Emily Tarquin: Disabilities aren't what make Phamaly actors unique

Emily Tarquin photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. Emily Tarquin photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

By Olivia Jansen
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Passion is certainly not lacking at the Phamaly Theatre Company. The acclaimed company, which makes professional performance opportunities available to actors with disabilities, is passionate about its work, its mission and its message.

And now Phamaly has a passionate new director – The Denver Center’s own Emily Tarquin. As Artistic Associate for the Theatre Company and Producing Curator for Off-Center, Tarquin has directed many shows, but never anything like Phamaly’s new production of Fuddy Meers, opening Saturday (Feb. 6) at the Aurora Fox.

For more than 25 years, Phamaly has presented plays and musicals featuring actors with disabilities that span the physical, cognitive and emotional span of the disability spectrum. Tarquin was first introduced to Phamaly shortly after she moved to Denver.

Trenton Schiondele Quote“I’ve seen a lot of their work over the past seven years, and it’s really awesome,” she said. “Many of their actors work solely with Phamaly, so getting the opportunity to work with them and direct them is cool because I may not have been able to otherwise.”

Fuddy Meers, a wild comedy written by David Lindsay-Abaire, follows Claire, an amnesiac who wakes up every day as a blank slate. Every morning her husband usually has to remind her who she is, but today is different. A limping, lisping man surprises Claire, claiming to be her brother. He takes her to meet her stroke-impaired mother and introduces her to a strange, secretive man with a puppet. Every twist and turn in Claire’s absurd journey brings her closer to discovering her past life and everything she thought she’d forgotten.

Tarquin said the humor of the play walks a fine line. At its roots, the play is about abuse and disability, so the more you look into the humor, the darker it seems. And that’s what makes it a perfect play for Phamaly to explore.

Most Phamaly productions shows are staged by a core group of directors, so Tarquin has been a breath of fresh air to cast members who say she has brought a balance of professionalism and love into the creative process.

“She reached out to us months in advance before rehearsals started,” said Daniel Traylor, who plays Millet. “She’s incredibly passionate about this theatre company and our mission.”

Read more: Emily Tarquin wins 2015 True West Award

Actress Jenna Bainbridge, who stars as Claire, was partially paralyzed from a fall at 18 months and walks with a gait. She said directors don’t typically contact actors until rehearsals begin. But Tarquin gathered the Fuddy Meers cast well in advance to start the conversation about mutual expectations and the direction of the play. Traylor, who has hip dysplasia and is hard of hearing, said demonstrating that kind of dedication so early  in the process set a high bar for the show. But Tarquin believes she had nothing to do with that bar.

“I haven’t worked with them before, but I knew I had a high level of talent to work with,” Tarquin said. “That makes it easy to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to achieve, because I know we can do it.’ They’re the ones who really set the bar.”

Based on her time with the actors so far, Tarquin hasn’t found anything different working at Phamaly than any other theatre company. Although the actors at Phamaly have different needs, she believes all actors have a range of needs. So she approached Fuddy Meers as she would any assignment, with her main goal to work with everyone as artists.

“It’s really not about their disabilities,” she said. “The disabilities are what make them part of Phamaly, and I think that community is really special and important. But in terms of the actual work, it’s about them as artists and the unique qualities they bring.”

Read more: Phamaly wins 2015 True West Award

Tarquin, who is very involved with casting DCPA Theatre Company shows, has found it important to encourage Phamaly company members to take their talents to other local theatres. She wants them all to feel comfortable and confident auditioning outside of Phamaly. Many of them have worked at other companies, including the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Miners Alley Playhouse and the DCPA.

Tarquin has attended many Phamaly shows and later emailed actors to congratulate them and inquire whether they had an interest in auditioning for the DCPA. Leonard Barrett was the Ghost of Christmas Present in the DCPA’s 2015 production of A Christmas Carol, and Traylor was a featured performer at last year’s Saturday Night Alive concert fundraiser for DCPA Education.

Bainbridge, who was nominated for a Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award for her performance as Hermia in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, credits Phamaly for giving her the skills to audition for entrance into the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. She also has performed as Cinderella for BDT Stage and recently played Jo in the Aurora Fox’s Little Women.

Bainbridge said many local companies have been more than accepting and willing to adapt to her physical needs, but that wasn’t always the case. In one show, she was made to spend her entire scene behind a desk so she didn’t have to walk. It seemed to be a game of “show the talent, but hide the disability,” she said. But in Phamaly shows, the actors’ disabilities are incorporated into the characters they play. So if the actor playing Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret has Parkinson’s disease, then so too does Fraulein Schneider – no explanations necessary. That allows the disabled actors to be themselves, while they are playing someone else.

“There’s definitely no hiding here,” Bainbridge said. “There is that physical freedom of not having to change the way I walk at all. And that’s nice.”

Cast of Phamaly Theatre Company's 'Fuddy Meers.' Photo by Michael Ensminger.
Cast of Phamaly Theatre Company’s ‘Fuddy Meers.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

The environment at Phamaly has allowed Trenton Schindele, who has cerebral palsy, to pour all of his energy into his performance as Richard in Fuddy Meers, knowing a wheelchair will be waiting for him when he comes off stage.

“You want your everything to go into the scene, your character and the story you’re telling,” he said. “There have been many times where I go through all that and my body is just tired, so they have a wheelchair ready for me. There’s just something about Phamaly that brings a kind of freedom and release of fear.”

Call it a cliché, but Phamaly really is a family. With caustic jokes and stories circulating backstage and in the rehearsal room, it is easy to see how this company has positively influenced so many lives and changed many people’s thinking. Traylor thinks one reason for the company’s longstanding success is that Phamaly actors bring something to the stage not all actors can.

“Being an actor is about looking at the human condition and understanding all the aspects of humanity,” he said. “I think at Phamaly, more than anywhere, there’s just a uniqueness we bring to the stage that you don’t always find in other companies.”

And that doesn’t necessarily mean disabilities, Schindele added. “It’s because of the things we’ve had to go through as people with disabilities. We go through a lot every single day, which really lets you to tap into different emotions more than other people can.”

Working with Phamaly has helped Tarquin learn more about herself as an artist. She has loved watching the actors grow into their roles from the beginning moments of getting the show up on its feet – or, in this case, up on its feet and wheels.

“I think any organization that takes a minority and makes it a majority is a worthy and important cause, especially in the arts,” she said.

DCPA NewsCenter intern Olivia Jansen is a junior at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where she is studying multimedia journalism. She is from Johnsburg, Ill. Read her previous profile on DCPA stage manager Rachel Ducat here.

​Fuddy Meers: Cast list
Claire: Jenna Bainbridge
Richard: Trenton Schindele
Kenny: Stewart Caswell
Limping Man: James Sherman
Gertie: Lucy Roucis
Millet: Daniel Traylor
Heidi: Harper Liles

Lucy Roucis, left, and Jenna Bainbridge in Phamaly Theatre Company's 'Fuddy Meers.' Photo by Michael Ensminger. Lucy Roucis, left, and Jenna Bainbridge in Phamaly Theatre Company’s ‘Fuddy Meers.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

Fuddy Meers: Ticket information
Presented by Phamaly Theatre Company
Feb. 6-21 at Aurora Fox Arts Center
9900 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora

​Feb. 26-28 at Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada
Online tickets: Click here

Note: Phamaly will next present ‘Taking Leave,’ by former DCPA New Play Director Nagle Jackson, from April 1-17 in the Jones Theatre. Click here for information.

Cult Following: Ticket information
Presented by Off-Center
Feb. 12-13 at the Jones Theatre
Denver Performing Arts Complex
303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org

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