Steve Wilson addresses his cast just before the opening performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the DCPA’s Space Theatre in 2013. Photo by John Moore.
Steve Wilson, longtime Artistic Director of the internationally acclaimed Phamaly Theatre Company, announced his resignation today after 14 years as the creative leader of a troupe dedicated to creating professional performance opportunities for actors with disabilities.
While the decision was termed mutual, Phamaly Executive Director Christopher Silberman said it was spurred “by our collective desire to create a full-time Artistic Director position for the company.”
Wilson also serves as full-time Executive Artistic Director of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, a multidisciplinary arts center on the campus of the Jewish Community Center with an annual budget of $3 million.
The resignation is effective Dec. 31.
In a statement, Silberman said the announcement comes as the demands of both companies have exponentially increased in recent years. Until seven years ago, Phamaly performed just one show annually. The company now produces up to six shows each year, plus a regional touring show. In March 2015, Phamaly will bring its production of The Fantasticks to Osaka, Japan.
“It is difficult to express the colossal impact of Phamaly on my life,” Wilson said in a statement. “It has been a warm, nurturing, creative home for me. It has been my artistic identity and a place where I have always felt embraced as a leader and mentor.”
In Wilson’s time with Phamaly, he directed or co-directed 18 plays and musicals, most recently the company’s 25th anniversary reprisal of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Wilson won Denver Post Ovation Awards for directing Phamaly’s first Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2005 and Side Show in 2008. He also won Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Awards for Joseph, Urinetown, Man of La Mancha and Beauty and the Beast.
Wilson, a graduate of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ National Theatre Conservatory masters program, also picked up a 2003 Ovation Award for acting, in Theatre Group’s “Gross Indecency.”
“Phamaly would not be what it is today without Steve’s brilliant artistic mind, passion and direction,” said Silberman, who added he hopes Wilson will return at some time in the future as a guest director. But for now it is unknown who will helm Phamaly’s announced summer 2015 musical, Cabaret.
Wilson was known for putting his signature spins on Phamaly productions that helped create deeper layers of meaning in the stories on stage, while giving audiences a unique insight into the challenges of living with a disability.
Wilson set Joseph in a mental hospital, making the Biblical storytelling a temporary escape for a group of mentally and disabled outcasts. Side Show is a story that centers on conjoined twins presented as circus freaks, so there were inherently deeper levels of meaning when Wilson cast those parts with actors in wheelchairs. He was unafraid to make political commentaries as well, often for comic effect. He cast exclusively blind actors to play the greedy town leaders in Urinetown.
What might present itself as a challenge to other directors has been to Wilson an opportunity for groundbreaking staging innovations.
Wilson’s Man of La Mancha will be forever remembered for paralyzed actor Regan Linton, playing the whore Aldonza, crawling across the floor after having been attacked and thrown from her wheelchair. It was a moment no other La Mancha could possibly deliver.
“We always hoped we would be a place where the disabled could grow, both as actors and human beings,” Wilson told me in a 2010 interview.
Perhaps Wilson’s greatest legacy is growing his company from a group of actors who primarily performed only for Phamaly — because only Phamaly would have them — to one whose members are regularly cast by companies across the state and country. Two examples: Jenna Bainbridge has performed in leading roles the past two summers with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. Linton is now a company member with the Oregon Shakesepare Festival in Ashland.
“There are a lot of preconceptions in the theater when it comes to accepting and fully integrating disabled actors,” Wilson said.
A core tenet of Phamaly under Wilson’s tenure has been not to ignore his actors’ disabilities, but rather to incorporate them. “My job is to highlight the fact that the world we inhabit is a world full of disabilities,” Wilson said.
Beauty and the Beast is perhaps best known for a big, sweeping waltz between Belle and the Beast. Bainbridge, who played Belle, has neurological spine disorder. “That means she walks with a sizable gait — and I love it,” Wilson said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
The “tale as old as time” has always been about redefining our notions of beauty. And Wilson’s staging of Beauty and the Beast with disabled actors became about redefining beauty for his own audiences.
“I’m not going to cover up what they are,” Wilson said, “because I love who they are.”
Wilson said his sadness at leaving Phamaly now is “profound.”
“I gave everything possible in my time with the company and have received much more in return,” he said. “But I know my leaving will provide the company with an ability to excel in new ways with a refreshed artistic energy.”
Silberman will lead a national search process for Wilson’s successor, details of which will be announced later this month.
Steve Wilson with his parents, daughter and wife Leslie O’Carroll, a longtime actor with the DCPA Theatre Company. Photo by John Moore.
Next for Phamaly: Vox PHAMALIA: Pity Pity Bang Bang
(Phamaly Theatre Company’s ‘differently-abled sketch comedy’ show)
Performances Oct. 16-26
The Avenue Theatre, 417 E. 17th Ave.
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, plus Oct. 20 and 23; also 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $20 in advance or $24 at the door
Click here to go to the ticketing page
About the Phamaly Theatre Company
Phamaly Theatre Company (formerly known as the Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League) is celebrating its 25th anniversary season of professional-scale performances exclusively featuring actors with disabilities (physical, cognitive, and emotional). Their mission is to inspire people to re-envision disability through professional theatre. Phamaly produces plays and musicals throughout the Denver Metro region, in venues such as the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the Arvada Center, the Aurora Fox Arts Center, and the Lone Tree Arts Center. The organization additionally has a regional touring program. This year, Phamaly is serving over 200 performers with disabilities and nearly 20,000 audiences across the state. For more information on Phamaly, visit www.phamaly.org.