A star is born

News | January 2, 2020

On the stage at the Brunner Theatre at Augustana College, the smile of Bridgette Weis cannot be mistaken. Bridgette is one of the cast members of the upcoming performance of “The Lion King Jr.,” a production of The Penguin Project of the Quad Cities. The project gives children and young adults with special needs the opportunity to develop creative skills in the theatre arts.

Bridgette will play Baby Nala in the first act and Lioness in the second act for the production, which is set for Jan. 24-Feb. 2. Tickets are already sold out. Rehearsals started in October.

“It makes me feel happy,” she said while sitting in the center of the stage.

Penguin beginning

The Penguin Project was born in Peoria, 15 years ago. Andy Morgan is the founder and director of the Penguin Project. He is 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. He has been the primary medical specialist in central Illinois involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities for over 35 years.

Known as Dr. Andy, he has been actively involved in community theater for more than 30 years as a director and as a performer. He has more than 20 directing credits including “The King and I,” “Gypsy,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Crazy for You,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He lists his favorite roles as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Andy created the Penguin Project in 2004 to combine his professional expertise with his passion for theatre to give children with disabilities an opportunity to experience the performing arts. Following the advice of Penguin parents in Peoria, he subsequently developed a replication process to bring the program to communities around the country.

The Quad Cities chapter was the 13th chapter in the country. Now, the Penguin Project is present in 38 communities, mostly in the eastern half of the United States.

Arrival in QC
A few years ago, Jeff Coussens, who is professor of theatre arts and chair of the theatre department at Augustana College, attended a conference. There, he heard a presentation about the Penguin Project. He knew immediately he wanted to bring a chapter to the Quad Cities.

“What makes the Penguin Project unique is that they do fully mounted productions,” he said. “The cast members have a friend on stage with them, shadowing them, helping them learn their lines. From time to time, if a cast member is unable to go on stage, their friend can go on for them as understudy.”

Leaders try to match mentors with kids who go to the same school, Coussens said. The theme song for all chapters is “Don’t Stop Believing.” Each performance ends with a choreographed rendition of the song, and all Penguin Project participants who are in the crowd are invited to come on stage to sing and dance along.

“The Lion King Jr.” is the Quad Cities’ chapter’s fourth production. It involves 90 families, with Dino and Tina Hayz as the directors. The chapter is for people age 11-22. However, this coming summer, the Penguin Players will be coming to the Quad Cities. The age range for that group is 16-99 (or more).

“I was sold on this the moment I saw the group in Peoria singing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and heard the founder talk about the experience,” Coussens said. “It’s just such an amazing experience, so gratifying to see families who never, ever thought that they would see their kids in the spotlight on stage – it means so much to them. As someone who is helping to make that happen, it is very fulfilling.”

Play bill
The play bill for the production includes bios for the cast. Bridgette’s bio is spot-on.

Bridgette is super excited to be a part of this performance of “The Lion King Jr.” This is her first role on stage in a play. She loves to sing and spend time with her new friends. She lives in Bettendorf with her mom, sister Faith, her pets (Hunter & Scruffy Bubba – the dogs; Geppetto and Star – the cats). She has two more siblings, and a nephew on the way. Her family members are her super star supporters! Bridgette has Williams Syndrome, a genetic deletion involving chromosome 7 (multiple & various genes) which affects all her smooth muscles, her heart, and gives her sensitive ears and a beautiful voice all wrapped up in a small, slight person who has a great big smile on her pixie face and who cares about pretty much everyone.
“Thank you for letting me do this performance” – Bridgette

Being a part of the Penguin Project has given Bridgette the opportunity to transition well out of high school, mom Amy Anderson said. Bridgette really missed the social parts of school – and this experience has given her the opportunity to make lots of new friends.

In a bit of a funny twist, Bridgette’s mentor on stage has the same name as her mom.

Mentor Amy Anderson said:  “My role as a peer mentor is basically just making sure my artist, Bridgette, is learning lines and dances. She does a great job on her own, so I’m mostly just there for support. My favorite part about participating in Penguin Project is getting a chance to make new friends like Bridgette and the other artists. I’ve learned that even if people have challenges anyone can work together to produce a great show.”

Mom Amy Anderson said: “It’s been so much fun to watch her be a part of the show. Her confidence has grown – she really loves being on stage.”

5 Comments on “A star is born”

  • Tina Harper

    January 4, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    I need to send a revision to my previous comment. If anyone is interested in the Junior Theater production it’s at 730 pm. And no Nick this play!

  • Patsy Schroeder

    January 4, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Bridgette is our family Super Star! She has the ability to love and live without boundaries!!
    She along with the other cast members will be fun to watch on stage! Thanks to everyone who is making this production happen in the Quad Cities.
    ❤️Great-Aunt Patsy

  • Marcia Willi

    January 2, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    RATS! I wish I had been paying attention, now its too late to get tickets. I would love to see this production! It and she will be I’m sure, AMAZING

  • Vicki Felger

    January 2, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    The Penguin Project is absolutely one of the greatest creations for individuals who are differently abled. My grandgirl, Katie, was in the first production, “Annie” and she was amazing, gained confidence, loved the camaraderie and learned to believe she could do anything! You go Bridgette…you’ll be amazing!!

  • Tina Harper

    January 2, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    I know Bridgette will be amazing! This is such a wonderful opportunity for young people with disabilities to gain confidence and shine. There is a similar group in Davenport, through the Davenport Parks and Recs special populations program. It’s called Collage theater and they have been practicing for their play since September. The final performance is next Thursday, January 9th at the Junior Theater on Eastern in Davenport at 7:00 pm. I’ll put in a plug for my son, Brennan Harper and Nick Gerber from St. Paul. Both superstars on the stage. If you have time come watch!

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Isaiah 9:2-7

Psalm 96

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14

Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm 148

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 147:12-20

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:10-18

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” 5 And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Psalm 40:1-11

Thanksgiving for Deliverance and Prayer for Help To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. 1 I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a] out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. 4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. 5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted. 6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.[b] Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. 7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.[c] 8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” 9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. 10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation. 11 Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Salutation 1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord[a] and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my[b] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of[c] Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1:29-42

The Lamb of God 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”[a] The First Disciples of Jesus 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed[b]). 42 He brought Simon[c] to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter[d]).

Isaiah 9:1-4

The Righteous Reign of the Coming King 9 [a] But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 [b] The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Psalm 27:1-9

Triumphant Song of Confidence Of David. 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold[a] of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. 3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. 4 One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord. 7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. 9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Divisions in the Church 10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[b] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[c] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. Christ the Power and Wisdom of God 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee 12 Now when Jesus[a] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[b] Jesus Calls the First Disciples 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People 23 Jesus[c] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news[d] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.