Annie: A Feel-Good Story for Everyone
By the time the cast lined the length of the Willow stage to take final bows, the audience was already on its feet, clapping, cheering and whistling. I won’t give away what happened in the minutes that followed, but it involved a lot of singing and dancing and was a total feel-good experience for artists, mentors and audience. The young actors and their mentors then walked the red carpet into Willow’s lobby, met by the flash of cameras and the sustained applause of the audience now crowding the stairs and stationary escalators, hoping for a brief glimpse of the stars.
And stars they were! Annie Jr. was really that good. It was funny and moving, as every production of Annie is. And the orchestral music that filled the auditorium was, as always, sing-along familiar. But in this version of Annie, every cast member was a child whose disability too often pushes him or her to the margins of life. In this Annie, these same kids were pushed to center stage. If you watched closely, you noticed the times when the young artists were—literally—given a gentle push by the mentor who shadowed them. Face the audience, a mentor seemed to be saying with a gentle hand on an artists’ shoulder. Or, Here’s your next line, whispered a mentor who nearly succeeded in making herself “invisible” on stage, turning herself into a prop, a part of the scenery. But occasionally her devotion to her artist was so visible—and so beautiful—you just had to watch her. You couldn’t help yourself.
After the production, Dr. Andrew Morgan stood in front of Willow’s coffee shop and chatted with well-wishers. A developmental pediatrician and the former head of the Division of Child Development at the University of Illinois in Peoria, “Dr. Andy” created the Penguin Project because he recognized that “theater not only provides children with a valuable recreational experience and an opportunity to display their creative talents, but also enhances social interaction, communication skills, assertiveness, and self-esteem.” The name “Penguin Project” comes from the unique characteristics of penguins. “They are extremely playful and curious, and they work well together. More importantly, they have a ‘disability’ that distinguishes them from other birds: they can’t fly! Instead, penguins waddle and toboggan on their bellies over the snow, and are excellent swimmers. So, like our young artists, they have adapted to the challenges of their environment, and have not allowed their unique difference to interfere with their lives.”
The Penguin Project was a perfect partner for Willow Creek’s Special Friends, a ministry that welcomes and embraces all individuals affected by special needs or disabilities. The Special Friends Ministry is a volunteer-based endeavor, pairing disabled individuals with friends who have a heart for those with special needs. The magic of Annie was the relationships that developed between the artists and their junior-high aged mentors, who had walked and laughed and studied and prayed their way through every memorized line, every perfected dance step, and every rehearsal disrupted when a frightened artist decided “I can’t do this anymore.” When the big day arrived, the mentors shadowed the actors, quietly encouraging them when necessary.
Directly by Christy Weygandt, a long-time Willow member, and her assistant, Kathy Lambert, Annie is a don’t-miss event. Bring yourself, your kids, your parents, your grandparents, your friends, your neighbors. Everyone will thank you! Tickets are $5 online or at the door. Remaining performances are tonight, Friday, August 24, 7pm and Sunday, August 26, 3:30pm. For more information: http://specialfriends.willowcreek.org