SYCAMORE – It was Friday night, and the stage was set.
Performers, dressed in costume for the first time, rehearsed their lines and songs.
With just six days until the first show, the cast and crew worked to ensure everything was ready to go when the curtains draw back for Thursday's opening night performance of Disney's "The Little Mermaid Jr." on the stage at Sycamore High School.
When the spotlight shines down at each show, there will be something unique about who the audience sees: The performers, members of Children’s Community Theatre's Penguin Project, are 10 to 22 years old and all have a disability.
Performers, called artists, are each assigned a peer mentor who helps them with every facet of the performance. The mentors work with their artists throughout the four-month rehearsal process, and assist on stage as needed.
The productions through the program give artists with disabilities starring roles.
Penguin Project coordinator Joe King said the program has helped his son, Daniel, who has an intellectual disability, gain confidence.
“Before we did this, I had no idea how much he has been capable of,” King said.
Aging out and moving on
The DeKalb chapter of the Penguin Project started four years ago, and some artists who have been there since Day One are now aging out of the program.
This can be a difficult transition for some, said mentor Samantha Hepcker, who is studying to become a special education teacher.
This year will be 22-year-old Shari Schramer’s last. What she'll miss the most, Schramer said, is the friends she has made.
“I think I’ve learned a lot,” Schramer said. “I want to continue my acting. I want to do Stage Coach Players someday.”
Penguin Project Director Tracey Busby said she will "terribly" miss the students aging out.
“What I’ve seen in them is growth in the ability to follow directions, camaraderie and social interaction and just blossoming into positive personalities, playing characters different than themselves and holding onto that,” Busby said.
King’s son is also leaving the program after this year.
“He’s very sad,” King said. “You don’t want to bring it up because it’ll upset him.”
Hepcker’s artist from last year, Nicole, is handling her exit from the program differently.
“She’s sad she’s leaving, but she reminds everyone how old she is and how independent she is,” Hepcker said.
'The Penguin process'
This year's Penguin Project cast will be in another production as well: A documentary film crew of students from Northern Illinois University has followed the artists and peer mentors since rehearsals began in May.
The film’s working title, “The Penguin Process,” will focus on the artists of the DeKalb chapter and document the Penguin Project’s origins in Peoria.
Randy Caspersen, director and executive producer of “The Penguin Process,” said he hopes to have the film finished by next summer. A rotating crew of eight or nine people – all media students at NIU – are assisting with the film.
The idea to film the Penguin Project came last year on a Sunday morning, when Caspersen was driving to the gym listening to a radio interview done by King. Caspersen then attended Penguin Project’s performance of “Beauty of the Beast” and pitched the documentary idea to King.
Since then, the crew has followed the Penguin Project every step of the way, missing only one rehearsal this year.
“You start falling a little bit in love with some of the kids and their personalities,” he said. “What you thought was a disability is now something you see makes them unique and a part of them.”
Courtney Oakes, a second-year graduate student in the film crew, said she has loved seeing the transformation artists had from Day One to now.
“They sing and dance better than I ever could,” Oakes said. “I don’t see disabilities. I see awesome things.”
If you go
What: The Penguin Project’s performance of Disney’s "The Little Mermaid Jr.”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; Sunday performance is sold out
Where: Sycamore High School, 555 Spartan Trail, Sycamore
Cost: Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students, and may be purchased at the Sycamore High School box office from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays or at the door (if available); by calling 815-899-8160, ext. 2173; or by visiting CCTonstage.com.
Special performance: The Friday evening performance will offer sign language interpretation, so people interested in those seats must purchase tickets by phone or by emailing CCTPenguins@gmail.com.
Length: The play is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes long, and includes an intermission.