One of the Phamaly

Every year, I wait impatiently for a certain musical production done by an incredible group of people here in Denver. I buy my tickets months in advance, I plan other events around it, and then finally, I drive downtown and sit in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise. Maybe that paints a melodramatic picture of a sad, obsessed woman who really should take up knitting or something, but that’s how much I look forward to seeing PHAMALY. The Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League has been amazingly inspirational to me.

PHAMALY was formed in 1989 in response to a distressing lack of theatrical opportunities for physically disabled actors. Every actor in the company has a disability, whether it’s physical, emotional, or cognitive. Some are blind, some are hearing-impaired, some have anxiety or personality disorders. Some are even in wheelchairs. Let me tell you, you haven’t seen a sword fight until you’ve seen someone wield a blade from a wheelchair. PHAMALY provides a place for disabled actors to hone and spotlight their skills. And these people are good. The shows are produced professionally and the actors really know what they’re doing.

The first show I saw was “Man of La Mancha”. I still have the program gathering dust down in my sewing room (see, I sew, I don’t need to take up knitting) because I can’t bear to throw it away. Watching these actors – some with disabilities much more severe than mine – sing “The Impossible Dream” filled me with a sense of awe and pride in myself. I left the theater that night feeling more empowered than I’ve felt in the six years since my injury.

Something about that show struck a deep and resonant cord in me. I once was a little girl who dreamed of being a Broadway star along with being a Disney princess. Alas, that dream will never be realized since I have a voice like a hyena and the sense of pitch of a house with old plumbing (that might be an exaggeration, but it sounded so good, didn’t it?). But seeing a girl with paraplegia drag herself across the floor, singing “Aldonza”, in a scene rife with anguish and regret made me look at myself in a new light. I, crippled little Kendra, can do anything. I can be anything. If you’ve seen “Man of La Mancha”, you know this is the theme of the whole show, but PHAMALY’s performance lent it something more, something amazing and all-encompassing. I thought to myself, if she could do that, what could I do? And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience that felt that sense of community and competence.

PHAMALY puts on one musical and one stage play per year. Also they put on original sketch comedy shows periodically. Arielle, Josh, and I went to one of these last week. “DisLabeled” is the new series they are doing out of Boulder, written by the handi-capable actors who perform in it. It was, in a word, hysterical, featuring sketches like “You might be disabled,” (in the style of Jeff Foxworthy) and a sing-along of “Your, your, your row boat. Dyslexia have we”. I particularly liked the blind date between two people with TBI’s (traumatic brain injury), neither of which could remember why they were there.

Their purpose is not just to give theatrical opportunities to people with disabilities. They also strive to promote understanding, showing that we aren’t unapproachable, we just do things a little differently. At the end of the show, the actors all sat down and answered questions about how they came up with their material and their lives in general. You’d be amazed how easy it can be to find the ridiculous in the mundane.

PHAMALY has come up with what they call Phampathy Cards with sentiments like “I’d have gotten you a prettier card but you’re blind so…” and “Have you ever thought of yourself as half NOT deaf?” and, my favorite, “Thinking of you and all that awesome free parking.” PHAMALY treats living with a disability with irreverent laughter that shows it’s okay to have a sense of humor, it’s okay to look past the big crappy things and find joy in the little quirks of life. This is something I believe is so important to maintain mental health in everyone, not just those of us with more problems than most. We can’t pretend we’re not different, we can’t pretend we don’t have a hard time occasionally, but we can reach out to find our similarities and we can smile when something’s funny.

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