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Kennedy Isaac, as Hermia, and Keenan Gluck, as Lysander, rehearse “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Aug. 15, 2023, at Kilstrom Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The play, featuring 17 actors, is produced by Phamaly Theatre Company, formed entirely of artists with disabilities. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Two young lovers flee into a fairy-filled forest, so begins the tale of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Except in this production, young Lysander rolls into the woods in a motorized wheelchair and comely Hermia follows with a limp caused by the muscle disorder dystonia.

Soon the stage will be inhabited by sprites, kings and queens, a mischievous pixie named Puck, with a prosthetic leg here and a cane wrapped in ivy there.

Curtain up on the Phamaly Theatre Company’s production of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Phamaly’s mission is to give talented, disabled performers a chance to trod the boards and play the roles all actors covet.

But to be clear this is theater not therapy, said Ben Raanan, 34, the company’s artistic director. “This isn’t a sweet little thing where the audience goes and claps for the nice disabled people,” he said. “We are trying to create rigorously artistic productions.”

To that end, while Alanis Morisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” is playing at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Buell Theatre, Phamaly’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be staged not far away in the DCPA’s Kilstrom Theatre from Aug. 17 to Sept. 2.

Professional and financial consideration for all

The Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League was founded in 1989 by five students at the Boettcher School, built in 1937 to serve “crippled children.” Today the company, simply Phamaly, is the longest running professional theater company focused on those with disabilities.

In 2020 it had total revenues of $690,000, according to federal tax filings. It pays its actors, though it declined to provide its rates.

While an important sign of the company’s professionalism, the money is incidental for actors such as 20-year-old Kennedy Isaac, who plays Hermenia.

Isaac’s first encounter with Phamaly was in 2021 when she auditioned for “Alice in Wonderland” and won the lead role. “I was super excited and I was talking to my mom and she said ‘This is how much you get paid,’ and I said ‘I get paid!’ I was so ready to do it for free.”

Growing up in a small town in Georgia, Isaac was the only child in her grade with a disability. Dystonia is a “state of abnormal muscle tone” leading to spasms and abnormal posture. “My muscles are really, really tight,” she explained. It leaves one side of the body locked up.

Isaac began acting in middle school as a way of breaking down some of the barriers she felt as a child. “I tested it out to see how far my confidence would take me and it took me all the way here,” she said.

And what of her role in “Midsummer?” “It was equally as tricky as it was easy,” said Isaac, who is a criminology major at Metropolitan State University. “Hermia is a romantic, lovesick teenager and I felt Hermia was inside me and the key was bringing her out.”

It was also easy with Keenan Gluck playing her lover, Lysander. The two had been in “Alice,” where Gluck played the caterpillar. “The connection was already there and we are super good friends,” Isaac said. “It has been fun to play around with him seeing what flirty bits we could add.”

Keenan Gluck as Lysander, left, and Madison Stout as Helena, middle, rehearse “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Graham Bryant, as Demetrius. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Gluck, 24, is an old hand, having appeared in seven Phamaly productions. He was 7 when he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

He caught the acting bug at Colorado Academy, a private school in Lakewood, with a supportive theater department. “It is a small school and I was fortunate to have a great experience,” Gluck said.

“A couple of shows I auditioned for post-high school I didn’t feel I was being fully considered for a certain role, but that led me to Phamaly, for which I am very grateful,” he said.

“What is really impressive to me is how professional everything is from direction, to costumes, to the sets,” Gluck said, “and how people who are very accomplished in their fields are willing to work with Phamaly.”

One of those professionals drawn to Phamaly is Shelly Gaza, a professor of theater at the University of Northern Colorado, who is directing this production of “Midsummer Night’s.”

Gaza has acted and directed at the Utah, Colorado and Alabama Shakespeare festivals and so brought a broad sensibility to tackling Shakespeare’s work. She has also directed plays for the Little Theatre of the Rockies in Greeley and Breckenridge Backstage Theatre.

