Following the yellow brick road to meet the Great Oz will be the summertime plans of more than 100 kids in this year’s Penguin Project of Sun Prairie Civic Theatre “The Wizard of Oz.”

Kids with special abilities star in the musical roles with a little help from mentors, in the June 21-23 performances at the Sun Prairie Performing Arts Center.

Will Rose plays the Scarecrow and loves the response he gets when he is on stage.

“A lot of people are cheering me on and they are really happy that I am on stage,” Rose said.

Ben Olson, who brings the Tin Man to life, is a veteran Penguin Project performer with “Annie,” “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Guys and Dolls” on his resume. He was drawn to the Tin Man’s comedic character, who squeaks and murmurs when his rusty tin joints need oiling.

“He’s kind of funny when he makes funny noises,” Olson said of the beloved character that asks the Wizard of Oz to give him a heart.

Penguin Project is a national program that gives kids with Down syndrome, autism, intellectual disabilities, visual and hearing impaired, and neurological disorders an opportunity to perform on stage.

Sun Prairie Civic Theatre Executive Director Sara Beth Hahner said the Penguin Project started locally in 2015 with a lot of excitement.

“We had an established children’s theatre program, had a venue, directors, and creative people, so we jumped right in,” Hahner said.

Kids ages 10-21 are assigned roles based on their abilities, availability, and preference. For more than four months the kids, mentor, SPCT staff and volunteers work to bring the performance to stage.

Hahner says it’s a learning process with kids encouraged to ask a lot of questions, so they understand what’s happening and they will feel more comfortable performing. Kids get a boost in self-confidence and feel acceptance—as they act, sing and dance on-stage.

It’s Aly Sotelo Edwards’ fourth year in the Penguin Project, and after playing Miss Hannigan in “Annie”, she is ready to bring the Wicked Witch to the stage.

“I play her as sadistic and scary-it’s exactly the role I wanted—because I kind of like evil characters,” Edwards said with a smile.

Avi Finesilver, plays Dorothy’s sidekick, Toto, with a mighty growl that keeps the Wicked Witch away.

Mentors also get just as much from the Penguin Project as the actors do.

“Some mentors come in with no background of kids with neurodiversity or with different abilities and they see that they are kids just like them—they gain an understanding of each other,” said Hahner, pointing out that the kids develop a relationship and sometimes hang out after the Penguin Project is done for the year.

Mentors are responsible for knowing the lines, songs, and blocking of their artists, but slip into the background during the performance.

Michael Thorson, who mentors Will, was motivated to get involved because his sister, who has Down Syndrome, is a Penguin Project actress. He learned a lot of new skills by being a mentor.

“Patience, encouragement and you need to know when to back off,” Thorson said. “It’s a lot of trial and error to see what works with your artist and what doesn’t.”

Last week, the actors gathered for their “tech week” to put on their costumes and make-up and run through performances.

Helen Perkolup, who plays the starring role of Dorothy, is pretty excited to see everything come together and encouraged people to come out and see a performance: “It is really neat to see what we can all do when we all set our minds to it.”

The Sun Prairie Civic Theatre Penguin Project “Wizard of Oz” performances are June 21 and June 22 at 7 p.m. and June 23 at 2 p.m. at the Sun Prairie Performing Arts Center (Sun Prairie High School) 888 Grove St. Sun Prairie.

Tickets $16 adults, $13 for seniors 55 age or older, $11 youth and students. Tickets can be purchased online at or at The Piano Gal Shop, 395 E. Main St. Sun Prairie. All seats are general admission.

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