BWW Interview: Chad-Alan Carr, Natalie Hurwitch, Maddie Greco, Ella Scott, Leah Watson, And TJ Williams of THE WIZARD OF OZ at Gettysburg Community Theatre
The Wizard of Oz has been delighting audiences since it first appeared as a 1939 movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. The story, first created by L. Frank Baum in 1900, has inspired a number of adaptations, and the most popular stage version frequently finds its way to the stage at high schools and community theatres. Even though many of you have probably seen The Wizard of Oz, you've likely never seen a production of it like the one that will open at The Eichelberger Performing Arts Center on November 16th. Why is this production so unique? Because it is being performed by actors from The Penguin Project of Gettysburg Community Theatre. This program gives youth with special needs an opportunity to perform with other youth, both with and without special needs, giving them a chance to focus on their abilities rather than their challenges. BroadwayWorld had an opportunity to hear from Gettysburg Community Theatre's Executive Director, Chad-Alan Carr, as well as from five of the actors who will be performing-Natalie Hurwitch and Maddie Greco, two of the peer mentors; Ella Scott, the actor playing Dorothy; Leah Watson, who portrays Glinda the Good Witch of the North; and TJ Williams, who plays the Wizard of Oz-about their experiences with this production of The Wizard of Oz.
BWW: Tell us a little about the history of the Penguin Project at GCT
Carr: Gettysburg Community Theatre was formed in 2009. In 2013 I attended the national conference and festival for the American Association of Community Theatre. I went to a workshop called The Penguin Project led by its founder Dr. Andrew Morgan, who was a doctor who specialized in children with disabilities, but who also had a theatre background. His workshop had me crying in the first ten minutes. It was very emotional and heart-warming to see and hear about children with special needs singing and dancing on stage in junior versions of well-known Broadway musicals. The Penguin Project had been running in Illinois for ten years. I knew I had to bring this to Gettysburg. So, I did.
In 2014, GCT became the first theatre to replicate The Penguin Project outside of its home state. We have produced Disney's Peter Pan Jr., Disney's High School Musical Jr., Seussical Jr., Elf Jr., and now The Wizard of Oz featuring 50 children with and without special needs from 14 different school districts and 6 different counties.
Theatre changes lives. The Penguin Project saved and changed GCT for good. We were not having a good fiscal year in 2013. The Penguin Project changed that and also created new audience development, and inspired children everywhere to help others. Some of the peer mentors of the children with special needs in the program have gone on to college to study fields of special education, therapy, and more.
BWW: Tell us a little about who you are off-stage.
Scott: I am 14 years old and in 8th grade.
Watson: Well, I'm a very bubbly girl. I try to be kind to people. I really love fashion. I like theatre a lot because it makes me stronger and teaches me to follow my dreams. I like to make people laugh.
Williams: I am 12 and in 6th grade. I'm enrolled in a homeschool program through Commonwealth Charter Academy. I have been diagnosed with autism, sensory processing disorder, and ADHD.
Hurwitch: I am in high school at Gettysburg Area High School. I'm 14 years old and have done over 25 shows at GCT. I am on the track and field team the swim team and the field hockey team.
Greco: I've been with GCT since 2014...it has helped me to come out of my shell. I'm 13 and enjoy singing and dancing around the house!
BWW: Is there an age limit (upper or lower) for participating in the Penguin Project?
Carr: The program is free to participate and is for ages 10-21.
BWW: If you've performed in previous shows, what is your favorite show so far?
Scott: High School Musical.
Watson: My favorite show I have performed in is Elf the musical.
Williams: I like all the shows I've been in. But, if I had to choose, my favorite is Seussical the Musical.
Hurwitch: High School Musical.
Greco: My favorite show/role that I've performed in is Beauty and the Beast as Belle.
BWW: How does the process of putting together a Penguin Project show like The Wizard of Oz differ from other shows?
Carr: The process is more important than the production itself. The relationship building between the actor with special needs and the peer mentor without special needs is important to create and beautiful to watch as they blossom into wonderful friendships and bonds, many of which continue after the show.
BWW: What do you like most about being part of the Penguin Project?
Scott: I like to see everyone grow and change.
