Learning to Fly
Neurodiverse kids spread their wings on the stage and in life
By Ruth Diamond

It was a wonderful day last year when 14-year-old John Humes donned a tuxedo and transformed into Daddy Warbucks, one of the leads in Moorestown Theater Company’s production of “Annie Jr.” The 9th grader proceeded to act and sing his heart out. It was a special moment, because as a teen on the autism spectrum, opportunities like these are rare. 

“John loves to be involved. He isn’t afraid of being on stage at all,” says his mom Linda. “For these kids, multi-step directions can be hard, and I wasn’t sure my son would be able to do a long show like this. But all kids deserve to have this type of opportunity and it’s not something our kids get, so it’s gratifying for parents. It’s important to all of us in this community.”

“All of these kids deserve to have this opportunity, and it’s not something our kids always get.”

John was given the opportunity through The Penguin Project, a national program with 53 chapters. Moorestown Theater Company is New Jersey’s only chapter. Now a sophomore at Moorestown High School, where he loves sports and chorus, John will soon perform again, this time as Horton the Elephant in MTC’s “Seussical Jr.” next month. 

Any neurodivergent child interested in participating in The Penguin Project at Moorestown Theater Company needs to be registered and show up. That’s it – no fee and no audition. Kids do a table reading for different roles and the company’s staff decides who will get which part. After about 2 weeks of rehearsals in their assigned role, Mark Morgan, the theater company’s founder, has found they focus and learn quickly.

“We start by teaching all the actors the group numbers – songs and dances,” Morgan explains. “Everyone does the same thing for a couple of weeks during 60- to 90-minute rehearsals, three 3 a week.”

The Penguin Project, which was founded to provide opportunities for children with special needs to realize a sense of belonging, empowerment and pride through participation in musical theater, asks that all productions include a 1:1 ratio of neurotypical mentors to neurodivergent peers – of about the same age. These mentors are on stage with their counterparts for rehearsals and the final production, where they may feed the actors their lines, hand them props and help them move to the right spot on stage as needed. 

“Some of the actors don’t need that support, but we still match them with someone,” says Morgan. “Pairing them by age helps them bond offstage too. They have a friend to keep them company, so part of this is increased socialization.”

Morgan encourages interested families to visit The Penguin Project website to get comfortable with the program. “They will learn this is a safe place for these kids to make friends, find support and learn about themselves and others.”

“Kids want to do this and there is no reason they should be excluded from musical theater,” he adds. “The beauty of The Penguin Project is that it allows them to participate just like any other kid.” 

The Penguin Project was started in 2004 by Dr. Andy Morgan, an Illinois pediatrician who works with kids with disabilities and is passionate about musical theater. His goal was to provide opportunities for children with special needs to grow in communication skills, self-confidence and self-esteem through theater. He named the program after penguins because they are special birds who can’t fly but thrive under challenging conditions, much like the kids he sought to serve.

All the roles in a Penguin Project musical are filled by neurodiverse kids, those with developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual or hearing impairment and other neurological disorders. The Penguin Project shows have become a place for the families of these children to interact and find support too.

For John Humes, theater has been a significant part of his life so far. He has participated in plays at summer camp through the Moorestown Park and Rec Department since he was 7. His love of sports has been met in part by a Special Olympics-type program in the middle and high schools, where the kids train like any other athlete.

“He loved all that, so when this opportunity arose, I knew he would like this, too,” says Linda, a librarian and former English teacher. “With The Penguin Project, the neurotypical kids are there to support the neurodiverse.” Some parents also attend rehearsals, depending on the needs of their child. 

Susan Maurer, John’s teacher for several years and director of school musicals at Moorestown Middle School, is the production’s director. Two other special education teachers from Kingsway Learning Center are in their second year with The Penguin Project, serving as vocal director and choreographer of the show.

According to Linda Humes, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after last year’s performance of “Annie Jr.” in which John sang several solos.

“These kids practice for a month. And to sustain a show that’s more than an hour long, knowing exactly what they were doing – it was so emotional. All of these kids deserve to have this opportunity, and it’s not something our kids always get. They become more integrated into the community and neurotypical kids and their families benefit from being around our kids,” she adds.

“Annie was such a success last year, and I know the numbers will go up,” says Morgan. “We sold out both shows, so we added a third this year for Seussical Jr. This is a great show for us – people come in already knowing the characters, and the show is fun with a catchy score,” he adds. MTC’s Seussical Jr. has 16 neurodiverse actors and 13 mentors, and will be performed May 16, 18 and 19.  

April 2024
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