A star is born
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.
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.”
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.
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.”