Watson: I love all the friends I've made, especially the mentors who are so kind to me and help me out. I love singing, and I love the costumes.
Williams: Being part of the Penguin Project is like being part of a big family where no one judges you. I like how it gives children with disabilities an opportunity to show the world that we can do things that others think we can't. Because we are just as talented; we just needed someone to believe in us and allow us the opportunity to show the world we can shine.
Hurwitch: I love learning and building an amazing friendship with my artist.
Greco: I like to see the kids express themselves and have a good time on stage.
BWW: I love the fact that the kids work together with a peer mentor. How does the mentoring aspect of the Penguin Project work?
Carr: The mentor is essentially an understudy, as well as a shadow buddy. They learn the lines, music and choreography so they can help their actor with special needs who has been cast in the role in the show. The mentor helps them on and off stage, helps them to get to through their blocking safely, and gently reminds them to cheat out to face the audience by gently straightening their shoulders. They stand slightly to the side and behind their actor with special needs in every scene and is there to prompt lines if needed (which actually is less common than one might think). Mainly, the mentor is a buddy.
BWW: Why did you choose The Wizard of Oz for this year's Penguin Project show?
Carr: We did this show before with children without special needs. It is a wonderful story of friendship and a journey to find your way back home and not forget your roots. It is a timeless musical where generation after generation can see it time and again, and still love every minute. The penguins particularly like to dance in The Jitterbug number.
BWW: What is your favorite part of The Wizard of Oz?
Scott: Singing a solo
Watson: Performing as Glinda
Williams: My favorite part is actually the storyline of the four main characters who, in reality, are like those of us with special needs because we experience every day the same sort of challenge the characters face of proving to the world that we can achieve many things. We just need the encouragement and acceptance of others to prove to them that we do have abilities and that we shouldn't be judged just because we may be different.
Hurwitch: The Jitterbug scene!
Greco: My favorite part of the show is Munchkin Land.
BWW: The Wizard of Oz is always a crowd favorite, and many theatres perform it every year. Why should our readers come see this particular production of The Wizard of Oz?
Carr: You will see The Wizard of Oz in a new way. Not only because of the 10 beautifully painted backdrops and over 100 different stunning costumes (extremely close to the original movie design), but also because all of the cast members are local youth (ages 8-21) with and without special needs on stage together, performing side by side. When was the last time you saw something like that? When was the last time you saw the Down syndrome boy as the quarterback of the school football team, or the girl with spina bifida in a wheelchair singing and dancing in a lead role in the local musical, or the child who doctors said would never speak, now a 21-year-old assistant director leading the entire cast in warm-ups before the show? The cast of The Penguin Project of GCT's version of The Wizard of Oz (youth edition) has rehearsed once a week for 6 months to present this production that always warms our hearts and reminds us that even when we dream and dare to go over the rainbow, there really is no place like home. I dare you to come to the show and not smile or cry. It is so very charming and exciting to see this youth cast and their families not worrying about their special needs but celebrating their abilities.
BWW: How does being on stage make you feel?
Watson: Excited! Like I am following my dreams.
Williams: On stage I feel like any other child. I get to live out my character, and no one sees my disabilities. They only see a child who is excited to show the world that we can do things they won't expect. We can hold our heads a bit higher because the audience just sees children having fun and shining brighter than a star in the night sky.
Greco: Being on stage makes me feel like I can escape reality in a positive way by becoming another personality.
BWW: If you could ask the Wizard of Oz for one thing, what would it be?
Carr: To be able to be in more than one place at one time.
Scott: To go to Disney World
Watson: To help me follow my dreams and perform on Broadway!
Williams: If I could truly be the Wizard in real life and not just as a character, I would Take That opportunity to make everyone in this world take off their invisible blinders and make everyone view the world with a new set of eyes-a set of eyes where no one sees disabilities or limitations, and they only see a child that doesn't give up when others think they should.
Hurwitch: Super strength and courage
Greco: I would ask the Wizard to give me the strength to use what I already have in the most positive way possible.
To see this heart-warming production of The Wizard of Oz, visit www.gettysburgcommunitytheatre.org to purchase your tickets.