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Center Stage

Playhouse embraces the Penguin Project


Penguin Project “Annie Jr” Mentor Joy Mielke and McKenna O’Meara (as Miss Hannigan), who won a 2023 Jeanne Hopson Rising Star Cloris Award for her performance. Photo credit: Brent Isenberger Photography

The Des Moines Community Playhouse is a regional leader when it comes to community theatre programming and engagement. While Des Moines Performing Arts leads the way in bringing the best of Broadway and global entertainment to its stages, the Playhouse continues to forge new paths and alliances that benefit Iowans. In October of 2022, sold-out houses experienced the rarified air of theatre essence: its first Penguin Project collaboration with the modified version of “Annie Jr.” Hearts and souls were touched; lives were changed. 

Audiences can continue this unique performance project journey, as the Playhouse has committed to a three-year partnership with the national Penguin Project. 

“Yes, that’s correct,” confirms Nate Weber, the Playhouse Outreach Coordinator. “We’re thrilled to be embarking on this journey to create inclusive theater experiences for children with special needs. We see The Playhouse, along with the help of our community, supporting this transformative program for many years to come. (We’re close to) opening night of this year’s production of ‘High School Musical Jr.,’ and the artists and mentors are already asking what next year’s show title is going to be.”

Established in 2004, The Penguin Project has evolved into a national program with chapters throughout the United States. The program provides a supportive environment and has demonstrated that participation in the performing arts has therapeutic value by enhancing social interaction, communication skills, self-confidence and self-esteem.

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“As a community theatre, The Playhouse works to find a place for anyone who wants to be a part of theatre,” shares Katy Merriman, Playhouse artistic director. “The Penguin Project has given us the tools and training to provide a safe and inspiring theatre experience for young people who have special needs. We are so happy to host young artists and give them the chance to take to the stage. There is a place for everyone in the arts.”

The Penguin Project — another highlight in The Playhouse’s history

The Playhouse success did not come easily. In 1982, the organization was facing closure, its budget well short of its budget. It needed leadership. An experienced director from a smaller theater in Wisconsin was offered the job, with the challenge to accept, or The Playhouse would have to close its doors. John Viars, for whom the mainstage theater space has been rightfully named, accepted. As the catalyst to a growing legion of Playhouse supporters, Viars encouraged outside-the-box thinking and action. In 1987, some board members shared a play called “Peace Child” circulating through their churches. He embraced it and produced the show to sold-out Playhouse houses late in 1987. The positive response triggered a revival in 1989. A finale performance, anchoring an International Theater Festival with 17 countries represented, was held in a packed Greenwood Park Sylvan Amphitheater. Children from Moscow and several European countries were part of the cast. Shortly thereafter, The Playhouse established a touring children’s theatre company, and the Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre began. The Penguin Project is the latest innovative program produced by this organization.

“The Penguin Project beautifully aligns with the mission of the Des Moines Playhouse, which is to promote theatrical arts through high-quality, accessible and inclusive experiences,” explains Weber. “The Playhouse believes in the transformative power of theater to inspire, educate and engage diverse communities. The Penguin Project, with its emphasis on inclusion and empowerment of individuals with special needs, perfectly embodies these principles. By providing a platform for everyone to participate in the performing arts, The Penguin Project reflects The Playhouse’s commitment to inclusivity, education, and community enrichment through the arts.”

Children’s theatre abounds, but world premieres excite

In addition to “High School Musical Jr.,” other children’s/family shows being produced this month include “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre) and “Seussical the Musical TYA” (Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre). Perhaps ratcheting up to more teen and above audiences are “The Addams Family” (Ankeny Community Theatre) and “Beetlejuice” (the National Touring Production at Des Moines Performing Arts). 

Adding a couple of enticing special shows this month to tantalize come from the masterfully conceived creativity at Ballet Des Moines and the improvisational impressiveness of Comedy Xperiment. For Ballet Des Moines, Tom Mattingly’s “Jekyll & Hyde” will captivate audiences through a story of good and evil. Inspired by the classic gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, this world premiere will tell the cautionary tale of leaning too far into our darker side, for fear we might never return. Comedy Xperiment promises a world premiere for every performance. Hello — it is improv. ♦

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.


Overheard in the lobby
  • Ankeny Community Theatre: Through Oct. 8. “The Addams Family”
  • Des Moines Performing Arts: Oct. 3-8. “Beetlejuice” National Tour
  • Comedy Xperiment: Oct. 6-7. “Improv Comedy Show”
  • Des Moines Community Playhouse – The Penguin Project: Oct. 13-15. “High School Musical Jr.”
  • History Boy Theatre (Jefferson): Oct. 13-22. “The Bridges of Madison County”
  • Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre: Oct. 20-29. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”
  • Ballet Des Moines: Oct. 27-29. “Jekyll & Hyde”
  • Des Moines Community Playhouse – Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre: Oct. 27 – Nov. 5. “Seussical the Musical TYA”

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