All in this Together

At the Des Moines Playhouse, young actors of all abilities take a turn on stage.

The Playhouse’s popular Penguin Project produced “Disney’s High School Musical Jr.” in October 2023.

Writer: Michael Morain
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Early in Disney’s “High School Musical,” the reigning queen of the school’s drama club and her brother try out for the upcoming show. They jump into the spotlight and belt out a tune: “It’s hard to believe that I couldn’t see you were always there beside me.”

It’s a basic duet, but the audience could see four actors — not two — on stage when the Des Moines Playhouse produced a junior version last fall. The young actress who played Sharpay delivered the lyrics in sign language while her real-life sister sang the lines aloud. The actor who played Ryan had his own double, too, always there beside him.

The show was the Playhouse’s second annual Penguin Project, in which young actors with developmental disabilities — autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or impairments of vision or hearing — get a chance to perform in a Broadway musical. Each actor is assigned a “peer mentor,” someone the same age, in a similar costume, standing just a step behind to offer physical, interpretive or plain old moral support.

The Penguin Project originated 20 years ago in Peoria, Illinois, where a pediatrician who was involved in community theater cast children with disabilities in a local show. It was such a hit with the kids and their parents that the idea spread nationwide. The founders named it after the bird that can’t fly but uses other strengths to thrive.

The Playhouse jumped on board in 2022 with “Annie Jr.” and plans to stage “Frozen Jr.” this coming fall. Each production offers participants a rare chance to learn music, paint sets and take a turn in the limelight. Along the way, they make friends and build confidence.

“It’s my secret mission to make each and every one of them feel famous,” said Nate Weber, who coordinates the Playhouse program. “It’s hard to summarize the feeling you have when you see a Penguin Project production. It’s so inspiring and humbling. You’re just in awe.”

Start of something new

The whole process takes about five months from start to finish, much longer than most Playhouse productions.

Instead of hosting auditions, the company kicks things off with a few weeks of workshops so all the participants — actors and mentors alike — can learn the story, practice the songs and choreography, and get to know each other. The staff gradually decides how to match each actor with a role and mentor. Everybody gets a part.

Instead of posting the cast list on a bulletin board or online, the director calls each actor’s parents so they can break the news gently. “That way, they can work through any emotions that come with casting,” said Kim Van Haecke, who directed “High School Musical Jr.”

From left, sisters Cambria and Lani Dirks play drama queen Sharpay Evans, while DJ Brown and Porter Kimble team up to play her brother Ryan.

“Lani squealed,” said Heather Dirks, whose daughter played Sharpay.

“Yeah, I really liked her attitude,” Lani Dirks, 15, said over Zoom from her dorm room at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs. She signed; her mom interpreted. “I just think it’s funny that I had to get a cream pie on my elbow. There were a few accidents, a few times when they threw it and it hit my back, but we just had to keep going.”

On stage, that Sharpay attitude came through loud and clear. She wore hot pink jeans, sparkly silver shoes and a doughnut-shaped purse slung over her shoulder. She even mastered the mean-girl hair flip.

Lani’s sister, Cambria, 13, shadowed her and gave Sharpay her voice. The sisters often held hands, especially in the shadows backstage.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s pretty dark back there,” Cambria said. “There’s lots of stuff to trip over.”

Being able to sign back there, in total silence, was a big advantage.

“Me and Lani definitely bonded,” Cambria said. “We’re close, but just being with each other during that whole experience brought us closer.”

Get’cha head in the game

Before one of the last rehearsals, all four dozen actors and mentors huddled up for some announcements. Van Haecke, the director, seemed accustomed to their fidgety energy and questions — so many questions.

ASL interpreter Trish Barton signs dialogue from the orchestra pit.

Are the microphones on? (Yes, even when you’re offstage.) What if we forget our lines? (Just wing it.) Will fans want autographs? (Absolutely.)

From the get-go, the Playhouse staff designed the production for maximum accessibility and inclusion. A discreet strip of colored lights signaled to deaf actors when it was their turn to speak or sing. In the orchestra pit, the conductor was flanked by two people, one to cue the dance moves and another to sign all of the dialogue and lyrics. Together, their six multitasking arms could have belonged to a Hindu god.

The choreographer planned the moves with the whole cast in mind. That especially helped one of the actors in a wheelchair, who said that for her shows at school, choreographers adapted moves for her, and only her, at the end of the process.

But even with the accommodations, “High School Musical Jr.” was still a big reach for most of the participants. It was unlike anything they’d ever done.

“They pull all the emotions out of you because you know how hard it is for any cast to do a play, and then you think about all the challenges these kids have to overcome,” director Van Haecke said. “It brings me to tears but also makes me smile so big I can hardly stand it.”

McKenna O’Meara and Julia Richer play Gabriella Montez.

Heather Dirks said her kids didn’t realize when they started just how much work the show would require. Most of the other parents were skeptical they could actually pull it off.

But they made progress, week by week. The actors learned their parts, and the mentors learned how to back them up, helping as needed without pulling focus. They all supported each other — so much, in fact, that a flock of Penguins shows up whenever one of them performs in a school show or concert throughout the year.

“It’s great they’re getting this theater experience, but the relationships they’re building are even more valuable,” Dirks said, whose 10-year-old son, Brecken, was a mentor like his sister Cambria. “Seeing the confidence building in my kids has been huge.”

In the best-known number from “High School Musical,” the whole cast sings and dances at a big pep rally. The lyrics aren’t remarkable in the movie — just some run-of-the-mill rhymes about teamwork — but they landed differently at the Playhouse.

Everyone is special in their own way.
We make each other strong.
We’re not the same,
We’re different in a good way.

We’re all in this together.
Once we know that we are, we’re all stars …
It shows when we stand, hand in hand,
And make our dreams come true.

When the show ended, the audience stood and the curtain fell. The actors bent down with it, watching and waving at the crowd, soaking up their applause down to the last inch.

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