After seeing the joy and benefits that community theater gave his own children, Stephen Gilbert left a career in real estate to become executive director of Greenwood Community Theatre. He started as a volunteer in the box office but, before long, left behind a real estate career eight years ago to spread some of that joy to a broader community.
“I’ve tried to run it like a business,” he says of GCT. That concept has come in particularly handy as theaters across the country are struggling with closures related to COVID-19. Many regional theaters, with only a month of operating expenses to rely on, are fearful of permanent closure.
“We’ve always had a lot of community support,” he says, “but even more so since we started the Penguin Project. We do shows for schools, for at-risk youth and their families, giving away tickets through the police department.
“We continue to look for ways to give back to the community. The more we do, the more we get back.”
The Penguin Project
After reading an article about art therapy for kids with autism, Stephen began to look for ways to apply that information to programs for children in the Greenwood area. In May 2016, he discovered the Penguin Project in Illinois and immediately sent a list of questions to the program’s founder, Dr. Andrew Morgan.
The Penguin Project brings children with developmental and physical disabilities to the stage to enjoy the excitement, camaraderie, creativity and spirit of live theater.
“The next week, I presented it at our board meeting as something we were going to do. I could picture it, I knew in my head how it would be,” he says of the start of Greenwood’s Penguin Project. Theirs was the first chapter in the Southeast, and their first production, in 2017, was Annie Jr. “Most of the kids who have participated have come back each year, plus a few more.”
Each of the 25 or so performers, called artists, is paired with a “mentor,” another student who works alongside and even appears on stage with the artist to provide support and encouragement. As the mentors get to know the artists in the troupe, they discover the abilities, special gifts, and humor of their Penguin counterparts.
“A lot of the mentors come back year after year; they bond with their artists and become good friends,” he says of the participants. “It gives them an awakening...that they are all fundamentally the same. Some of the mentors have even changed their career paths” toward more service- and education-oriented goals.
Another result of the program has been the creation of a safe and welcoming space for the families of students with disabilities, and the formation of friendships within those families, who often feel a sense of loneliness. “The bonds of friendship transform lives,” Stephen says.
Each meeting of the Penguin Project and each rehearsal ends with the students singing and dancing to “Don’t Stop Believing.” With the production of Lion King Jr. now indefinitely postponed, Stephen had the idea of an “Un-Opening Night” to celebrate the hard work and enthusiasm of the cast.
Ansley Keenen, the director and program coordinator, asked each family to make a video of the cast members (and their families if so inclined) performing the song, and arranged for the videos to be combined into one big, happy virtual song and dance number. “We’ve already raised almost $2,000 for Un-Opening Night. We got a check in the mail today from a couple, with a card attached saying how proud they are of the community for doing such an important thing,” Stephen says.
Until social distancing and quarantine requirements allow the reopening of the Greenwood Community Theatre, Stephen and the Penguins will keep believing.
“It gives me a platform to make a difference in the community. That’s what keeps me engaged and excited. We have strong support from the community,” he says. “Greenwood is a special place in that sense.”