One of the goals of the New Tampa Players (NTP) performance troupe has always been to introduce people to the theatre, and make it accessible for everyone.

The Penguin Project will help NTP meet its vision.

The project, a national effort to involve special needs actors in stage productions, is coming to Tampa, as NTP will adopt the Penguin Project for a production of a “Junior” version of “Aladdin” which is scheduled to run April 4-6, 2019.

Informational meetings about the production will be held on Monday, November 5, 7 p.m., and on Sunday, November 11, 5:30 p.m., at Family of Christ Lutheran Church on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in Tampa Palms.

As a parent of special needs children, NTP president Nora Paine says she can’t wait to get started, adding that the response already has been greater than she expected, with interest from Bradenton to Brandon to Town N Country.

“We are well on our way,” says Paine.

The Penguin Project was founded by Dr. Andrew Morgan in Peoria, IL, in 2004. Dr. Morgan not only had a passion for helping disabled children, which he did as a pediatrician, but also for local community theatre. He saw no reason why he couldn’t combine the two, starting the Penguin Project, which pairs disabled children and adults ages 8-21 with mentors who aren’t disabled.

Dr. Morgan has described the experience of Penguin Project productions as life-changing for the special needs actors who take part.

Paine had been brainstorming ways to incorporate special needs actors into productions, but it was at a theater management conference in Venice, FL, earlier this summer that convinced her to reach out to Dr. Morgan.

“There were several theaters all around the country there (at the conference) talking about it,” Paine says. “After I heard everyone talk about it, I thought it would be a perfect fit for the New Tampa Players. There’s nothing like this in New Tampa.”

In Penguin Project productions, actors are paired with a same-age peer mentor, who will help the special needs participant learn his or her role.

The mentor, who also has to learn all of the lines and choreography, will perform on the stage with their special needs counterpart, usually in the background of a scene, offering encouragement and whispering lines that may be forgotten. The mentors also help with stage footwork.

“But, the special needs kids still get to be the stars of the show,” Paine says, “and they get to have that great theatre experience.”

The special needs of Penguin Project participants range from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to learning and intellectual disabilities and other neurological disorders.

“I know there are organizations devoted to specific disabilities that do great things,” Paine says. “(With the) Penguin Project, however, it doesn’t matter what the disability is. They take the child where they are and supply the support that they need.”

The NTP troupe has already done productions with children involved that have some learning disabilities, but Paine thinks expanding that effort will be a good thing for the entire Tampa Bay area.

“I know the need for something like this is great,” she says.

During the four months of preparation for “Aladdin,” Paine says Dr. Morgan and his team will visit Tampa six times — including at the informational meetings at Family of Christ — to provide assistance with the production.

Already, Paine says she has more than 30 interested performers and production workers, and almost as many peer volunteers.

It will be a rewarding experience for both, she says. “It’s a two-way street,” Paine says. “Mentors are going to get a lot out of it. They can teach a lot of skills to the kids with special needs, and also get the reward of being able to help a child.”

For more information about the New Tampa Players and the troupe’s upcoming productions, visit

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