2014 True West Theatre Person of the Year: Steve Wilson

by John Moore | Dec 31, 2014


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True_West_Award_300It is the Steve Wilson stage moment that no one will ever forget. And when Wilson first proposed it, actor Regan Linton responded with an, “Oh, hell no!’ ”

Wilson suggested that Linton, who was paralyzed in a 2002 car accident, crawl across the floor of the DCPA’s Space Theatre right after the rape scene in the Phamaly Theatre Company’s unnerving 2009 staging of Man of La Mancha. Beaten and separated from her wheelchair, Linton was forced to writhe across the stage with her elbows - leaving agonized audiences wanting to jump out of their seats to assist her as she sang the bitter lament of the whore Aldonza.

Wilson is always happy to yank his actors and audiences out of their comfort zones. And, apparently, even their wheelchairs.

“Steve never hesitated to push me as an artist,” said Linton, now a professional resident actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Other directors would see my wheelchair and hesitate; Steve dove in like a giddy 5-year-old to explore the creative possibilities.”

Phamaly is a professional theatre company that for 25 years has cast only actors with mental and physical disabilities. Since Wilson arrived in 2000, he has layered what I call "little gems of authenticity" on top of his productions, both to infuse deeper layers of meaning and even comedy into otherwise familiar stories, while giving audiences unique insight into the challenges of living with a disability.

Wilson set Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in a mental hospital, making the Biblical storytelling a temporary escape for a group of disabled outcasts. He made a political poke when he cast exclusively blind actors to play the greedy town leaders in Urinetown. (The blind leading the backed-up.)

When Wilson directed his first show for Phamaly 14 years ago, the company was staging just one big summer musical per year. When he officially became the Artistic Director in 2004, he adopted two central missions: To expand performance opportunities for actors with disabilities. And to raise the level of professionalism in the company.

Done and Doner.

True_West_Award_STEVE_WILSON_400In 2000, about 25 handicapped actors performed for Phamaly each year. In 2014, with programming expanded to six annual offerings, that number is now over 200. Under Wilson, annual attendance has more than tripled, from 3,000 to about 11,000, and the operating budget has more than doubled, to $800,000.

And as for artistic achievement, consider that Phamaly has won 14 True West/Denver Post Ovation Awards as a company, and Wilson has been named outstanding director by the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards four times.

​"We always hoped we would be a place where the disabled could grow, both as actors and human beings," said Wilson, who has directed or co-directed 18 Phamaly plays and musicals, most recently last summer’s 25th anniversary reprisal of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

All of which made Wilson's resignation in October such a surprise. He did it, he said, in part to concentrate on the ever-growing demands of his full-time job as Executive Artistic Director of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, a multidisciplinary arts center on the campus of the Jewish Community Center. With an annual budget of $3 million and programming spanning the performing, visual and literary arts, it's a growing job that demands his full-time attention. His resignation from Phamaly is effective today (Dec. 31).

Wilson leaves behind a thriving organization with a committed executive director (Chris Silberman), a bona-fide development director (Tamara Arredondo), a powerhouse board, and a personal protégé in Bryce Alexander who seems poised to succeed him. (No announcement has been made.) In addition to the annual Broadway musical at the DCPA, Phamaly now also presents original sketch comedies and touring children’s productions such as the current Rapunzel. The upcoming winter production of The Fantasticks will be performed at both the Aurora Fox (Jan. 29-Feb. 15) and the Arvada Center (Feb. 27-March 1) before touring to Japan. So, in a way, Wilson is the victim of his own success, because Phamaly is a company that now demands the attention of a full-time Artistic Director, too.

Over the past decade, Wilson also managed to fit in two terms as president of the Colorado Theatre Guild, and he continues to serve as co-chair of the Scientific and Cultural Collaborative, a group dedicated to the 2016 re-authorization of the penny-per-$10 sales tax that next year will generate more than $50 million for metro cultural organizations. He also married longtime Denver actor Leslie O’Carroll, and they have a daughter, Olivia, who is now a student at Denver School of the Arts.

In short: Only a handful of individuals in Colorado theatre history have overseen the growth of a single company the way Wilson has shepherded Phamaly from where it was in 2000 to where it is today.

And for that reason, Wilson has today been named the True West 2014 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year, joining the company of Curious Theatre's Chip Walton, Su Teatro's Tony Garcia and many others.

His reaction? “I’m speechless.”

He wasn’t … but that's what he said.

