2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS: 30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
Phamaly Theatre Company’s Cabaret
Bryce Alexander, Director
Today’s award presenter:
DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore
Denver’s acclaimed Phamaly Theatre Company hired a new artistic director last year who is the same age that it is. And while 26 years might seem long and established for a theatre troupe – it feels downright wet behind the ears for the person chosen to run it.
Bryce Alexander had big shoes to fill when Steve Wilson stepped down a year ago. Over 14 years, Wilson had overseen great artistic, business and programming strides, growing Phamaly into a national model for how to create professional performance opportunities for actors with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.
Alexander, who had served as Wilson’s assistant since he was just, gulp, 19! – would have been forgiven for more slowly making his mark on a company that allows audiences to see big Broadway musicals such as Urinetown and The Man of LaMancha from a wholly different storytelling perspective.
But Alexander did not take his time. He upped the stakes in several ways:
- He spearheaded Phamaly’s first international exchange mission by sending The Fantasticks to Japan as part of a convention to advance the global independence of people with disabilities.
- He worked with former Executive Director Chris Silberman to open Phamaly’s new rehearsal and business complex at a southwest Denver warehouse that grew the company’s space six-fold.
- He expanded the company’s statewide children’s tour of Red Riding Hood, bringing actors with disabilities into schools all around the state.
- He fearlessly programmed a staging of Christopher Durang’s intentionally unpleasant black comedy Baby With the Bathwater that would test the tolerance of any theatre company’s audience base.
And while Phamaly will continue to cast only actors with disabilities in its shows, the company is constantly re-examining its definition of disability. According to the Council on Disability Awareness, 1 in 4 Americans will have some sort of diagnosable disability by the time they retire. This study includes a number of less visible conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, back pain, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The makeup of Phamaly’s acting ensembles have subtly shifted in recent years to include actors with these less visible conditions.
But nothing made it more clear in 2015 that Alexander’s Phamaly is no longer his mentor’s Phamaly when he chose to stage the seedy Broadway musical Cabaret as his first annual summer Broadway musical at the Denver Center’s Space Theatre.
Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s coming-of-age experiences as the Nazis were rising to power in 1931 Berlin, centers on the sexually ambiguous relationship between a drug-addicted British diva named Sally Bowles and the sexually confused young American writer Cliff Bradshaw.
This is a tricky story for any director to fully communicate on the stage, but that didn’t stop Alexander from challenging Phamaly audiences in both expected and uncomfortable new ways. His Fraulein Schneider was played by an actor whose speech has been severely slowed by Parkinsons disease. His lovely Sally Bowles is hard of hearing. He cast two actors with varying degrees of hearing loss to share the role of the Emcee – which is not to say they shared performances. Alexander presented the Emcee as two separate androgynous characters exploring the ups and downs of their love affair, one singing and one using sign language. Alexander chose perennial Phamaly favorite Daniel Traylor opposite Garrett Zuercher, who became the first big-shot actor in company history to be cast out of New York.
It all added up to a year with risk as Phamaly’s recurring theme. And Alexander didn’t mind if that meant some of his audiences might squirm. Rather, that was the point.
In Cabaret, Alexander dared to confront audiences with half-naked disabled actors in wheelchairs playing fully sexualized and even decadent beings, busting yet another cultural taboo. Audiences were asked to examine whether and why that might make them uncomfortable. And think about the performers: “The actors also face the stigma attached not only to disability itself, but to the idea of disabled people as sexual beings,” Westword’s Juliet Wittman wrote. “It takes a huge amount of courage for a profoundly disabled person to appear on a stage, and the courage required multiplies exponentially when that person has to flaunt his or her sexuality.”
Alexander took inspiration for the immortalized Kit Kat Klub from Berlin’s Blue Stocking, where soldiers would hook up with prostitutes who might be missing an arm or a leg. In wartime Germany, Alexander wrote in his Cabaret program notes, performers with disabilities were among the first to be rounded up, sterilized, experimented upon or killed.
Alexander’s creative Cabaret departures were not always entirely clear in performance, but the effort made for high-stakes storytelling that had critics congratulating his artistic courage. Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post called the staging resonant and edgy. “Sex and disability aren’t often put in the same room together,” she wrote. “Here, they more than embrace — they bump and grind.”
But perhaps the greatest change underway at Phamaly is one of perception. Alexander wants to challenge audiences and journalists alike to consider the work Phamaly puts on the stage according to the same standards they would apply to any other company – without qualification. Instead of routinely identifying Phamaly as “Denver’s disabled (or handicapped) theatre company,” however well-intentioned, he’d rather they say, “Phamaly is a professional theatre company that uses disability as a lens.” That would represent a subtle but really monumental shift in the way the company is perceived.
But that may come with unintended consequences, as Phamaly is simply unlike any other theatre company. “And disability is still absolutely central to what we do,” Alexander said.
First up in the new year, Phamaly will present Fuddy Meers, another challenging dark comedy that will be directed by DCPA Artistic Associate Emily Tarquin at the Aurora Fox (Feb. 4-21) and Arvada Center (Feb. 26-28).
Of special significance should be an April staging of Nagle Jackson’s Taking Leave, about a Shakespearean professor who, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, is “taking leave” of the real world and imagining a new one. It plays April 1-17 in the DCPA’s Jones Theatre.
The big Broadway musical next summer will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. That will take place July 14-Aug. 7 at the University of Denver’s Newman Center. That’s because the DCPA’s Stage Theatre will be undergoing a year-long remodel.
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. This year, DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from around the state over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore’s daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org
THE 2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS TO DATE
Day 1: Rachel D. Graham
Day 2: BALLS! A Holiday Spectacular
Day 3: Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season
Day 4: Laurence Curry
Day 5: Bernie Cardell
Day 6: Susan Lyles
Day 7: John Jurcheck
Day 8: Christopher L. Sheley
Day 9: DCPA Education’s ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot‘
Day 10: Man and Monster: Todd Debreceni and TJ Hogle
Day 11: Shauna Johnson
Day 12: Geoffrey Kent and Benjamin Bonenfant
Day 13: Sesugh Solomon Tor-Agbidye
Day 14: Keith Ewer
Day 15: Allison Watrous
Day 16: Jonathan Farwell
Day 17: Bob, Wendy and Missy Moore
Day 18: Emma Messenger
Day 19: Shannon McKinney
Day 20: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
Day 21: Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin
Day 22: Scott Beyette
Day 23: Augustus Truhn
Day 24: Jimmy Bruenger
Day 25: The Masters of Props: Rob Costigan, Peki Pineda and Becky Toma
Day 26: Jalyn Courtenay Webb
Day 27: Andre Rodriguez
Day 28: Rebecca Remaly
Day 29: Mark Collins
Day 30: Phamaly Theatre Company’s Cabaret
Bonus: Donald R. Seawell