- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

ROTHSCHILD, Wis. (AP) - The Whos of Whoville run through their dance routine one more time as the Mayor family rehearses their lines. In the background, other excited children chatter about their solos and their days at school as they wait for their turn to take the stage.

On any given week night, the Central Wisconsin Children’s Theater building in Rothschild is filled with song and dance as almost 60 youngsters rehearse for their upcoming show, the Wausau Daily Herald (http://wdhne.ws/2d9It80 ) reported. The children fill the room with smiles as they go over the music for their solos, work on the pronunciation of harder words from the script and fine-tune their dance moves. They are part of the Penguin Project, and the musical they’re practicing for hits the stage at The Grand theater later this week. They’re performing “Seussical Jr.,” a musical based on the writings of Dr. Seuss.

The Penguin Project started last year and gives children with special needs in the Wausau area a chance to get on stage and show off their talents with the help of mentors.

The project aims to involve children from ages 8 to 21, in two groups: artists and mentors. The artists are children who have special needs and may not be able to participate in plays through their schools or other organizations. The mentors are CWCT actors, family members or friends who are paired with other actors to help them learn lines and dance routines, as well as guide the artists through each performance.

The artists and mentors range in age, starting out at 8 years old and going all the way up to 20. But regardless of their age, the program is helping them all in different way. For some, it’s a productive way to express themselves in front of people which is something they may not feel safe doing anywhere else.

Melissa Lindemann, the director of the musical, started the program last year because of her interest in helping children with special needs. That interest stems from her childhood, because a family close to her own had a child with special needs.

“I saw how they struggled and how the child struggled,” she said. There weren’t many activities or outlets available for her family friends and their child.

So when Lindemann graduated from college, she set out to help make that struggle a little easier for other families struggling to find a safe space.

“Theater itself is therapeutic,” she said. “It’s a safe environment. And this is my opportunity to help, to show that (children with special needs) have just as much value as anyone else.”

This year, the Penguin Project is taking on the musical “Seussical Jr.,” the junior version of the musical based on the writings of Dr. Seuss. The music is colorful and lively, something many of the children participating are eager to share with the community when the musical debuts on Friday.

“Overall I think this play is great,” said Thomas Medvecz, 13, who plays the Mayor of Whoville in the musical. “There’s lots of momentum.”

Lindemann said the script and performance notes for “Seussical Jr.” are a shortened version of “Seussical”. The theater often uses Jr. plays because their shorter length is easier for children to memorize. The group has been rehearsing for four months, which is longer than rehearsals for other productions the CWCT does. But that extra time allows for Lindemann and her volunteers to establish a routine, and gives the children enough time to create lasting friendships.

“A lot of these kids…they’re trying to learn social skills,” she said. “It’s complementing what they’re learning in school.”

Elizabeth Blenker, 15, who plays Mrs. Mayor, said she enjoys being around all the other actors and actresses.

“I like the feeling of unity and family,” she said. “This is my first play and it feels as great as everyone tells me it does. These kids are amazing.”

The play also helps many of the kids with speech therapy, because they have to enunciate during songs and while reciting lines so that the audience can hear them.

“These things are challenges these kids face,” Lindemann said.

One of the most touching stories Lindemann was able to share was about an artist who is autistic and often uncomfortable speaking. Since beginning the Penguin Project last year, the artist has been given a chance to get comfortable with speaking with his parents and peers.

Communication is a big deal for the Penguin Project, and Lindemann hopes that when the mentors learn to communicate with their peers who have special needs, they will be able to use those skills later in life.

Brogan Barttelt, 12, said he’s enjoying working with his artist, Ryan Oestreich, who is also 12.

“I think it’s kind of fun to meet all the new people,” Barttelt said of the Penguin Project. “It’s a good learning experience for me.”

“Seussical Jr.” will be showing at the Grand Theater at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $14 for adults and $12 for youth and seniors, and are available at the door or online at http://grandtheater.org.

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Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com

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