While Wilson’s administrative achievements are significant, his most important contribution has been creating live theatregoing experiences that have allowed for profound emotional connections between audiences and his actors on a nightly basis. And he did that by always abiding to a core tenet: Wilson would never ignore his actors' disabilities; rather, he would incorporate them into their characters. That means his Belle in Beauty and the Beast (Jenna Bainbridge) danced the show’s signature waltz with a sizable gait. "And I loved it," Wilson said, "because it was beautiful.

"I'm not going to cover up what they are,” he added, "because I love who they are."

Wilson’s first show with Phamaly was Grand Hotel. His sentimental favorites were Urinetown and Man of La Mancha. “I just felt like those two plays connected with my love of plot, and my desire to focus on a narrative story,” he said.

Another of Wilson’s significant legacies was growing his company from a group of actors who primarily performed just for Phamaly -- because only Phamaly would have them -- to one whose members are regularly cast by other companies across the state and country. For example, Bainbridge has performed in leading roles the past two summers with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. And Linton became the first student in a wheelchair to be accepted into the University of California-San Diego's masters program.

“That was a big risk for them to take Regan,” Wilson said. “Not because she isn’t talented, but because we don’t know what her future as a professional actor looks like. There are a lot of directors out there who are afraid. But the fact that Regan is now performing with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival proves that we are breaking down the barriers.”

Wilson grew up in Irvine, Calif., and moved to Denver when he was accepted into the DCPA's National Theatre Conservatory graduate program. He was the right fit for Phamaly all those years ago, Wlson believes, because he is inherently a teacher, and directing handicapped actors essentially means teaching them.

“And the experience of teaching these actors makes me feel at my core like I have accomplished something,” Wilson said.

Linton, for one, was happy to be schooled by Wilson.

“When I nearly had to drop out of Man of La Mancha due to a health issue, he refused to replace me,” Linton said. “He squashed my self-doubt, took my suggestions and gave me a safe space to be fearless, always amid the reminder that 'theatre is hard.' He showed me that with confidence, creativity and just the right amount of crazy, I could be as good as anyone.”

Wilson hopes to return to Phamaly as a guest director someday, but he definitely will not direct Cabaret, ending his streak at 14 straight summer musicals. Instead, he will be directing a teen production of Hamlet for the Wolf Theatre Academy at the Jewish Community Center. He hopes to eventually direct on a freelance basis for area theatres such as the Aurora Fox or Town Hall Arts Center.

Wilson said when the history of Phamaly is written, "I would like to be remembered for helping to lay the foundation for a company that has made an impact throughout the world. And my hope is that it continues to grow over the next 25 years.”

True West Theatre Person of the Year:

2014: Steve Wilson, Executive Artistic Director, Phamaly Theatre Company and Mizel Center for Arts and Culture
2013: Actor, teacher and cancer survivor Shelly Bordas
2012: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company co-founder Stephen Weitz
2011: Maurice LaMee, Creede Repertory Theatre artistic director
2010: Anthony Garcia, Su Teatro artistic director
2009: Kathleen M. Brady, Denver Center Theatre Company actor
2008: Bas Bleu Theatre co-founder Wendy Ishii
2007: Germinal Stage-Denver founder Ed Baierlein
2006: Curious Theatre Company associate artistic director Bonnie Metzgar
2005: Curious Theatre Company artistic director Chip Walton
2004: Actor/set designer/director/playwright Michael R. Duran
2003: Denver Center Theatre Company director/playwright Nagle Jackson
2002: Actor/director Chris Tabb

                                   THE 2014 TRUE WEST AWARDS

1. Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport's Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of 'The Whipping Man'
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA's Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA's celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore's daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org


Leave a comment
  1. Raymond E Garrett MD | Jan 01, 2015

    I credit Steve Wilson with saving my daughter by propelling her deeper into her darkness and out the other side. Jessica is now a cofounder of one of Baltimore top repertory company's-Single Carrot Theatre.

    Mr Wilson entranses audiences and transforms student actors.

    In my estimation, no award can fully recognize his enormous impact.

    Congratulations, Mr Wilson.

    Raymond E Garrett MD 

  2. Terry Heller | Dec 31, 2014
    A well deserved honor for a talented theater person. I have the privilege of working with Steve at the MACC JCC. I wish him much continued success!
  3. Sharon Haber | Dec 31, 2014
    A great honor for an amazing talent. We are so fortunate to have Steve as Director of the MACC
  4. Chris Wiger | Dec 31, 2014

    Congratulations Steve!  So very richly deserved!!!!!

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    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

    DCPA is the nation’s largest not-for-profit theatre organization dedicated to creating unforgettable shared experiences through beloved Broadway musicals, world-class plays, educational programs and inspired events. We think of theatre as a spark of life — a special occasion that’s exciting, powerful and fun. Join us today and we promise an experience you won't soon forget.