

Scheduled to go up in early March, the show will take place in The Brunner Theater. An informational meeting will be held in the next few weeks for Augustana students that wish to become involved in the program.

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Penguin Project gives young artists with disabilities a chance