Youths with special needs take center stage with Theatre Lawrence production

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Members of the Penguin Project Tanner Hetherington, Dylan Groves, Eleanor Roust and Kelsey King, are pictured, in the front row from left to right, during a rehearsal of Theatre Lawrence production of “Aladdin Jr."

Kelsey King hasn’t missed a rehearsal of Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.” since the first snowy night in February when the Penguin Project was introduced at Theatre Lawrence.

But she’s not alone. Her peer mentor Eleanor Roust has been by her side.

“The moment I laid eyes on her, I knew we were going to be friends,” said Kelsey, a student at Free State High School.

The two are with 34 other artists and mentors partnered on-stage in Theatre Lawrence’s first Penguin Project production. A national program, the project offers a guide for community theaters to help youth ages 10 to 21 with special needs to have the opportunity to perform in a theater production.

Since the first of March, they have been meeting at the theater for an hour, two afternoons a week. At first, they went through different acting exercises, reading various lines from the play and learning songs.

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During that time, a bond has formed between Kelsey, 15, and Eleanor, 11. When Kelsey is excited, she grabs hold of Eleanor’s hand. When she is upset she buries her head on Eleanor’s shoulder and hugs her tight. When they finish a scene, satisfied with their performance, they high-five each other. On stage, Eleanor, who knows all of Kelsey’s lines, will stand by her. If Kelsey needs a little help, she’ll whisper a word to help her get started with her line.

A similar bond is forming with the other artists and mentors. When the cast sings “Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me,” there’s more to the song than the relationship between Aladdin and Genie; it seems to refer to all the real-life friendships developing on stage.

That is exactly how Andrew Morgan, a specialist for children with special needs in Peoria, Ill., said it would work when he spoke at the first meeting in February. Morgan created the program so those with special needs who often feel isolated and have limited opportunities to get involved in the performing arts could have that experience.

Getting into character

“If you are going to have a part in the play, you have to practice, practice, practice,” Hailey Gillespie, youth education director with Theatre Lawrence, told the cast recently.

She is leading the production with the help of Molly Gordon, choreographer for all Theatre Lawrence main stage musicals, Susan Hires, the music director, and Kristie Dobson, the mentor coordinator.

Kelsey wanted to play Princess Jasmine of Agrabah, but quickly added that she would be happy with whatever part she got.

To her delight, she was cast as the fast-talking Genie.

“I never dreamed I’d get that part,” she said, smiling broadly.

During a recent rehearsal, Gillespie told her to be sassy in the role.

“Catch ya later,” Kelsey said, hand on her hip, turning herself swiftly and walking off the stage.

Gillespie clapped with delight.

Daniel Saripalli, 16, whose mentor is Beckett Hutchinson, 14, seemed destined for his role as Aladdin. Before finally selecting the cast, Gillespie told the group she was still deciding who would have what role, but every role would be special. Each time, Daniel would chime in, “I’ll be Aladdin,” as if suggesting it was all it would take to be cast in the part.

But he’s perfect for Aladdin, Gillespie said. While mentors will be with other artists who need coaching throughout the production, Daniel already has a stage presence.

The cast includes Max Graham, 12, who plays a beggar in the marketplace. Because of his cerebral palsy, he is in a wheelchair and his mentor moves him around so he can play his role.

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Willie Dobson, Max Graham and Hailey Gillespie are pictured, kneeling down from left to right, during the market scene from “Aladdin Jr.” Max plays a beggar in the marketplace. Because of his cerebral palsy, he is in a wheelchair and his mentor Willie moves him around as he plays his character for the Theatre Lawrence production that will run June 28 and June 29, 2019.

During a recent practice, he said his line, “Thank you,” as Aladdin gave him bread stolen from the market. Watching in the audience, with tears in her eyes, was his nurse, Evelyn Gorden.

“I am so happy he can be in the play,” Gorden said. “He isn’t going to school right now so this is a great thing.”

Getting there

Tickets haven’t gone on sale yet, but the production will be June 28 and June 29. Recently Gillespie told the troupe they were exactly where they needed to be, but sometimes she worries how it will come together.

“Dr. Andy tells me ‘these kids will meet and exceed your expectations; just give them a chance,'” Gillespie said.

Working with special populations in theater has been dear to Gillespie’s heart.

“It can bring out this confidence and self-esteem and self-awareness,” Gillespie said.

With the Penguin Project having mentors by each artist’s side, it helps anxiety to disappear and the artists to get into character.

“I tell them if they know the story and get into the character they don’t need to know every line,” Gillespie said.

Several of the artists have become comfortable with the routine of practice; then if the next practice doesn’t go exactly the same, they get upset. However, soothing words from a mentor or the crew always seem to help.

One routine, which they learned the first night, is ending the rehearsal dancing to the Penguin Project’s theme song, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. They all know the dance steps, all 36 of them, including Max, whose chair is moved to the music with the help of his mentor.

They appear to lose themselves as they dance, holding on to that feeling of being center stage.

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