5 Crazy Things That Can Happen within an Inclusive Theatre Company
By Bryce Russell Alexander
Artistic Director, Phamaly Theatre Comapany
Denver, Colorado, USA
1. The BEST Wardrobe Malfunctions
In Phamaly Theatre Company’s 2006 production of The Wiz, blind actor Don Mauck had specialty eyeballs made for his role as the cowardly lion. The eyeballs had a distinctive cat feature, and often, on his way home from a show he would be told by his friends and family about the incredible looks he would receive from strangers passing by on the street.
During the final dress rehearsal for the production, one of Don’s eyeballs popped out of his head and rolled, slowly, toward the edge of the stage. If you’ve ever seen a group of people looking for a contact lens, you can imagine the hysterical eye-ball search that ensued.
The infamous story was an incredible stimulus for talkbacks in discussing and promoting accommodation, as well as allowing audiences whom were uncomfortable or unfamiliar with disability to laugh and connect – to humanize and de-sensationalize the aura of disability.
2. The UNCONSIDERED brilliant moments
I was in callbacks for our current production of Cabaret. Veteran actress Lucy Roucis has Parkinson’s disease, and I had asked her to read for Frln. Shneider using a side from the famous song “What Would You Do.” Lucy is an incredible actress. You may have seen her most recently as the comedian with Parkinson’s in the movie Love and Other Drugs (starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal). Despite her incredible talents, other directors have begun to throw Lucy aside because of her slowing speech patterns, and because her eyes have a tendency to droop.
Working with disabled actors continually, I knew that the centers for speech and singing happen to exist in different areas of the brain – and I knew her incredible acting skills would easily out-shine any pacing problems. But what happened next caught me entirely off-guard.
As Lucy continued to sing, she arrived at the heartbreaking lyrics, “Suppose simply keeping still / means you’ll manage until / the end. / Imagine if you were me.” The irony, the heartbreak, the emotion – not only was she talking about keeping still in Nazi Germany, she was talking about her Parkinson’s. She connected with Schneider on a level and in a way I had never even begun to imagine – in a way that any audience could understand and parallel.
The room was speechless. It seemed so obvious, but I had never even considered the possibility.
Her performance in ¬Cabaret is exceptional. She is able to explore her disability within the character to bring a depth like I’ve never seen in Cabaret before; and Lucy isn’t alone. It is incredible to see how the life experience of disability ALWAYS plays directly into the struggles of the character’s being portrayed – after all, in the end – struggle is universal.
3. The INCREASED specifics and consistency
Many people worry that with varying abilities their choreography, blocking, or even acting will become less specific and even unpredictable.
I have found the opposite to be true.
As a company comprised entirely of people with disabilities, it is not out of the ordinary to find a few deaf actors and a few blind actors within my cast. Knowing that these individuals, or other individuals with learning disabilities, need very specific cues – I find that the company as a whole works incredibly hard to make very specific, minimal, and consistent choices to help each individual succeed. Because of this simple fact, choreography tends to be sharper, the acting tends to have higher stakes, and the ability for consistent note application is unprecedented – as the actor analyzes each detail of the scene.
Can you imagine if more actors without disabilities worked this hard to support their cast mates?
There’s an old saying about the blind leading the blind – at Phamaly, we do it all the time.
4. The DEVOTION effect
There is a magnet in the humanity of disability in performance that attracts some of the most highly skilled, most fun to work with, and most passionate professionals in the industry.
With very few exceptions (due to retirements, etc…) for more than 20 years, Phamaly Theatre Company has had the exact same members of IATSE Local #7 working our productions at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
As a smaller arts organization, Phamaly performs at theatres across Colorado – but returns every summer to the Denver Center Theatre Company’s theatres while they are dark. The incredible members of the union look forward to – and go to extraordinary lengths – so that every Phamaly show is a success. Nothing is more rewarding than people helping people.
All organizations look for employees who will passionately and willingly devote themselves to each project on which they work – and Phamaly has garnered a true sense of community – not only among the performers – but among the staff and crew, as well. The fact that a local union has joined that community is a huge part of our success.
This sense of community elevates the art we produce, and it creates an environment that fosters a competitive and highly skilled workplace; one that bleeds directly into the audience experience.
5. The Power Through
All things are fragile when handled incorrectly. People are no different.
But when people with disabilities are given the basic accommodations they deserve, they are unbelievably resilient. Actress Ashley Kelashian has been diagnosed with Dercum’s disease. This rare disease is often listed as one of the most painful diseases known to man, and yet, Ashley performs with stunning capacity and enthusiasm.
But Ashley’s pain can escalate VERY quickly – and it doesn’t take a lot to trigger it. By providing Ashley a working understudy, she can be sure to sit and observe rehearsals instead of trying to work through the pain. She can take days off more often during the rehearsal process, and she can focus on being healthy.
At first glance, many people wonder why I would cast an actress who seemingly can’t handle the demands of the role. But the reality is different.
By empowering her to keep herself healthy, her performances are spectacular. She can devote herself fully to the role without worrying if she’ll make it through the rehearsal process. Inevitably, because the theatre is her only true escape from the pain, Ashley’s performances are powerful and moving. Truly wonderful art.
All it takes is a switch in your mindset. Empowering ANY performer is always the best option. The art will always be better. The same is true in the world of disability.