Leaders with the Forsyth County Arts and Learning Center had more than just entertainment in mind when they began planning for the first musical production set to take place in the spring.
For them, the brand-new center and production is more about serving the community and the students. That’s why FoCAL Director Dawn Phipps partnered with The Penguin Project, a national foundation that aims to help students with developmental disabilities and their families through performing arts.
Dr. Andy Morgan, a pediatrician specializing in children with disabilities who founded the national project and foundation, flew to Forsyth County from Peoria, Illinois, to meet with Forsyth County Schools leaders and talk with parents during an informational session on Thursday, Nov. 11.
During that meeting, Phipps and Morgan announced to families that the production would be Annie Jr., a shortened version of the Broadway classic. But most importantly — students with disabilities will be the stars of the show.
They will have the opportunity to take over and portray the characters many know and love like Annie, Miss Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks all while receiving help from a peer mentor who works with them on lines and dance moves.
These peer mentors are there to help during rehearsals and on stage during the performance. Playing background characters, they will always be on stage with a mentee to provide support in case of a forgotten line, nerves or any other issue.
“They will be there every minute of the way to support them in whatever way your kid needs,” Director Jamie Fambrough told parents on Thursday night.
Phipps said student mentors will be around the same age as their mentees, and they hope that these on-stage relationships can develop into long-term friendships throughout the production and program.
That connectedness was always Morgan’s goal for students when he started The Penguin Project in 2004 in Illinois.
He got involved in community theater when he was a teenager with his family, and he started to notice just how impactful performing arts could be for kids with disabilities.
“I noticed how much it helped their socialization and their communication skills and self-esteem,” Morgan said.
Not only did he see theater as a great way to bring out positive behavior in kids, but it also showed how much it really connected everyone involved. That was when he got the idea to start The Penguin Project.
The first chapter began where he lived and worked as a pediatrician in Illinois, but eventually, the idea of the program started getting more attention. He started to help other communities begin their own chapters, sometimes driving into other states to meet with program directors.
“We really had no idea what to expect, but it ended up taking off like crazy,” Morgan said. “It was an amazing experience. We all were astounded at how well the kids did, and the parents were just overwhelmed with how much their children gained in terms of communication skills, their self-esteem and socialization.”
Today, there are 50 chapters of The Penguin Project in 21 states across the U.S., with the FoCAL Center being the first new chapter since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Morgan said he will come to Forsyth County periodically through the beginning of the program to meet with the students, ensure that the Forsyth chapter is following the values and missions of The Penguin Project and eventually watch the first production scheduled in March.
During this time, Morgan said he can’t wait to see the success the FoCAL Center has with the program. On how well the school district can connect with the community, he said the chapter will be a great place for students with disabilities to connect and make friends.
Phipps and Fambrough are looking for more students to join The Penguin Project and fill out the cast for the upcoming production, aiming for 25-30 total students in 11th and 12th grades.
FoCAL Center leaders are currently finding students for its pool of student mentors. Phipps said these mentors will be students who have helped in special education classrooms before or have been part of their school’s theater program. They will be required to take training before the production begins.
They will be holding a theater boot camp for students who don’t have experience in theater to learn some of the basics beginning on Monday, Nov. 29, before starting official rehearsals after winter break on Monday, Jan. 10.
The opening show is scheduled for Thursday, March 24, at the new FoCAL Center, and the show will run through Sunday, March 27.
“The opportunity for us to blend the arts and the community and to blend that with our students and is really a tremendous blessing,” Phipps said. “I am so grateful to Dr. Morgan, The Penguin Project and Jamie and his team for coming together.”