Japantastick No. 7: Historic performance before Phamaly's largest audience

Note: This is Day 7 of our daily report from Japan, where members of Denver’s handicapped Phamaly Theatre Company are participating in a 10-day goodwill trip that culminated over the weekend with a performance of “The Fantasticks”:

Above: Our Phamaly photo gallery in Japan (to date)

Phamaly Theatre Company’s goodwill trip to Osaka, Japan, climaxed on Sunday with a performance of The Fantasticks before 1,300 – the largest audience in the company’s 26 years of presenting theatre by actors with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.

And it was performed to an international gathering of people whose mutual interest is in advancing the independence of people with disabilities.

Phamaly performs before 1,300 in Japan. “Having that many people watching was daunting, but once the show got started, the nerves all went away, and we focused,” said Jenna Bainbridge, who played Luisa.

Actor Robert Michael Sanders said that despite a few technical difficulties, it was one of the company’s best performances of The Fantasticks, which it had presented at the Aurora Fox and Arvada Center in the weeks leading up to Japan.

​Lyndsay Palmer, who played the Mute, said the curtain call at the end of the show was surreal. “To hear the audience clap while taking my bow was the most beautiful moment and the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. I truly felt like I was a famous actor performing on the Broadway stage.”

But the most unforgettable experiences happened in the lobby after the show.

Phamaly in Japan. Bainbridge was approached by a woman in a wheelchair, accompanied by her daughter.

“She spoke no English, but her message was loud and clear,” Bainbridge said. “She was crying and clutching her heart and kept repeating the word arigatou. She grasped my hand and hugged me and I could tell this performance had meant the world to her.”

The woman searched her bag and took out an old glass charm on a leather rope and placed it in Bainbridge’s hand. The woman and her daughter also gave the actors little handmade origami cranes and roses. “They were so touched, they created presents out of nothing for us,” Bainbridge said. 

​The actors were showered with candy, handmade thank-you cards, photographs and chopsticks. Sanders called it “an endless parade of gratitude.”

After a week of leading dozens of young Japanese, many of them with disabilities, in theatre workshops, actor Jeremy Palmer said performing The Fantasticks was an anti-climax of sorts. “It almost felt selfish to put the focus back on us after sharing it with the people of Osaka,” he said. 

During the performance, the American actors were shadowed by theatre students from a local Japanese college who “live dubbed” their words into Japanese so the audience could listen on earpieces while watching the American actors onstage. They were assigned this task by their professor, who provided them with a DVD of one of Phamaly’s earlier performances of The Fantasticks back in Colorado.

“They spent weeks watching our show to get the timing right,” Palmer said. “Their professor told us most of them had never worked in a real theatre before, and they were amazed and intimidated at the prospect – which is why they were working so hard. But they nailed it, and they became another memorable and important part of this trip.”

After the performance, they all had dinner together and exchanged gifts. “Three of the guys even staged a ninja-style re-creation of the sword fight in our show, complete with a re-enactment of El Gallo’s death scene,” Palmer said.

The night ended in a dorm-room style sake party with the full cast, musicians, staff interpreters and guests all crammed into a hotel room drinking sake, talking, laughing and taking photos late into the evening, Sanders said.


“There’s no question this event has made a difference for many people, disabled and able-bodied alike,” he said. 

Even though Phamaly’s time in Japan is growing short, “Our work in Japan has only just begun,” Bainbridge said. “Phamaly has sparked something that I hope will continue to grow. One of the young boys from our workshop told me that it is now his goal to create a theatre company like Phamaly here in Japan.”

As Daniel Traylor, who played Matt, looked out on the crowd of 1,300 at the end of the performance, he wondered how many people in the audience might be seeing a musical for the first time.

“And even the idea that an audience member with a disability might have had the realization that, ‘Hey, that could be me up there,’ sent chills up my spine,” Traylor said. “All the possibilities of how we might have just changed someone’s life are limitless.”

Phamaly in Japan

Here are more observations from the Phamaly team:

Phamaly in JapanRobert Michael Sanders (Bellomy): “At first, the Japanese audience did not know where to clap or where to laugh. The sound of that many people in silence was deafening. And then suddenly they learned it was OK to participate. But it is live theater, and that means things have to go wrong somewhere. Stewart Caswell’s scooter was having technical difficulties, and it would shut down every time he tried to go up the ramp, which was both terrifying and comical. He played it off like a pro, and everyone adjusted.” 

Lyndsay Palmer (The Mute): I wish I could stay here longer with my new friends and keep performing The Fantasticks. This country and its people are beautiful, charming and caring. I wish everyone could experience the warmth, the welcome and the care we did. I hope this won’t be the end.”

Barb Lepke Sims (Harpist): “A true cultural exchange program is successful if positive relationships are built among the participants. The Japanese students became buddies with the Phamaly actors. The translators became our friends. The workshop participants became friends with the actors. The two institutions developed mutual respect with each other. And as an outsider, I was welcomed into the Phamaly family with open arms.”

Mark Dissette (Hucklebee): “For 20 years, I have taken a rose petal to the center of each stage we have performed on said a silent prayer. I raise the petal to my lips, kiss it and then slip it into my pocket for the show. This tradition has been my personal acknowledgement of those in my ‘Phamaly’ who have died. I carry them with me to remember each one. The kiss is to remind me that there has been a heavy price paid in tears to get to this point. I did not feel overwhelming emotions at the close of our groundbreaking show. Just a feeling of calm and a sense of accomplishment. What started on Greg Vigil’s kitchen table has come literally thousands of miles. I believe all of my angels on my shoulders would be proud of everyone involved, I am.”


No. 1: Phamaly’s ‘massive moment’ in Osaka begins
No. 2: It’s raining yen​
No. 3: Boundaries created by war can be broken
No. 4: Overcoming barriers and finding commonality 
​No. 5: Making music with total strangers
No. 6:  Tears of joy as personal stories are turned into theatre


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