Phamaly sets a new standard for theater

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The cast of Denver based Phamaly Theater Company’s current production of 'Fuddy Meers.'
Phamaly Theater Company

Live theater requires a suspension of belief. The audience must take the real actor they see, and believe that he or she is the actual character on stage. For Phamaly Theater Company, there is an extra element for the audience to consider: the actors all have disabilities. Phamaly productions, then, are shaped through the unique lens of disability, seen in both the characters on stage and in the actors themselves.

Phamaly’s current production of Fuddy Meers, now playing at the Aurora Fox Arts Center through Feb. 21 and showing later this month at the Arvada Center for the Arts, gives the audience a chance to see what it is like from the actor’s perspective, to be seen by people for their disability first and not for who they truly are.

“The play asks us to wonder how it is that people are seeing us through funny mirrors [‘fuddy meers’],” says Bryce Alexander, artistic director of Phamaly. “Perhaps it is the mirror that really makes us look funny and not our true reflection. Maybe the stories we tell ourselves are just reflections, whether we are looking at ourselves through the funny mirror or looking at the world through one. Maybe it is all a matter of perspective. Maybe we can demonstrate to the audience that they are looking through a funny mirror at the actors, through the lens of disability.”

The mission of Denver-based Phamaly Theater Company is to make the stage more accessible to performers with disabilities. It aims to inspire people to re-envision disability through professional theater. By challenging their own ideas of what is possible, they hope to affect the limits society sets for them and show just how arbitrary those boundaries really are.

Fuddy Meers tells the story of an amnesiac who wakes up each morning with a blank slate on which her family must imprint a semblance of her context. One morning she is abducted by a limping, lisping man who claims that her family wants to kill her and then mayhem begins. Ultimately, the story proves that everything is not what it appears to be and warns that you should be careful what you wish for.

The blank slate offered by the main character’s amnesia carries a sense of unlimited possibility, but it also comes with a cost — the cost of her identity. In losing her memory of the people, experiences and ideas that compose her, she also loses what makes her unique. It is common to talk about disability as something lost — the annotation of the word is “not capable,” as if people with disabilities are somehow less than those who can. While most of the actors would never discount their own experience by hoping for a fresh start, the temptation to wish that for them lingers, especially when witnessing their experience of pain or exclusion.

“You would be amazed how many of our actors have been stopped on the street for someone to pray for them to get better,” Alexander says. “But not one time, as a part of a script or as what an actor is thinking, does an actor wish that he could wake up tomorrow and not have to deal with this [disability].”

Lucy Roucis and Jenna Bainbridge exploring reality as we know it on stage.
Lucy Roucis and Jenna Bainbridge exploring reality as we know it on stage. Phamaly Theater Company

And then there is the role of Gerdie, played by Lucy Roucis, who speaks a language all her own. Roucis is an established actor with a degree, an impressive resume and more than 22 years with the company. She has had Parkinson’s disease for 29 years and as the years go on, her tremors increase and it becomes more difficult for her to speak.

“Gerdie has a problem communicating because she had a stroke,” Roucis says. “And just about any array of problems can happen with a stroke, so the fact that my movement is jerky and Parkinson’s-like doesn’t matter because it could have been the stroke, so I go ahead and let my Parkinson’s hang out.”

With or without a disability, one of the greatest things that an artist could hope for is to be able to shed light on the human experience, its joys and its suffering. Roucis says that, because of her Parkinson’s, she has been able to do that in a profound way, working with the disease to find an artistic satisfaction that she never thought possible. She hopes that the next generation of Phamaly actors are confronting a whole new set of prejudices than the ones she helped to change in her career.

“Our mission is to affect those people in our audiences, but it starts with our actors viewing their own disabilities and potentials differently,” Alexander says. “It means our volunteers, it means our staff, it means our designers, it means the professional theater community, who before Phamaly didn’t have a lot of experience with disability. By asking them to re-envision their own understanding of disability and theater the mission becomes all-encompassing, which is what makes Phamaly so powerful.”

