In September 2018, GCT's Penguin Project production was Disney's 'Aladdin Jr.'

Greenwood Community Theatre’s 2020 Penguin Project theater production will be Disney’s “The Lion King Jr.” Shows are slated for April 22-26.

Greenwood Community Theatre’s pioneering Penguin Project has the buddy system down pat.

Penguin Project is a successful theater program for children with special needs. It pairs artists, the actors, with mentors, the actors’ buddies, who work with them on and off stage, from rehearsals to showtimes.

No experience is necessary to be a part of GCT’s spring Penguin Project production, Disney’s “The Lion King Jr.” for ages 8 and older.

Find out more at free, community informational meetings about Penguin Project at 4 p.m. on Sunday and at 10 a.m. Dec. 7 at GCT, 110 Main St. in Greenwood.

Stephen Gilbert, GCT’s executive director, said the community theater has had successes with different children “who have really blossomed” through Penguin Project and being on stage.

“We want previous participants and new artists and new mentors,” Gilbert said. “Coming to an information meeting does not commit you to doing a show, it’s just a chance for us to explain the program. It really gives kids and parents a chance to ask questions and see if Penguin Project is right for them. We want to help as many children as we can.”

Disney’s “The Lion King Jr.” is GCT’s third Penguin Project show, since being the first theater in South Carolina to implement the Penguin Project in 2017. Penguin Project was started by Dr. Andrew Morgan, a developmental pediatrician, in Peoria, Illinois.

The program provides young actors or artists with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and various intellectual and physical disabilities the chance to star in a live stage musical. The artists’ peer mentors work alongside them through the entire process.

“We’ve had Penguin Project participants who’ve gone on to land major roles in our regular main stage season shows, such as Hanna Blackwell who was the Grinch in ‘Seussical the Musical’ this summer and Tim Paguntalan has been in shows, too. And, siblings of Penguin Project participants have gotten involved with theater here, too. It’s getting whole families involved...At the end of the day, it’s kids helping kids, and it changes lives. The mentors get as much out of it as the artists.”

Leah Burdette, who is almost 15, and a student at Emerald High School in Greenwood, agrees. She’s been a GCT Penguin Project mentor since 2017, with the Greenwood community theater’s inaugural Penguin Project show, “Annie Jr.”

That show was Burdette’s first involvement with community theater.

“Penguin Project is where I belong in the theater,” Burdette said. “I found out about it during a show I was watching at the theater and there was a flyer about it,” Burdette said. “It sounded really interesting. Something that has always been close to my heart is helping others.

“I’ve stayed in it because I friendships I’ve made,” Burdette added. “Everyone just comes together and has fun. I go to school with my artist and we talk all the time. If you are thinking about doing this but are unsure, I would say go for it. It’s the best thing ever.”

Not coming from a theater background, Burdette said there was a bit of a learning curve.

“Everyone works together to create a show and it’s a really rewarding experience,” Burdette said.

For information, visit greenwoodcommunitytheatre.com.

Contact St. Claire Donaghy at 864-943-2518