On With the Show!
For Alexis Verzal, All the World’s a Stage— and the Stage Has Never Been More Accessible
There is something about being on stage that is so magical. For those who are in love with being on stage – it changes their life forever.
That is exactly what happened to Alexis Verzal, a 14-year-old girl who has been acting since she was four. After surviving a traumatic brain injury, she has risen above to become a lead actress in almost every role she has been cast in the past nine years through the Lincoln Community Playhouse and the Penguin Project.
Before we talk about the incredible human being that is Alexis Verzal, we wanted to let you, our readers know about the sheer impact that the Penguin Project has had on our community and the country.
The Penguin Project is the creation of Dr. Andrew Morgan, an Illinois pediatrician and community theater lover. The Penguin Project gets its name from penguins, birds who cannot fly. But the other traits of penguins fit well with the premise of Morgan’s program. “Penguins are extremely playful and curious and work well together,” he wrote. To this day, there are currently 43 Penguin Project chapters in the country, and the Lincoln chapter was the fifth one to reach over 100 members.
This community theater program invites children with special needs to sing, dance, and act under the theater spotlight on a professional stage in front of a live audience. Youth with special needs are paired with peer mentors, typically kids their own age who do not have disabilities. The mentors work in the shadows, offering cues for lines, gentle stage direction, and stagehand help. They also back up choral numbers.
“These mentors are truly incredible,” says Tiffany Verzal, Alexis’s mom. “They are there for every practice and they learn every line and stage direction. When it comes time for the performance, they stand behind the actors in case anything were to go wrong. That takes heart and dedication; it makes me tear up when you see it.”
For Alexis, her love of theatre started even before the Penguin Project. Her dedication to her craft started when she was little. Before school, she would select a character— typically a princess— to embody for the day. Alexis, a blossoming student of Method acting, would fully-immerse herself in that character for the whole day, only answering to her character’s name and adding theatrical flair to activities.
Her parents then decided that they had to get this girl in costume and on stage!
Alexis’s first show at four-years-old was with the Youth Actors Academy of Lincoln, and the show was Winnie the Pooh.
After that show, she has been in theatre productions every year ever since. Some of her roles have included:
- “Molly” in Annie
- “Flotsam” in The Little Mermaid
- “Chip” in Beauty and the Beast
- “Sharpay” in High School Musical
- “Amaryllis” in The Music Man
- “Glinda” in The Wizard of Oz
When we asked Alexis about her favorite memories and why she loves the Penguin Project, she said that one of the most powerful and emotional moments she had experienced on stage was her role as Chip in Beauty and the Beast. For those of you who are not familiar with Beauty and the Beast, at the end of the show when the curse is broken, Chip is turned back into a human after being cursed into a teacup. Alexis, who spends much time in her wheelchair, walked on stage for the first time when she turned into a girl.
Instantaneously, there was a standing ovation and tears were flowing from nearly every audience member. That is just a glimpse of the magic that is created at every Penguin Project show.
We have no doubt in our minds that Alexis will continue to bless the stage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse with the dedication and passion she has for performing on center stage. You might also see her current passion project — staging a backyard production of Bonnie & Clyde: a New Musical, to which, in addition to her roles as performer and director, she’s tackling dramaturgical work, and has added historically accurate annotations.
This winter will be your next chance to see the great work of the Penguin Project. Alexis will be Ms. Greenway in Elf Junior. A role that is normally for a boy, but she showed up to auditions in costume and off-book!
You can watch their incredible performances on:
December 10-12 and 17-19, 2021
December 9 - Exceptional Families Performance
Make sure to get tickets as soon as possible because every show sells out quickly!
At the end of our interview we asked Alexis if there was anything else she wanted to add to the article, and this is what she said:
“When I walk into Lincoln Community Playhouse, it feels like a second home — when I’m with all my friends. I just get to be myself and think – I get to be any character I want now!”
— Alexis Verzal
To get involved with the Penguin Project, as an Artist or a Mentor, head to lincolnplayhouse.com.