The joy in the room is palpable as the New Tampa Players’ Penguin Project group practices dance steps for “Prince Ali.” Peer mentor Olivia Carr dances with her Genie, Connor Olsen. (Photos: Libby Baldwin)

The cavernous main hall at the University Area Community Center swelled with a chorus of voices. The booming energy of the song “Prince Ali,” from the classic Disney film “Aladdin” sounded like a seasoned community theater production.

In fact, however, it was just a regular rehearsal for a very special group of New Tampa Players (NTP).

“Aladdin” will open on Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m., with additional performances on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. 

All performances will be at the University Area Community Center, located at 14013 North 22nd St. in Tampa. Tickets can be purchased online for $15.

The local community theater troupe’s president, Nora Paine, was attending a theater conference in summer 2018 when she learned about the Penguin Project, an initiative that gives children with special needs the chance to perform onstage. 

Established in 2004 by Dr. Andrew Morgan, who spent more than 35 years as central Illinois’ primary medical specialist for children with disabilities, the Penguin Project matches each “young artist” with a peer mentor. These mentors, who  are mostly children the same age as the performers who don’t have disabilities, volunteer their time to work side-by-side through four months of rehearsals and during the final performance.

“The New Tampa Players had been looking for something like this, but didn’t want to re-invent the wheel,” said Paine, herself a mother to three special needs children. “This program is unique because it gives these kids a chance for social networking outside of the special needs community.”

“Aladdin Junior,” which wasn’t modified from the original script, will be the first Penguin Project production not just for NTP, but in all of Florida.

The performing artists and their mentors attend 3-4 rehearsals per week that run for no longer than 90 minutes, to ensure attention spans don’t run out. Each peer mentor learns every line, every dance move and every blocking move, along with his or her artist. 

Rehearsals are no slower-paced than regular children’s theater; peer mentors are expected to keep their artists on task.

If a special needs child becomes upset, the show still must go on.

“The young artist and their mentor go off to the side until they are able to calm down,” Paine said. “Then, they come back and join us. No big deal.”

The special needs actors get plenty of support from the all-volunteer New Tampa Players’ staff if they become overwhelmed. Music director Brad Roberts and choreographer Charis Lavoie comfort a young artist. 

Paine has years of stage managing experience, a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Montessori Education, but she and her staff of choreographers, costume designers and musicians are all volunteers.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see the happiness that it brings these kids,” said Brad Roberts, the music director for NTP’s “Alladin Junior,” who says he previously has worked with special needs children.  “A lot of these kids, despite working at a different speed than I’m used to, have really impressed me with their raw talent and ability to learn and retain.”

While some of the artist-and-mentor pairs rehearsed, others sat patiently off to the side, using the time to run lines or go over dance steps. Even the youngest mentors, some under the age of ten, offered only smiles and  gentle encouragement to their artists.

“They’re just so open and ready to go for it, and that makes them be a really supportive family for each other, which you don’t always see in groups of ‘regular’ kids,” said Roberts.

Truly A Special Bond

The young mentors don’t seem to mind that all their hard work will lead to someone else getting the spotlight.

Olivia Carr works with Connor Olsen, who is playing the Genie, on his lines.

“I’ve found a really good friend, and an understanding for how these kids think,” said 13-year-old Olivia Carr, who peer mentors the young actor playing Genie. “I have a lot of fun with him because he’s very energetic, and we have the same personality.”

Olivia’s mom, Tami Carr, enjoys watching her daughter be part of such a selfless undertaking.

“She looks forward to rehearsals all day; being a kid in general is rough, so seeing anyone struggle makes her want to help,” said Carr. “I wish everyone would come and see how much joy they have. It’s contagious, and hopefully, it will ignite a spark here that will catch fire.”

Paine said she plans to put on one Penguin Project show each year, and said the response from the community has been overwhelming. She credits District 7 Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, who is very involved in the special needs community, with helping her secure local sponsors, including Pepin Academies, the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, MOSI and more.

Paine’s 12-year-old son, Sebastian, mentors Jaden Figueroa, also 12, who landed the title role of Aladdin. Jaden said he wants to be a movie star when he grows up.

“He (Sebastian) helped me with my lines; we’re good friends,” said Jaden.

Paine’s 7-year-old daughter also Zoe is a peer mentor, and although the mentors don’t get the spotlight, Paine believes they gain something much more meaningful from the experience.

“She’ll come home after mentoring her friend Jack, and she’ll be so excited and proud that she helped him learn his lines and perform well,” she said. “They get a very special relationship.”

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