The Moorestown Theater Company is partnering with the award-winning Penguin Project to present “Annie JR.” April 29 and 30, capping off Autism Awareness Month. Fourteen neuro-diverse actors and six neuro-typical mentors will act the roles and join the chorus to sing standards like "It's a Hard-knock Life" and "Tomorrow."
The Moorestown Theater Company is an award-winning, nonprofit community theater organization where an inclusive community can perform theater together and "spark the confidence and creativity of local families, artists, and valued volunteers." They are celebrating their 20th Season. The New Jersey Association of Community Theaters recognized MTC as the 2022 Community Theater of the Year — an award given to a New Jersey theater organization that has made a significant contribution to its community.
Annie (Alyssa Huber) and John Humes (Daddy Warbucks)
Dr. Andy Morgan, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Pediatrics and the former Head of the Division of Child Development at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, created the Penguin Project ® in 2004. He sought to combine his professional expertise with his passion for theater to give children with disabilities an opportunity to experience the performing arts. Following participating parents' advice in Peoria, he developed a process to replicate the program in communities around the country. There are now 56 chapters in 22 states. The Moorestown program will be the first in New Jersey.
"I've been involved with 8 or 9 productions of Annie," said MTC founding director Mark Morgan [no relation to Dr. Morgan]. "This upcoming show is unlike any other. This is our first time under the auspices of the Penguin Project. My wife (Costume Designer & Producer Carol Ann Murray) and I first encountered it at a conference a few years ago. One of my colleagues from the Gettysburg Community Theatre told me, 'Mark, this will change your life. Of course, it will change the life of your Penguin participants, but it will change the lives of anyone in your company who works on it. You need to do this.'"
The Penguin Project reports that surveys of participants and parents of participants bear out this impact. Artists and mentors reported feeling more proud of themselves, improvements in doing things on their own, feeling a lot better about others being different, and finding it easier to be friends with kids without disabilities. A significant majority of mentors reported finding it easier to stand up for themselves since being a part of the Penguin Project. Parents reported growth in connections with other families with kids with disabilities, as well as their children developing new friendships and greater comfort speaking in front of groups.
Victoria Abele (Lily), Giulia Spier (Miss Hannigan) and Lucas Barton (Rooster Hannigan)
Morgan said, "We've been working our butts off. I know some of these kids – I've directed them before. The parents themselves have told me the parents of neuro-divergent children are a tight-knit community. If you mess up and blow their trust, it's going to be hard to get it back. You have to make it work the first year. Fortunately, one of our musicians that plays in our pit band is a speech pathologist, and she reached out to her colleagues and found two special education teachers - Ali Watson and Jen Dovi - who became my choreographer and vocal director (respectively); I could not have done better. These folks work with kids all day and volunteer their time at night."
“I have a background of 60+ shows with Moorestown Theater Company,” said Penguin parent Amy Barton. Amy’s son, Lucas, is playing Rooster. “MTC productions are already very inclusive; neuro-diverse kids are already participating. So I had high hopes that a production with the Penguin Project, where most or all of the cast had challenges, would be a great format for everyone to experiment and experience theater, maybe for the first time. When you can be yourself because almost everyone else involved has similar challenges, it makes a very safe space for that art form. Luke, who has some experience, now has an opportunity to play a lead role. He’s stepping up. His peers in the cast look up to him. He has the opportunity to be a leader. It’s incredible. Through the Penguin Project, the community has come together to provide an experience that’s safe and truly inclusive.”
Parent Amy Barton, Victoria Abele (Lily), parent Rose Miller and Maggie Miller (Molly)
"I'm not a real 'teary' kind of guy,” says Morgan, “but I betcha I'll have tears in my eyes Saturday and Sunday night. Some of these kids don't have a lot of things on their schedules; they live to go to rehearsal and see their friends. They're having the time of their lives; the parents are emotional watching rehearsals. They thank us and ask, 'Why aren't there more of these programs in New Jersey?' I don't know, but we're going to do it. I hope that 10 other theater groups are inspired, and they can call me, and I'll connect them with Andy. I am honored to spread the word about the process. My theater colleagues around the country were not lying when they said it was life-changing. I hope we will do it every year.
"Speaking of process, it's kind of ‘backward’ from the usual community theater production. It does not start with auditions and casting. We simply gather the participants, artists, and mentors, we play the songs, and the kids sing along in unison. We started with "Hard-knock Life" - everyone is in it; they are all orphans in the opening scene, just getting up there and doing it. After a few weeks of teaching song and dance, when we have gotten to know the individuals and their abilities, then we get into casting. There is a sixty-page Penguin Program handbook, and I've spoken to Andy over the phone - I can't tell you how many times he has helped me out."
Choreographer Alli Watson, left, leading the full cast
Unlike every other show at MTC, there is no fee to participate in the program. "We just got a nice donation from one of the parent's Fraternal Order of Police chapter,” says Morgan. “We recently installed a wheelchair ramp to make our stage accessible. We have a raised stage, and that's the only way for someone using a wheelchair to get up there. That's the sort of cost normally covered by our registration fees, so hopefully, more of that support will come from the community.
"New Jersey Association of Community Theaters recognized MTC as 2022 Community Theater of the Year out of 300 community theaters in New Jersey. I'd like to think that doing this sort of programming and being the first one in NJ to do it was a factor in their choice. Also, we never shut down during COVID. Through 2020-2021 we did 19 shows in our parking lot with both audience and performers wearing masks. We performed in a country club dining room that was temporarily closed. We think outside the box, and we do different things. We're good at what we do, and we are absolutely thrilled to be the first to bring the Penguin Project to New Jersey."
Stage with wheelchair ramp