Despite physical challenges, Phamaly's Ashley Kelashian says the girls of Annie just wanna have sun.
By Avery Anderson
For the DCPA NewsCenter
It was the first day of rehearsal for a highly anticipated new production of Annie, and one overwhelmed young actor in a wheelchair began to panic. The girl was one of the many novices who will play orphans in Phamaly Theatre Company’s upcoming staging on the DCPA Theatre Company’s biggest stage.
For 28 years, Phamaly has made performance opportunities available for actors with disabilities, culminating in a big Broadway musical every summer at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For actors with mental and physical challenges, adjusting to the move from the rehearsal room to the vaunted stage with dozens of fast-moving cast and crew swirling about can be too much.
But veteran Phamaly actor Ashley Kelashian spotted the girl and took action. Within seconds, she managed to maneuver her own wheelchair to the girl’s side and comforted her, despite the enormous pain she was in herself. That’s the way it goes at Phamaly, where there is always an army of special people standing by to help those with special needs.
At Phamaly, everyone is different - which is what makes everyone the same.
“We are aptly named Phamaly because it is a family too,” said Kelashian, who, ironically, will be scaring the bejeebers out of the orphans in the iconic role of the mean Mrs. Hannigan when Annie opens on Saturday.
Kelashian and the girl she helped have more in common than wheelchairs: She has been acting since she was old enough to play an orphan herself. She knew performing was her calling when she was 13 and a teacher told her forcefully, ‘That is what you are supposed to do with your life.’ ”
Kelashian grew up in Texas and attended the University of Texas at Arlington, where she received the R.L. Frasier Scholarship for Artistic Excellence. It was there, while playing a witch in Macbeth, she discovered something was going wrong with her body.
“There was a point in the play when we had to run up over this hill because it was an outdoor theatre,” she said. “But I had a breakdown and all these lumps popped up over me. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” When she admitted to her director that she could no longer accommodate the physical demands of the blocking because she was in such pain - she was cut from the show.
Phamaly campaign raises $200K, 'saves the company'
“Everyone was like, ‘You need to handle this. You shouldn't be on stage if you aren’t in shape to run down the hill,’ ” Kelashian said. “Instead of just changing things around so I wouldn’t have to run down the hill, they let me go.”
A life-changing diagnosis
Kelashian was diagnosed with Dercum’s disease, a rare condition that caused tumors to grow over her body and under her skin. The result is extreme and constant pain.
Her peers just didn’t get it, and Kelashian dropped out of college. She says the next couple of years were a dark time. She was depressed because she could no longer act out her passion for theatre - and scared because of the uncertainty this little-known disease brought.
“That was a rough experience,” she said. “I really don’t talk to anyone from that time of my life, just because it was such a strange thing to go through at a young age.”
Kelashian enrolled at a local community college where she studied Speech and Debate - “or what I call ‘Competitive Theatre,’ she quipped. It was during a competition she met the man she would marry and start a family with.
The couple moved to Denver with son Edric, she said, because of the city’s reputation for providing services that allow the disability community to live full and independent lives. “Denver is the the disability mecca,” she said with a laugh. The subsequent legalization of medical marijuana has been a godsend, she says, because it eases her chronic pain.
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The only thing that was missing from her life here was theatre. That changed in 2012. One day while scanning the audition notices in The Denver Post, one upcoming production caught Kelashian’s eye: Phamaly was looking for disabled actors to perform in Little Shop of Horrors.
“I fell to pieces,” Kelashian said. “I didn't know anything except that whatever this was, it was for me. I just cried and cried. I auditioned, I got in - and that is what I have been doing ever since.”
More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter
Kelashian instantly felt she could be herself again in the company of Phamaly. Subsequent roles with the company have included Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Her son, Edric Kelashian, joined his mother in the ensemble of Fiddler.
Through it all, Kelashian has tried not to let her disease change her instinct to always put others first.
“You have to be humble,” she said. “You have to be patient through your own pain, so you have to be patient with other people's pain. Any opportunity you have to make someone feel good is a good chance for me.”
As Phamaly's official Literary Manager, Kelashian maintains a script library to help her fellow actors prepare for auditions. She has resisted the frequent suggestion that she should charge for the service.
“My motto is, ‘Kind is the most important thing you can be,’ ” Kelashian said. “I hope people would say I am kind and helpful whenever I can be.”
She seems by all accounts, completely miscast to play the role Carol Burnett made famous on film. Mrs. Hannigan is the booze-sodden, kid-hating caretaker of the ratty New York orphanage where she makes her girls scrub the floor till it shines like the Chrysler Building. But while Kelashian might not be wicked, she is known for her wicked sense of humor.
“Sometimes she just channels Hannigan," said castmate Jenna Bainbridge, who plays good-girl Grace. “Last night one of the kids were driving us crazy and she said, ‘Oh, God, I feel like Hannigan today. I need a drink, you guys.' "
The sun will come out in Texas
The Kelashian family moved back to Texas a year ago so Edric could attend his freshman year of high school with his friends there. Ashley has been traveling to and from Denver for the past year to continue her work for Phamaly.
For this run of Annie, Kelashian is living in an apartment with a roommate, and she admitted there are times when she needs to ask for help.
“I don't want to say I overestimated myself before I came back here for this - but I did,” Kelashian said. “I have gotten to the point where when I do the dishes, the repetitive motion tears the tissue in my arm. And at rehearsal, I need to wave the kids all about, and that is more painful than normal.”
But all Kelashian had to do was say the word, and "within 30 minutes," she said, help was on the way. The Denver Center, which not only makes its theatres available for Phamaly productions but also assists with production, marketing and logistical support, had made one of the apartments it owns in nearby Brooks Tower building available to another out-of-town Annie performer. And that convenience has made her available to help Kelashian at a moment's notice.
"I got a phone call saying she could come over and help me with things and take me to the emergency room if I ever needed it,” Kelashian said. “I was just crying. Nowhere else in the world would I get this kind of accommodation to do what I love doing.”
And when Edric graduates from high school in 2020, Kelashian and her husband plan to come home to Colorado for good.
“Phamaly is the end-game of my life,” Kelashian said.
Phamaly Theatre Company's Annie: Ticket information
• July 15 through Aug. 6
• Stage Theatre Denver Performing Arts Complex
• Directed by Regan Linton and Steve Wilson. Musical Direction by Trent Hines
• Tickets: $20-$37
• Call 303-893-4100 or
• Accessible performances: July 23, Aug. 3
Video: View Phamaly's official Annie trailer
Selected recent NewsCenter coverage of Phamaly:
Pop-culture Annie, from comics to Broadway to Jay-Z
Phamaly gala, campaign raise $200K, ‘save the company’
Phamaly launches emergency $100,000 fundraising campaign
Regan Linton accepts Spirit of Craig Award
Regan Linton returns to lead Phamaly in landmark appointment
About the author:
Avery Anderson is interning with the DCPA NewsCenter for the summer. He is the General Manager and producer of Met TV at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He was won two Heartland Student Emmy Awards for his work on The Met Report. He has a passion for local arts and culture and enjoys covering theatres across the Denver area and the state. Follow him on Twitter at @a_anderson64.