A woman smiles wrapped in a sunflower printed blanket

Embracing Second Chances: A disabled artist’s journey

A young woman with blonde hair smiles for a photo

Madison Stout

It feels weird to call myself a professional actor because the title isn’t one I would claim.

I grew up doing children’s theater with a troupe called Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT). MCT is the nation’s largest touring children’s theatre and has been touring extensively for nearly 50 years. Each week, a team arrives in a new town with a set, lights, costumes, props, and make-up. They hold open auditions and cast 50-60 local students to perform in the production. Throughout the week, the cast rehearses the show and performs two public performances at the end of the week.

A young girl wearing a costume poses onstage

My first performance was as a miner in Rumpelstiltskin, and throughout my adolescence I continued to appear in shows across the Denver metro area in community theatre productions. Theatre was always a safe space for me. I live with a prosthetic leg due to VACTRL Syndrome, and while that’s not my only disability, it is the most obvious, along with my underdeveloped right arm. Like most students, I struggled to find where I belonged in middle school. Theatre provided an outlet for me to cope with my anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia. Because when I was on stage, I wasn’t myself; I had a new story to tell and someone else’s struggles to embody.

I took acting classes throughout middle and high school and participated in school productions, including Into the Woods and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I went to college hoping to pursue a dual degree in English and Theater to introduce my safe space to other students trying to find themselves.

A woman smiles wrapped in a sunflower printed blanket

Unfortunately, in college, I realized how small-minded some theater bubbles are – there was an unspoken concept that you had to look a certain way to get a part. For example, you could have two equally talented actors auditioning for the same role, but if one had a prosthetic leg like me, they wouldn’t get the part because it “didn’t fit with the story.” Mine was one of several experiences both minorities and students with disabilities experienced at my alma mater. I felt deflated and ultimately gave up my theater dreams to pursue journalism instead.

Following graduation, I moved back to Colorado and took a receptionist role at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA). In the evenings, the Education and Community Engagement department let other local groups rehearse in their spaces, and I welcomed them in and provided directions as needed.

During the summer of 2019, Phamaly Theatre Company was rehearsing its production of Chicago in the DCPA classrooms. Phamaly is anything but your traditional theatre company. On the first day, actors with different disabilities came in – wheelchairs, walkers, blind people with canes, and even service dogs. I’d heard of Phamaly before and auditioned for them when I was younger, but those days were beyond me, or so I thought.

An actress in colorful costume poses in front of a banner

One evening before rehearsal, regular Phamaly actor Leonard Barrett Jr. was chatting with me as he checked in.

“Aren’t you an actress?” he asked.

I jokingly responded, “I’m retired.”

But he wouldn’t take that for an answer. “Listen, next time auditions come up for Phamaly, I want you to try out.”

So, that fall, I auditioned for their one-act play festival, Come to Your Senses. It was a smaller production and the perfect way to jump back in. Through that process, I began developing friendships with people who lived in the area, were passionate about the arts, and were also disabled.

For the first time, I wasn’t self-conscious of my disability. So, I continued to stay involved with the company. While getting back into the theater I’ve loved for so long, I began accepting my identity as a person with disabilities. What does that mean? How can I move through the world differently with this outlook?

I’ve been a part of a few Phamaly productions since then, and this summer will be playing Columbia in the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Show. If someone told me in college that in a few years, I’d be on stage in a pink corset and fishnets doing “The Time Warp,” I wouldn’t have believed them. But that’s the beauty of theatre. It can be a safe space for a 12-year-old girl trying to accept herself in one moment and a catalyst for healing the next.

Join Phamaly this summer to celebrate, liberate and appreciate what makes us truly “us.” Interactive and non-interactive performances are available. For more information, visit phamaly.org.

The Rocky Horror Show
Aug 12 -Sept 4 · Su Teatro
721 Santa Fe Dr. Denver, CO 80204