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Anne Arundel Co. program empowers children with developmental disabilities through theater

Anne Arundel Co. program empowers children with developmental disabilities
Anne Arundel Co. program empowers children with developmental disabilities 02:28

BALTIMORE - An Anne Arundel County theater company is giving children with developmental disabilities a new opportunity to shine.

The Talent Machine -- a youth musical theater company -- has a program called the "Penguin Project," which empowers those children to explore their creative talents.

Colin Russell grew up watching his older brothers perform on stage with the Talent Machine.

"Colin would say, 'I want to do that too,' except that there wasn't a space that had enough support for him to perform in the shows," said Christy Russell, Colin's mother.

But Talent Machine president Lea Capps and company manager Judy Curbelo wanted to find a way to create that space where children like Colin, who has autism, could experience the performing arts.

"We were trying to figure out if we could do a show with kids with disabilities and bringing them more into the primary roles of a show," Capps said.

"We also recognized that in Anne Arundel County there's not an opportunity for children with disabilities to participate in theater projects," Curbelo said.

They discovered the Penguin Project, a national program with chapters across the United States, and became the only chapter in Maryland.

"It basically gives you the recipe of how to do productions utilizing kids with disabilities as the characters," Capps said.

The Children are paired with mentors or "friends" to guide them through the rehearsal process and be with them on stage. Their first show is a modified version of Annie Jr.

"I am so proud of myself because I'm working with other people," said Andrew Ledd, who plays Daddy Warbucks in Annie Jr.

Ledd is playing the role of Daddy Warbucks with the help of mentor Lilly Abbott.

"She helps me with, sometimes i have a hard time focusing on my words," Ledd said.

"Yeah, but you've got it," Abbott added.

"I've seen kids who I honestly didn't think would speak," Capps said. "Even if their line is just two words, they say it nice and loud." 

With his older brother Owen as assistant director, Russell thrives at rehearsals, improving cognitive, verbal and motor skills.

Most importantly, he has found a place where he's accepted as he is.

"The other day, we pulled up to a rehearsal and Colin looked out the window and he saw the other kids outside, and he goes, 'Well, there's my bros,'" Christy Russell said. "Having an inclusive recreation opportunity where kids can come together as a community and perform together, I don't know if there is anything more meaningful. It has to continue." 

Capps says The Talent Machine is looking for a permanent location in Anne Arundel County to expand the "Penguin Project."

Their first performance is May 17 and 18 at the Mid-Atlantic Community Church in Davidsonville.

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