Phamaly Theatre Company faces immediate $100,000 shortfall

Phamaly. Regan Linton

UPDATE June 2: Update: Phamaly Theatre Company reports that it has reached its $100,000 goal to off-set its immediate budget shortfall thanks to 325 donors. Artistic Director Regan Linton: “Challenge is no stranger to the company members of Phamaly. For 28 years, Phamaly has persevered and triumphed in its mission to produce extraordinary theatre and transform the lives of people with and without disabilities. We are able to continue doing this because of the amazing humans who are part of our Phamaly family. We hope you will join us for Annie this summer and share in the joy, camaraderie and artistry that Phamaly continues to foster.”

Rapid expansion has put the acclaimed company that creates opportunities for actors with disabilities in danger.

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The posters for Phamaly Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Annie don’t say “The sun will come out tomorrow,” as you might expect. Instead, they ask a far more ominous question: “Will tomorrow ever come?” It’s a reference to the original comic-book source. And that’s the very question hanging over the internationally acclaimed Denver theatre company that has been providing performance opportunities for actors with disabilities for 27 years.

Phamaly has launched an emergency $100,000 fundraising campaign to stay in operation past the summer. The deadline is July 1.  

Phamaly quote“Phamaly is in a rough spot right now – maybe rougher than it has ever been in before,” said Artistic Director and actor Regan Linton, who rejoined Phamaly last August only to discover that the company was facing a potentially catastrophic revenue shortfall. The culprit: Too much expansion, much too fast.

Phamaly now performs a full year-round season, offers a statewide children’s tour and stages a big Broadway musical each summer at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The first public sign of possible trouble at Phamaly was the successive departures of both new Artistic Director Bryce Alexander and new Executive Director Maureen Ediger within four months last year. In January, the previously announced upcoming staging of Peter Pan was scratched because of rising costs associated with flying special-needs actors. Annie took its place. But the full extent of the problem only became known when the company released an uncommonly transparent public statement on March 28.

“We need your support like we never have before,” it reads.

Phamaly’s annual operating budget has more than doubled in seven years, from $350,000 in 2008-09 to $850,000 last year. This year’s budget was cut to $750,000, but still – without an immediate cash infusion, “bankruptcy is a scary possibility,” Linton told the DCPA NewsCenter.

Read the full Phamaly letter to its supporters

“I’m an optimist, but Phamaly is facing that possibility more realistically right now than it ever has before,” said Linton. “I’m hesitant to use that word, bankruptcy, but yeah, it is important to give people a sense of the stakes.”

The Phamaly statement that also announced the launch of “The Campaign for a Sunny Tomorrow” was posted both to its website and sent out to the company’s full email list.

Phamaly-Pygmalion“Phamaly significantly expanded programming a couple of years ago with the best intentions of serving more members of our community and making a greater impact,” it read. “This expansion included increasing the number of mainstage shows, offering educational classes, increasing outreach, moving into a new office with rehearsal space, and growing our staff. We expanded too much, too quickly.” Added Linton: “I think at some point you have to be able to say, ‘No. There are certain things we can’t do,’ and be OK with that.”

(Pictured right: Phamaly’s recent production of ‘Pygmalion.’) 

Expansion also brought unexpected expenses, missed projections an overextended staff. And, Linton bluntly admits, that has had an inevitable impact on the quality of the company’s productions over the past year.

“Phamaly has not necessarily been producing the kind of theatre that I think we are capable of,” Linton said. “Our productions have not been optimally supported, and our ability to keep patrons fully engaged has been affected.”

Phamaly’s closest supporters immediately responded to the company’s distress signal with $30,000 in pledges in the first 17 days of the drive.  The Harvey Family Foundation has agreed to match up to $35,000 of new donations for this campaign, although Linton said that money will not count against the overall goal “to raise $100,000 in new and different money from other fundraising activities,” Linton said, including the annual Phamaly gala, which is expected to raise a separate $35,000 on June 3.

Click here to support the Phamaly fundraising campaign

Hundreds of local theatre companies have come and gone since a group of disabled student actors, frustrated by the lack of opportunity to perform, began staging shows in 1989 in the basement of the Boettcher School. But there is much more at stake when the endangered company is the one and only company that presents professional plays and musicals cast entirely with performers who have physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.

