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"Go Penguins!": Documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Penguin Project

Christine Malecki of Sycamore remembers a time when her 16-year-old son Jonah was not invited to his classmates’ birthday parties or social activities.

After participating in eight Children’s Community Theatre Penguin Project productions, Malecki said she no longer has that problem. Jonah, who has autism, now has lasting friendships with the people he has met through the Penguin Project.

“He wanted so much to be a part of that, to be invited, join in and feel welcome,” Christine Malecki said. “Being a part of the Penguin Project was probably the best decision we ever made. They don’t focus on or treat the artists as a disability. Instead, they focus on their abilities. They have so much talent, and the productions showcase their singing and dancing. Jonah is now in high school, and he is part of the advanced choir. I don’t think that would have happened without his involvement in the Penguin Project.”

Jonah Malecki is one of the artists featured in “Go Penguins!,” an 84-minute documentary that took a behind-the-scenes look at the 2013 production of “The Little Mermaid.” Jonah and his parents were interviewed for a segment in the documentary.

“Go Penguins!” debuted on Sunday, April 9, with a showing for the community at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb.

CCT’s Penguin Project is one of 14 Penguin Project troupes in the country. The program allows disabled children and young adults age 10 to 22, called artists, the opportunity to perform a musical on stage. The artists are joined on stage by peer mentors, children their same age without disabilities. The artists and mentors work together from May until September, until their final production.

Joe King, Penguin Project coordinator for CCT, described the documentary not only as a behind-the-scenes film about a production, but also as a way to show people “how the magic happens.”

“The documentary really shows the friendships that are formed behind the scenes – the bonding between the artists and mentors,” King said. “Watching the final production, it all seems effortless. Putting a show together is a struggle at times. It takes hard work and commitment from everybody involved. The documentary shows the magic behind the production and what it takes to get there.”

“Go Penguins!” was filmed in 2013 by Northern Illinois University Assistant Professor of Media Studies Randy Caspersen, eight undergraduate students and two graduate students. Caspersen said more than 500 hours of footage was filmed during rehearsals, the final productions and additional interviews and that hundreds of hours were spent editing scenes together to create the documentary.

The documentary is not available for purchase yet, but Caspersen is sending the film to festivals and other Penguin Projects. He plans on creating a shorter version to submit to PBS and adding closed captioning for DVD and Blu-ray.

Caspersen said his inspiration and the reason he chose to create a film about the Penguin Project came from a commercial he heard on the radio.

“I first heard about the Penguin Project in 2012, when I had just moved here,” Caspersen said. “I heard Joe King on the radio talking about an artist that had autism, how the Penguin Project helped a shy kid open up. As a storyteller, I’m always looking for a good story about change and growth. During the Penguin Project, you can see their progress and how they’ve changed.”

Artist Kayla Craig and her mentor Samantha Hepker, both from Sycamore, said that acting together in “The Little Mermaid” as the role of a mer sister helped form the best friendship of their lives.

Craig, who was born with septo-optic dysplasia and cerebral palsy, remains in contact with Hepker, and they still meet more than once a month to catch up.

“Kayla only participated in that one production, but I was a mentor for three shows,” Hepker said. “At first, she was quiet and shy, and after the show, she was more independent and really opened up. … I’ve realized that after being a mentor, I look at disabilities differently. People with disabilities are just like you and me. Disabilities are struggles. Everyone faces struggles, and we can overcome them.”

Caspersen thinks “The Little Mermaid,” a musical about a mermaid who wishes for legs instead of fins so she can join the human world, can be seen as a metaphor for the artists in the production.

“The song ‘Part of Your World’ is about a girl who wants to fit in and be like other humans,” Caspersen said.

“Along the way, she loses her voice. It’s a similar theme with the Penguin Project. The artists are given the chance to sing and dance, be part of a production, alongside their mentors. With the Penguin Project, they can fit in, be a part of each other’s worlds and work together.”

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