Phamaly's work is recognized with the Henry Award

Phamaly’s work is recognized with the Henry Award | Pro Club Bd

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Kathleen Traylor

Courtesy of Kathleen Traylor

Kathleen Traylor knew she wanted to act as a teenager, but her therapist told her that goal was unrealistic. Traylor was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which is caused by damage to the mother’s amniotic sac. Her left leg was amputated when she was nine months old, and many experimental surgeries followed on her right leg, which was finally amputated when she was sixteen. The therapist pointed out that theaters are not designed to be wheelchair accessible, directors would not envisage using actors in wheelchairs, and that Traylor’s participation could pose a hazard to other actors on stage. “She finally convinced me to give it up,” says Traylor.

But Traylor didn’t give up entirely. She performed in plays at Thomas Jefferson High School and recalls speaking to school friends about the experience. “Here was a place where we could safely discover hidden talents, break down barriers we set ourselves, and say to people, ‘Look at me!'” she recalls. “We could embrace a life with the characters we played that many of us never dreamed of. And it was all accessible at school. Could we develop such a theater for the community?”

In 1989, Traylor, Teri Westerman Wagner, Gregg Vigil, Kevin Ahl, and Rick Britton founded the Phamaly Theater Company, an organization run by artists with disabilities and supported by a $3,000 grant from the then Colorado Council on the Arts ( today Colorado Creative Industries) began). On July 25, all five Phamaly founders will be honored with a collective Lifetime Achievement Award at the Colorado Theater Guild’s annual Henry Awards. The group also honors Lucy M. Walker, who founded the EDEN Theatrical Workshop in 1963.

In the beginning only a handful of people were involved with Phamaly but they were busy running fundraisers and asking for volunteers and presented their first production – boys and dolls — 1990 in the auditorium of the cooper school. Skilled beauticians from Barbizon in Denver came in to do hair and makeup for the cast. And “Greg Moody did an article about us on the news,” says Traylor. “Our first review.”

After a performance by Oklahoma! At the Fox Theater, Phamaly received a call from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, inviting her to perform on the center’s Space Theater stage. In 1992 they rose Everything goes there. A creative, exciting partnership ensued until construction of the Space closed in 2017, with the DCPA providing not only an annual summer venue but also technical support: lighting, sets with the necessary ramps and costumes designed to twirling them around the edges of the wheelchairs while the occupants dance.

Over the years the troupe has put on lively full-size musicals as well as smaller productions, some funny, some extremely serious, in various venues. All have shown outstanding talent.

click to enlarge Phamaly's proud history recognized at this year's Henry Awards

The occupation Our city, top row from left: Mark Dissette, Leonard Barrett, Lucy Roucis. Bottom row: Kathleen Traylor, Daniel Traylor, Regan Linton and Jason Dorwart.

Courtesy of Phamaly

Regan Linton played several dazzling roles – from a powerful Dulcinea in Don Quixote to a crazy weird Lefou in Beauty and the Beast – before completing a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of California, San Diego. Six years ago she returned to lead the company as artistic director. Ben Raanan took over the reins last year after Linton moved to Chicago to pursue a theater career.

After starring in several Phamaly productions, the talented and powerfully voiced Jenna Bainbridge was cast as Hermia in Geoffrey Kent’s Brilliant A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Instead of downplaying her visible mobility issues, she and Kent used them to heartbreaking effect. Bainbridge now teaches and performs in New York.

Leonard Barrett first appeared with Phamaly as Sky Masterson in boys and dolls. A talented actor and a superb jazz singer, he had thought his multiple sclerosis would preclude any theatrical performance. After hearing him sing at a benefit, some Phamaly members asked if he had a disability, and upon learning he had a disability, urged him to audition for the company. Barrett had no intention of doing so, but “Kathleen Traylor curls up in her wheelchair and wraps her arms around my neck, pulling me down and whispering, ‘Please come,'” he said west word a few years ago. “And my heart melted.”

From that point on, he continued, “I accepted myself as a singer. I felt at home and I’ve never felt at home in the theater before. The Phamaly are beautiful. They have a clarity and an authenticity not found anywhere else.”