Founded in the late ’80s when few people in the theater world were willing to entertain the idea that theater and disability could co-exist, Phamaly once dreamed of a world in which their company could be evaluated just like any other, to celebrate when they earned it and get slammed when they didn’t.

Crucial to getting there was the willingness of critics to hold Phamaly productions accountable to the established standards that they held for other companies. Alexander says the company’s current success wouldn’t have been possible without local critics who judged them without the bias of disability.

In many ways, Phamaly achieved the goal they set out to pursue as they tour around the state, nation and world, accumulate awards and win lucrative grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. But just as the company reached its goals, the members realized that the very same goals were evasive and success is not as simple as once imagined. As it turns out, it isn’t about meeting the standard — it’s about changing it.

No longer interested in being measured by the standard it once pursued, Phamaly set its sights on the audience’s experience of their productions and how their biases are evolving.

It is difficult to measure that kind of progress, but the metrics that are available are encouraging. Patrons are coming back and bringing their friends. Donations to the nonprofit are up. Perhaps more important than the data is the sentiment behind it — the notes that people write, the feedback they give and the anecdotal stories the company hears about how the performances affect theatergoers’ lives.

After a recent tour through local schools, Alexander recounts a teary phone call from a grateful mother. Her child, who is blind, typically has a hard time connecting with her peers. But after attending the Phamaly production, she wanted to go talk to her friends about herself and her disability for the first time in her life.

Phamaly Theater Company’s re-envisions disability through live theater.
Phamaly Theater Company’s re-envisions disability through live theater. Phamaly Theater Company

“We are doing something that is not only relevant to the community but is having an impact,” Alexander says. “That is hard to measure, but our mission isn’t just about numbers. We are trying to produce something that evokes a different kind of response.”
To do that, the company is sticking firm to its artistry, producing plays that offer satisfying artistic opportunity for its actors, directors and designers. This strategy has led the company in a new direction toward shows that are personally meaningful, like last fall’s production of Cabaret, which the actors loved for its ability to shed light on the experience of those with disabilities in Weimar, Germany.

Cabaret is a musical about 1931 Germany as the Nazis were rising to power. Amid the swirling political revolutions is Fräulein Schneider, a business woman falling in love with an older Jewish man, who finds herself in circumstances out of her control, but is adamant in holding her own moral and physical ground. Roucis was cast in this role, but there were a lot of people who didn’t think she could do it, at least not anymore.

Twenty-eight years into her diagnosis, her Parkinson’s disease was just too advanced, and it was only getting worse. She was told that her days of having speaking roles were over, and a critic even went so far as to say that Roucis’ shaking was a distraction. But after being shaky for most of her adult life, Roucis knew that she still had what it takes to be on stage.

Being told that she couldn’t do it sparked a fire in Roucis. For Alexander, she offered an inspired and heartfelt performance that shed new light on Schneider’s character. Roucis thought she did pretty good herself: “I kicked butt. I did. I worked so hard.”
In her last line in the play, Schneider famously vows to stick her ground and Roucis’ performance added new meaning to the resolve such determination requires:

“All my life I have managed for myself, and it is too old a habit to change. I have battled alone, and I have survived. There was a war, and I survived. … There was an inflation, billions of marks for one loaf of bread, but I survived! And if the Nazis come, I will survive. … For, in the end, what other choice have I? This is my world!”
Living with Parkinson’s disease has its challenges, but so does living itself.

“It’s just a different way to live,” Roucis says. “I didn’t want anybody to comment on my degeneration with Parkinson’s. I wished they would see how I am working with it. Every year my Parkinson’s changes and gets worse. I’d like to see people with disabilities cast in roles all over the medium, whether it’s for a role of a person with a disability or if they can open their minds to cast people with disabilities in roles that don’t necessarily call for someone with a disability. May the best actor win.”

On the Bill: Fuddy Meers, Aurora Fox Arts Center, Through Feb. 21, Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities, Feb. 26-28.