‘Disabled joy, front and center’

With its first fully produced Shakespearean play, Phamaly Theatre Company makes an inclusive return to the DCPA

Director Shelly Gaza with B. Ryan Glick (left) and Maggie Whittum (right). Photo by Toni Tresca.

Maggie Whittum thought she would never act again after a severe brain stem stroke at age 33. The life-changing medical event was brought on by a cavernous angioma, also known as an arteriovenous malformation, while pursuing her MFA in acting at the Shakespeare Theater Company and working as a freelance performer, director and producer.

“I dropped out of school. My whole life fell apart,” Whittum says. “I moved back to Colorado and really didn’t think I’d ever be on stage again. Honestly, I was quite afraid of [the idea] because of all the changes that had happened to me physically and psychologically.” 

Her life was forever changed again when she met Regan Linton, the former artistic director of Phamaly Theatre Company, who extended an invitation for Whittum to join Denver’s disability-affirming troupe, which exclusively casts disabled actors. 

“The thing that sets Phamaly apart from other companies is that there’s always a check-in at the beginning of the day, where people can be open about what they’re facing physically and mentally,” Whittum says. “We are all disabled people, so we can’t just show up to rehearsal and be on point 100% of the time and never have any problems.”

Five disabled students from the Boettcher School in Denver who were dissatisfied with the dearth of theatrical opportunities for people with disabilities founded the group originally styled as PHAMALy (Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League) in 1989. Mark Dissette, who has been with the group for 34 years since its first show, 1990’s Guy and Dolls, says the company has come a long way since. 

“We’ve got a lot of new people coming in, and that’s exciting to me because a lot of us are aging out of the whole thing. And we need that to happen because Phamaly wasn’t here when we created it, and it needs to stay here,” Dissette says. “People with disabilities still do not get anywhere near the equal opportunity that an abled body performer gets, and this gives them a chance to perform on a professional stage … we create serious, thoughtful work that allows disabled people to work in a professional environment, and be seen as professionals.”

Shaking up Shakespeare

Although the organization’s name has been changed to Phamaly Theatre Company (PTC), its commitment to exclusively featuring actors with disabilities, including physical, cognitive, intellectual, and emotional, remains. Ben Raanan, the company’s current artistic director, has focused on producing projects — particularly those that historically have prevented actors with disabilities from performing them, like its upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — in a way that highlights the individuality of each actor.

“Because Shakespeare is considered the crème de la crème, it has been off-limits to the disabled community,” Raanan says. “Even though there were four productions of this play last year, I was comfortable doing this adaptation because ours will be nothing like theirs. Midsummer has always been Shakespeare’s most accessible work; it’s the play with no rules. It begins as a straightforward romance, but then Shakespeare adds magic. While staying true to the text, we are excited to put disabled joy front and center in this adaptation.” 

As part of its 34th season and return to Denver Center, Phamaly’s  first Shakespearean play, directed by University of Northern Colorado professor Shelly Gaza, stars a 17-person cast and tells the story of four young lovers who flee their controlling parents and seek refuge in a magical forest full of quarreling fairies.

“One of the most fun things about Shakespeare is that you can set it wherever you want, but I wanted to make sure we chose a setting that would further the company’s mission,” Gaza says. “We landed on this idea of the 1920s. Midsummer needs to be able to go from indoors to outdoors and have the formality of the court and then the magic of the woods. I had this image of these art deco and art nouveau period greenhouses, which are these beautiful, stately buildings that have wilderness just outside their windows.” 

Additionally, the Flapper-era costume silhouette allowed for more flexibility than the typical Elizabethan era, which was essential because Gaza wanted the actors to be able to move around the stage without restriction. Phamaly encourages viewers to join the fun by donning their best 1920s attire.

“Prior to this, we had been rehearsing in a very large conference room, so stepping into the Kilstrom Theatre and seeing the lights, set and other technical elements is just extraordinary,” says Whittum, who plays both Titania, the fairy queen, and Hippolyta, the Amazon queen. “I know Shakespeare’s not everyone’s thing, but I love it and was studying his work in my graduate program. Having to drop out because of this illness was devastating for me, so to be in this big old Shakespeare production that’s a full-on thing at the Denver Center is just very meaningful to me and not something I thought I’d ever get to experience.” 

ON STAGE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Phamaly Theatre Company. Various times, Aug. 17-Sept. 2, Kilstrom Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. Tickets here.


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