Theater for people with disabilities | Valparaiso News

VALPARAISO – Memorial Opera House is the first theater in Indiana to create the Penguin Project, which puts a spotlight on people with disabilities.

We want these children to feel heard and seen, said Executive Director Scot MacDonald.

“I think it’s a mission not just for our community, but for the entire region,” said artistic director Bobbie Sue Kvachkoff, whose experience includes teaching special needs children.

“It’s something that will open up and hopefully inspire other communities around here,” said Education Director Jonathan Edward Owens.

The Penguin Project is so named because penguins are flightless birds with different abilities. “Once they’re in the water, they can do things that no other living thing can,” MacDonald said.

The program started in 2004 in Peoria, Illinois. MacDonald kept hearing about it while speaking to colleagues across the country.

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“It has now grown into this huge national program,” he said. “I was honestly surprised there wasn’t an Indiana chapter at all.”

The Memorial Opera House itself needs to be made more accessible. To get on stage you have to climb steps, not a ramp. There is no access to the balcony and other rooms upstairs other than a steep staircase. Restrooms were not designed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s what MacDonald is working on.

But the Penguin Project addresses a different need — that children with disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments, be able to take part in theatrical productions.

“Often these children were seen as invisible,” MacDonald said. “You deserve to be seen and heard like everyone else.”

Disabled students in the program are paired with peer mentors to help carry heavy props and hold scripts during rehearsals.

“Not only is it a safe place for them, it’s a brave place,” MacDonald said.

Rehearsals are held at the Boys & Girls Clubs in Northwest Indiana. Those rehearsals will begin in early 2023, MacDonald hopes.

At the moment, the theater is looking for sponsors and building awareness of the program. Sponsors bear the costs of the program.

“There’s no registration fee for them at all,” MacDonald said of making the program accessible.

“We meet once a week to get started,” he said. This develops the comfort level of the students. Then there are rehearsals four nights a week. At the end of each rehearsal, listen to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

“It’s just going to be a huge, huge, transformative learning curve,” he said.

MacDonald hopes to add an adult version to the program.

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