“I’ve been a fan of Phamaly, their mission and work,” Gaza said. And while Gaza has been shaping the play, setting it in the Roaring ’20s, and bringing along the actors, she said Phamaly has also been teaching her.

“They’ve taught me a lot about their process,” she said. “I’ve also learned from their process something that should be brought into all theater companies. They made me think more deeply about how a company should be.”

Managing mobility on and off the stage

The key thing Phamaly gives its actors is agency to speak about how they feel. “The idea has always been whatever your problems are, leave them at the door and get to rehearsal,” Gaza said. “I would never have felt safe saying ‘I can’t do this today.’”

But every Phamaly rehearsal begins with a round-robin of the cast saying who they are and how they feel that day. At one recent run through, an actor announced “I forgot my meds,” to a teasing “Oooo” from the group, while another said “I am feeling pretty good, but I have some heel spurs, so I’ll be sitting today.”

People can take a disability day. “Phamaly is the most open and fluid of any company I’ve worked with,” Gaza said. “The lesson is you get better quality when people can bring their whole selves.”

Maggie Whittum as Hippolyta/Titania, B. Ryan Glick as Theseus/Oberon, and Connor Long as Cobweb rehearse in the Kilstrom Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

One other difference, Gaza said, is the large stage management team to help actors with costumes, stage entrances and whatever else they may need.

“We have a lot of mobility devices backstage, in a backstage space that isn’t necessarily very large,” Gluck said.” That is one thing Phamaly has gotten very good at is negotiating where people have to go when we have wheelchairs and blind folks all trying to navigate the same space.”

The traffic management is in the hands of AJ Watson, the company’s production accessibility manager.  

“These are all actors, they want to be professional actors and they go into a theater space and the theater says I don’t know how to move a wheelchair on to the stage so we can’t have you in our show,” Watson said.

“So, my prime focus is making sure accessibility needs are met,” he said. “If you work with crutches or a wheelchair, we have means to get you into the building and on to the stage … allowing them to live and act in any space.”

While Phamaly encourages its actors to voice their challenges, Emma Maxfield, 27, who plays Puck, has hidden hers for years as she pursued a professional acting career.

Maxfield has a hypermobility disorder. “I am prone to joint dislocations, hyperextensions and blood pressure issues,” she said. “I am very stretchy, which isn’t a good thing.”

Over the past 15 years, as Maxwell auditioned and won roles in productions around the Front Range, she rarely brought up her condition, often to her detriment.

In a Performance Now production of the “Drowsy Chaperone,” her role required her to do a cartwheel and drop into a split. “I did some lasting damage,” Maxwell said. “But at the time I didn’t feel empowered to advocate for my physical needs, so I just grinned and bore it.”

Phamaly, she said, “actually cares about the individual in ways other companies claim to but don’t follow through. … I feel so fully accepted for all my disabilities and I don’t have to hide those things or push through those things.”

Emma Maxfield, left, rehearses the role of Puck with B. Ryan Glick as Oberon/Theseus. Maxfield has performed in several theater companies and says she appreciates the way Phamaly makes her feel fully accepted. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The care the Phamaly crew takes backstage carries over to stage itself in a dozen little ways, such as walking the actors through lighting and sound changes, as some may be light or sound sensitive.

At the tech rehearsal six days before opening, where the story and technical elements of the play are synced, each change in lighting came with an announcement “lights” to which everyone replied “Thank you lights.” An announcement that noise was being added drew a “Thank you noise.”

“We are not hiding the fact that we are disabled,” said company artistic director Ranaan, who lives with Erb’s palsy, a paralysis of the arm. “It is not a secret, it is not a bad thing.” 

“At Phamaly we look for people who are naturally gifted who may not have had an opportunity, ” Ranaan said. “It is my mission that one day we have to close because all the other companies are hiring our actors.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe