Japantastick No. 4: Overcoming barriers and finding commonality

Japan Workshop
The first day of workshops. Photo by Barb Lepke Sims. 

Note: This is Day 4 of our daily report from Japan, where members of Denver’s handicapped Phamaly Theatre Company are participating in a 10-day goodwill trip that will culminate with a performance of “The Fantasticks”:

Today the members of Phamaly Theatre Company went from tourists to cultural ambassadors. It was the first of four days of workshops led by cast and crew of The Fantasticks for nearly 100 Japanese children and young adults, most of them with disabilities. They have traveled to Osaka from a geographical region that spans 733 square miles.

“We were a little terrified that the language barriers would make it impossible,” said Jenna Bainbridge, who plays Luisa in The Fantasticks. “We had to interpret all speech through both Japanese-to-English interpreters and sign-language interpreters. Luckily for us, everyone was patient and helpful.”

Those barriers, said actor Lyndsay Palmer (The Mute in The Fantasticks) are real, and they are many. They include the language, the culture, and a Japanese resistance to opening up and expressing feelings. “These people are very reserved and communicate more as a community than as individuals,” said Palmer.

But the first day of work, Bainbridge said, was profound.

The participants were split into groups. Bainbridge and actor David Wright were assigned six Japanese. Two had learning disabilities, and all but one had varying degrees of hearing loss. “One had no disability,” Bainbridge said, “but she wanted to be an actress.”

These workshops are covering a wide variety of topics from mock auditions to acting workshops. At the end of the four days, the workshop participants will conduct their own original performance for Phamaly company members in which they will share their own personal stories.

One woman who is completely deaf told the group she was bullied in school for using sign language, and the only way she could deal with it was by escaping into dance. Two other women then said they, too, had the same experience in school. “And then they all took a moment to dance together,” Bainbridge said.

The bullied woman also said that she had never liked music as a child. “She couldn’t understand it because she couldn’t hear it, so she never understood how or why it moved people,” Bainbridge said. Then she saw the video for John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.”

“Suddenly she understood and appreciated music,” Bainbridge said. “Later in the day, she signed and danced the entire song for the group. I was moved to tears.”

JAPAN WORKSHOP 800 1Lyndsay Palmer and castmate Robert Michael Sanders (Bellomy) were assigned a group of seven spanning in age from 12 to 27. They have a range of performing experience from none to college. Some had mild autism; others extreme autism. Some had disabilities; others had none. “Now add in the language barrier, and we had our work cut out for us today,” Sanders said.

But Sanders and Palmer learned much, too. “We learned about ourselves and how we communicate,” he said. “As American actors, we relish having our own voice. The culture here tends toward one unified voice where no one tries to stand out, and there’s always a reserved group dynamic.” 

Palmer was sad to hear that many Japanese families don’t know what to do with their disabled members beyond simply taking care of them. Some, she said, simply shut them away from the world.

“There aren’t a lot of known facilities or access to help their disabled,” said Palmer, whose goal for the day was to help her students “understand and feel comfortable with themselves and to open up.” She hopes Phamaly’s example will give the Japanese students “a better perception of how disabled people can do anything and can achieve their dreams.”

Her husband, Jeremy Palmer (El Gallo), was paired with Daniel Traylor (Matt) to help draw six very different people out of their shells.

“It was an arduous task,” said Palmer, who credited the help of “a rock-star interpreter.” But seeing a pair of young strangers spontaneously break into a duet of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin – and then turn that into an improvised number complete with back-up dancers and a carpet/rolling table, he said, made it all worthwhile.

“Thanks, ’90s-era Disney movies!” he said.

Mark Dissette, who plays Hucklebee, found running his workshop to be tough, but not impossible.

“The wheels on every show come off at least once, and ours came off at the end of today,” he said. “The people in our workshop are insanely focused, which is grand, and they accomplished so much in a short amount of time. But we learned how tough communication can be today.”

Dissette took a moment to consider how far he and Phamaly have come since the theatre company’s humble beginnings in 1989 out of the controversial “Boettcher School for Crippled Children.” It was the first building in Colorado designed specifically for the education of the physically handicapped, and yes, they really called it that.

“From Boettcher to Osaka my mind reels thinking about the shows, the stories, the people who are now gone, but whom I carry with me the journey that delivered us here,” Dissette said.

Bainbridge was moved most by the story of a 9-year-old girl. “Her mother helped her explain that she had been diagnosed as autistic because she had trouble deciphering different sounds, and that her brain was ‘broken,’ ” Bainbridge said.

“The mother said the girl was ‘broken’ because she was actually a boy and only thought she was a girl. The girl then told us that she wanted to be a singer because she saw a show once and loved the music and decided that would be the way that she would learn to express herself, but has been unable to start singing because of fear.

By the time the day was over? “She volunteered to sing all by herself,” Bainbridge said.

Jeremy Palmer later commented: “If I had a bucket list, writing a monologue for a little transgendered Japanese girl with autism to explain about her condition just might’ve made the Top 5. Check.”

It was, in Bainbridge’s words, an incredible day. Sanders acknowledged there is  “much more work to do this week for the teams to come together and create a performance together.”  But …

“Challenge accepted.” 

Pictured above: Music Director Mary Dailey works with a Japanese student.



No. 1: Phamaly’s ‘massive moment’ in Osaka begins
No. 2: It’s raining yen​
No. 3: Boundaries created by war can be broken

Phamaly to take The Fantasticks to Japan
Phamaly picks Bryce Alexander as new artistic director
Video: Phamaly says thanks to artistic director Steve Wilson
DCPA Access-Ability Video featuring Phamaly actors

The 1,500-seat theatre in Osaka where Phamaly will perform 'The Fantasticks.' Photo by Barb Lepke Sims.