It began over pizza and beers in 1989.
Kathleen Traylor and four other classmates from Denver’s now defunct Boettcher School for students with disabilities, were reminiscing about theater in junior and senior high school.
“All of a sudden the conversation gets around to, ‘we should start our own theater group’ and I was the one who was like you’ve got to be kidding me,” Traylor said.
It seemed so pie in the sky because it was hard enough to break into the biz as actors, especially as five actors in wheelchairs, said Teri Westerman Wagner. She said you would roll in and announce your audition and they’d “look at you like a deer in headlights.”
“They literally would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” Westerman Wagner said.
For Traylor, she marveled at how theater companies could “figure out how to get full-sized elephants onto a stage, but to get a wheelchair onto a stage was baffling to them. I think it was just scarey: the liability issues, the accommodation issues.”
And so, tired of being told their acting dreams were unrealistic because they had disabilities, the five — which also included Rick Britton, Kevin Ahl and Gregg Vigil — decided to take matters into their own hands. They launched Phamaly Theatre Company, and never imagined it would last long enough to celebrate 30 years.
The acronym of Phamaly came first, said Westerman Wagner. They liked the idea of a family-like theater troupe and they found the words to make it work. Initially, it stood for the Physically Handicapped Amatuer Musical Actors League — ending with a “y” for pronunciation. The name later came to represent the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League as they were able to afford to pay performers.
They first tried their collective hands at a costume party. After that went well, they applied for a grant from the state. Traylor said it was supposed to be a practice grant.
“But low and behold we got a check for $3,300 dollars,” Traylor said. “And we were like, ‘Oh poop. We’ve gotta put on a play.’”
That first Phamaly production was “Guys and Dolls.” The four performances of the gangsters and showgirls musical were staged at their alma mater in 1990. The run went off without a hitch despite so much working against them, such as a tight budget and a cast size much smaller than the show demanded. The rehearsal space was designed pre-Americans with Disabilities Act (signed on July 1990) and, Westerman Wagner said, it was not ideal for wheelchair access.
“We should not have succeeded,” she said. “But I think it was by sheer determination from all of us that we just weren’t gonna let it fail.”
Popular musicals would become Phamaly’s bread and butter over the years. The company went on to perform “Oklahoma,” “The Wiz” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Trayler said they didn’t want to do shows about disabilities, at least not initially. She believed actors with disabilities that portray familiar characters could reframe the audience’s thinking about what it means to have a disability.
“We wanted to do plays about real people who just so happen to have disabilities because that’s what life is,” Traylor said.
Choreographer Debbie Stark said that happened for her. She almost quit when she first came on to choreograph Phamaly’s third fully produced show, “Anything Goes.” She doesn’t identify as having a disability, and began to question if she was right for the job.
It fell into place for Stark when she said, “‘You guys, can I get in a wheelchair?’ I don’t know how a wheelchair moves.”
Decades on, there’s now a wall at Stark’s Centennial-based dance school full of choreography awards for Phamaly shows. She’s learned there are more possibilities than limitations with these actors.
The World Health Organization estimates about 15 percent of the global population lives with some form of disability. Teresa Eyring, executive director of the New York-based national nonprofit Theatre Communications Group, said these individuals need to see themselves onstage. TCG runs an Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Initiative.
“We exist as a field to lift up all people and the stories of as many people in our communities as we can and, if we are not accomplishing that, it’s a major issue,” Eyring said.
Other theater organizations that serve artists with disabilities include New York’s Theater Breaking Through Barriers, InterAct Theater in Minneapolis and the recently launched National Disability Theater. Even as more of these theaters come onto the scene, Eyring said Phamaly continues to be a leader on “modeling how to work with disabled artists with integrity and inspiring other theaters to do so.”
Phamaly also wants to be seen as a serious theater company. Traylor remembered her first bad review. It was in 1997 and she played the title character in the musical “Mame.”
“It was hard, but at the same time, I was like, wow, I’m really grateful that somebody took me seriously as an actress and gave me a review as an actress and not as a disabled person,” Traylor said.
Theater critic Lisa Kennedy wrote about Phamaly during her time with The Denver Post and describes Phamaly as “often a really solid, even better-than-solid theater company.”
She attributes the company’s longevity to a blending of artistry and mission, enriching the experience for the audience. Kennedy felt that way when she saw Phamaly’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” She found herself not as interested in the next production of “Fiddler” she saw “because, I felt like Phamaly had done a better job artistically.”
Kennedy added that the group’s impact can also be seen as more of its actors appear with other Colorado theater companies.
In 1978, activists in Denver, many in wheelchairs, stopped traffic to demand more accessible public transit. Soon after, grassroots advocate ADAPT formed, helping propel the national movement of disability rights. ADAPT activist Dawn Russell said she considers Phamaly performers activists as well, just a different and necessary kind.
“Phamaly’s approach is about the normalcy and we’re just like everyone else,” Russell said. “We’re saying we’re not like everyone else, we need this and if we have this, then we are closer to that equal and normalcy that Phamaly is representing.”
In 2007, Phamaly added a second production to its season, eventually bumping the lineup to three, four or five different shows a year. The company has toured nationally — even internationally with a trip to Osaka, Japan in 2015. It’s received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and was one of more than two dozen Denver-area arts organizations selected for an Arts Innovation and Management grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The theater company also continues to expand from its musical theater core, tackling Shakespeare and more original plays.
Phamaly will kick off its 30th anniversary season with the premiere of “Morph Masters.” The play speaks to the skills you gain from a disability through the stories of important artists with disabilities such as Stevie Wonder, Beethoven and Frida Kahlo.
Artistic director Regan Linton said the idea came from a school performance the company did a few years ago. They asked the young audience: “What does disability mean to you?” When one student answered, “It means you can’t do things,” Linton refused to let that be “the definition of disability these kids are left with.”
“We started thinking there are all of these amazing artists that lived and worked with a disability and were creative because of what disability gave to them,” she said.
In a way, the show reflects Linton’s own experiences. A car crash in college paralyzed her from the chest down and suddenly having a disability came with so much stigma, she said. Performing with Phamaly, she saw that these actors “weren’t caught up in all the bull*** that everybody else was.”
“They were just focused on the artistry,” she said. “That for me was a personal transformation.”
As to where Phamaly will be in another 30 years, Westerman Wagner hopes there will be a Phamaly-like company in every state. Traylor fell on the other end of the spectrum. She’d like to see Phamaly go out of business because “there’d be no need for it.” For her part, Linton wants it to become an even more important institution in Denver.
“So that even when you’re casting actors with disabilities all over all other stages, there’s still something that’s unique to Phamaly’s aesthetic,” Linton said.
Phamaly Theatre Company’s “Morph Masters” runs Jan. 11 - 20, 2019 at Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Conservatory Theatre.