The Brunswick News June 16, 2017 (excerpts) - (funded by a grant from the Community Foundation)
The “Annie Jr.,” a production of Golden Isles Arts & Humanities in partnership with the national Penguin Project, was presented in Brunswick for the first time this summer. This unique performance featured a cast of 21 young actors, each with special needs ranging from Downs Syndrome to autism. An additional 21 volunteers from groups like 4-H, church groups and boy and girl scouts act as artist mentors and help the cast members navigate the complex production.
The idea to make performance art accessible to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities was spearheaded by Allyson Jackson, a Brunswick mother of a special-needs son. A co-owner told her about the Peoria, Illinois based Penguin Project, which helps communities across the country craft stage plays adapted for young people with developmental disabilities.
“It’s been incredible to watch,” Heath said. “Not just the artists, but the mentors, how they’ve all worked together. Socialization is a big part of the Penguin Project and this particular production of “Annie Jr.,” said Tray Higgs, a Brunswick mother of a 10-year-old actor and a 14-year-old mentor in the show. “It affects my son a lot when he’s not in school,” she said. “It can feel lonely — isolating — and when he’s been away from crowds, it takes some time to relearn social skills.”
Working together on “Annie Jr.” is a chance for cast members to make new buddies and foster old friendships, but it’s also a time for them to finally shine, Jackson said. “Most special needs kids are invisible unless there is a disciplinary problem,” Jackson said. “They can be on a team, in a choir, taking dance lessons — but you find them in the back on a bench. They’re put into a game when they’re losing or winning by dozens of points. They are not front and center, and with Penguin Project, they are front and center. They are the one to have everything focusing on them and truly be in the spotlight.” For many of the actors’ parents, this may be the first time they’ve ever seen their child as the star of a play, or in a major role, Jackson said.