Lucy Roucis was finding success in Hollywood when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in her twenties. Returning to Denver, she found Phamaly and brought her brilliant acting skills to a range of memorable roles, from flirtatious Adelaide to boys and dolls to the wise and compassionate Mrs. Kendal in The elephant man. She also taught and mentored new actors. As her illness progressed, the group found ways to support Roucis’ work. She once said she never knew before a show whether she would be able to walk on her feet or not west wordso set and blocking were always arranged to suit both eventualities.

This collaborative ability is one of Phamaly’s greatest strengths. Some viewers may notice how actors encourage and help one another: a guiding hand, a whispered cue, the snaps of the fingers one actor uses to guide another with a visual impairment.

Traylor was able to fulfill her teenage ambitions and has played many roles over the years. Due to the ubiquitous wheelchair that restricted her vocal cords, her songs were skillfully rearranged specifically for her. The result was a deep, warm, unique and pleasing tone. Choreographers Debbie Stark and Cindy Bray created special dances for her and other cast members’ twirling wheelchairs.

click to enlarge Phamaly's proud history recognized at this year's Henry Awards

sideshow was particularly effective.

Courtesy of Phamaly

Traylor’s favorite performance was in sideshow, an offbeat, groundbreaking musical based on the lives of two conjoined twins. “I ordered the CD, listened to it and listened to ‘Come Look at the Freaks’ and ‘Who Will Love Me as I Am?’ I started crying,” she says.

Many cast members had flashbacks, “especially those of us who were born disabled. We had flashbacks of doctors treating us like circus shows, making us walk on the floor and giving us nasty examples of our disabilities,” she recalls.

“I mentioned it to Gregg, and he’s like, ‘I feel the same way.’ We had an arbitrator come in, allow able bodied people, and mess it all up. We talked about the history of sideshows as something to be proud of, with performers considered royalty. We spoke about our medical experiences and our feelings that no one is going to love us for who we are and how this show touches us on a deep emotional level. We walked out of this gathering very proud. When we performed Come Look at the Freaks, we stared at the audience and demanded that they see and appreciate who we are. Next to the birth of my son Daniel, that was my biggest success.”

Daniel Traylor has also directed and starred in several Phamaly productions, bringing his special passion and humor to them.

sideshow was reassembled in 2009, with Bainbridge and Linton at the helm. Both productions have received critical acclaim, and some of the many awards Phamaly has collected over the years: Henry’s, west word‘s Best of Denver, True West Awards and a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts.

But there is a lingering source of sadness. “All the people we lost,” says Traylor. “There were so many I grew fond of. You get very close. You don’t treat these people like china, but you know they are very, very valuable and you may not be with them tomorrow.”

Roucis’ death last year was particularly hard on Traylor; The two women were close friends. “I read her lyrics, drove her to the hairdresser’s, had lunch with her a lot, and drove her to all the rehearsals,” says Traylor.

“A month or two before she died, I dreamed of laying on the floor with her, holding her while she died, and telling her everything was going to be okay. Everything would be fine,” she recalls. “I miss her so terribly. She was my girl.”

But there was laughter and joy as well as sadness. Traylor recalls a time when a lyrical dance, for which she was wrapped in a long shawl and twirled across the stage, failed: she was spun around with such intensity that her wheelchair went flying across the stage and she flew away. Since she wasn’t hurt, she just sat up and continued singing. “The audience loved it,” she comments. “We caught it on video and it was all over YouTube.”

There was also a memorable pre-Phamaly meeting with David Bowie in 1980 in Denver for a production of The elephant man, who wanted Traylor’s criticism of his portrayal of a disabled person. “We talked for about an hour and shared a bottle of champagne,” says Traylor. “He told me to keep trying.”

She did, and the results will be celebrated at this year’s Henry Awards.

The Henry Awards, named after Henry Lowenstein, one of Denver’s earliest and most respected theater producers, and established to recognize outstanding theatrical achievement, will be held Monday, July 25 at 7 p.m. at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities , 6901, instead of Wadsworth Boulevard. Tickets are $20 to $60; Buy them and see a full list of this year’s nominees at coloradotheatreguild.org.

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