 “Phamaly is a unique company. There’s no other like it in Colorado, and really no other company exactly like it in the entire United States,” Linton said.

Phamaly Gala 2016 Phamaly has built its reputation for creating performances that transform the lives of both the actors onstage and the audiences watching. The company has produced a treasure trove of indelible stage memories, including a production about circus freaks called Side Show, and a Man of La Mancha starring Linton as an Aldonza who is beaten and tossed from her wheelchair, forcing Linton to sing her guttural battle song while crawling across the stage by her elbows. These and dozens of other moments sear themselves into the consciousness of anyone watching.

“I think a good theatrical experience is about so much more than how high your chorus kicks. It’s about: Are you moved by what you see? Does it transform your way of seeing the world?” said Linton, the only Artistic Director leading a major U.S. theatre company from a wheelchair, according to the Theatre Communications Group.

“I think that is something Phamaly does unlike any theatre company, and it’s because you have these extraordinary human beings doing these shows that make you think about the human condition and the human experience in a completely different way.”

(Pictured above and right: Rob Costigan and Hannah Balmer dance at the 2016 Phamaly gala, which is coming up again on June 3.)

But in recent years, Linton said, “I feel like some of our productions have been trying to fit into a mold that other theatre companies already fit. I don’t think that’s what we should be doing. I think we should be creating our own mold.”

That starts with Annie, which Linton is co-directing with Steve Wilson, the longtime Phamaly Artistic Director who resigned in 2014 to focus on his full-time job as Executive Director of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. Because the Space Theatre is undergoing a year-long renovation, Annie, opening July 13, will be Phamaly’s first-ever production in the Stage Theatre, which is nearly twice as big as The Space Theatre. That creates both  artistic opportunities and the chance to introduce Phamaly to new audiences, and Linton plans to take full advantage of both. “This will be unlike any production of Annie you’ve ever seen,” she promises.

“I don’t want to do the same old Annie,” she said. “I don’t even want the red wig. I don’t want any of the little girls in dresses. These are hardened orphans who have faced a lot of adversity in their lives, just like the actual young actors in our cast who are going to be playing these roles. We want to give the audience characters who are grounded in something real. And one thing our actors do better than anybody is present something authentic and real onstage.”

So what happens if Phamaly does not raise $100,000 in new money by July 1?

“Phamaly is definitely in danger of not being able to do our programming, at least for the near future,” Linton said. “But I’m an optimist, so I feel like even if Phamaly gets to the worst possible state where we would have to close our doors, Phamaly will continue to exist in some form because it is such an important part of the community.

“My hope is that we would always find a way to make it work, especially in keeping with the Phamaly spirit. We find ways to make things work. That’s what we do.”

A note on Phamaly Theatre Company funding

Ticket sales account for only about 20 percent of Phamaly’s funding. About 60 percent comes from a combination of foundations, government support and individual contributions. The company received $150,00 this year from the metro-Denver taxing district known as the SCFD, and it has applied for $70,000 in the coming year from the National Endowment for the Arts. That the agency is imperiled by President Trump’s announced intention to de-fund the NEA only creates further financial uncertainty for Phamaly.

“When you cut back government funding, then you are putting more pressure on communities and individual donors to support the organizations they care about,” Linton said. “If the NEA is eliminated, that would put more strain on individual contributors to support Phamaly.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

annie phamaly

Phamaly Theatre Company’s upcoming offerings

Staged reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
May 6-7
At the Lone Tree Arts Center TICKETS

July 14-Aug. 6, 2017
Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex TICKETS

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of Regan Linton and Phamaly:

Regan Linton returns to lead Phamaly in landmark appointment
NEA Chair champions Colorado, and arts therapies for veterans
Phamaly will send wheelchairs flying in Peter Pan
February 2015: Phamaly names Bryce Alexander to replace Steve Wilson
Wilson resigns from Phamaly after 14 years
Regan Linton works her magic in San Diego
PBS podcast: Denver theater featuring disabled cast gains popularity
Phamaly’s historic goodwill tour to Japan
Regan Linton: Performing for those who cannot

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