Denver Theater Featuring Disabled Cast Gains Popularity

August 29, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: It’s less than 30 minutes to show time. The scarecrow is getting last-minute touches to his makeup.

JULIET VILLA, “Dorothy” (singing): Strong and tall…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, Dorothy and the rest of the cast go up to the stage for last-minute vocal warm-ups. The PHAMALy Theater Company of Denver is about to perform “The Wiz,” the 1979 musical based on the story of “The Wizard of Oz.”

DON GABENSKI, “Uncle Henry”: Now, as far as I can tell, there’s a cyclone a-brewin’.

JULIET VILLA: Ah, Uncle Henry, I know where I’m going.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But that is where all similarities to all other productions of this show end.

JULIET VILLA (singing): You’re standing strong and tall…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In this “Wiz,” the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy are blind. Her service dog plays Toto. The scarecrow is nearly deaf, and the Tin Man is a Tin Girl in a wheelchair.

REGAN LINTON, “Tin Girl” (singing): Come on, slide some oil down my throat…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twenty-four-year-old Regan Linton was paralyzed in an automobile accident four years ago.

REGAN LINTON: I sing one song, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?”

What would I do if I could feel?

It resonates with me on so many different levels, not just because of the fact that I’m paralyzed, but more just kind of some of the emotional challenges I’ve gone through in the past few years with my accident and, you know, wondering, am I still a whole person? Am I still who I was before? And realizing that I am.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Linton is not the only actor in the musical who’s been testing their mettle because this may be the one theater company in the world where you have to have a physical or mental disability to get a role.

GROUP OF PERFORMERS (singing): Can you see the brand new day?

Looking past disabilities

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The group's name stands for Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League. It's been performing on Denver stages for 17 years.

Actors in past productions have been blind, deaf, amputees, had spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, AIDS, 17 different handicapped conditions in all. But they've taken on some big shows, like "Guys and Dolls" and "Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Once shunned by local theater critics as not being legitimate theater, PHAMALy productions now routinely get reviewed by people like the Denver Post's John Moore.

JOHN MOORE, Denver Post: The first thing people notice when they go to a PHAMALy show is the disabilities. And then somebody starts to sing, and you get into the story. And then suddenly you don't even recognize anymore that these are people with any kind of disabilities. They're just putting on a show. And that's what makes them a legitimate theatre company.

KATHLEEN TRAYLOR, "Auntie Em" (singing): Put your arms around me, child...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Double-amputee Kathleen Traylor, who played Auntie Em in "The Wiz," is one of PHAMALy's founders. She says it all started on a whim, when five disabled friends applied for a grant from a local arts council in 1989.

KATHLEEN TRAYLOR: And they gave us $3,300. And said, "OK, now we've got to do a show, and we've got to get people to do the show. We can't do "Guys and Dolls" with five people." So we went out on the streets and literally grabbed people off the street and pulled them in. Many of our actors had to play five, six different roles, but we pulled it off.

Adjusting acting techniques

LUCY ROUCIS, "Good Witch of the North": All right. What's going on here?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Actress Lucy Roucis is a veteran of 13 PHAMALy productions. She plays Addaperle, the wise-cracking, absent-minded, good witch of the north who never seems to get things quite right.

LUCY ROUCIS: Here's your kitty.

PERFORMER: Thank you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Her dream of a professional acting career died 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but her desire to act did not. The Parkinson's is now advanced, so she tends to stumble. And as the day goes on, her body shakes.

LUCY ROUCIS: One of the reasons why I like this character so much is because it's a fantasy play, and she can shake if she wants to. So I figured, "Well, OK, so she shakes." And I just let my wand just shake, you know, when I'm out there, if that's what my body's doing. It's OK.

STEVE WILSON, Director, "The Wiz": Don didn't actually lose an eye or...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Director Steve Wilson and all of the production staff are able-bodied, so sometimes blocking out a scene can be tricky. Like this one, where Wilson had to use the Tin Girl to get two visually handicapped actors to come together. Dorothy was played by 20-year-old Juliet Villa; the lion, played by veteran actor Don Mauck.

STEVE WILSON: So we did this twirl where Don doesn't have to actually move to Regan. Regan comes, grabs him, and then there's a twist. And then this crossover where Don can gauge on the back of Regan's chair...

REGAN LINTON: ... you can't do that to my friend. I'll take you out.

JULIET VILLA: OK, what do you think you're doing to our friends, Mister?

DON MAUCK, "The Lion": They think that just because I can't see I'm not dangerous, but I am. I can smell all of you, especially that dog.

STEVE WILSON: So if there's a physical gesture that I think Don doesn't know, I'll then get behind him and we'll sort of do that. I had to sort of show Don how to do it and kind of get behind him. And this is -- I call it modeling.

Audience reaction

DON MAUCK (singing): ... all you strangers better beware...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mauck had the difficult task of having to stand, sing and jump off of his rock. But he says one of the hardest things he's had to learn are facial expressions and gestures.

DON MAUCK: As a blind actor, because you don't see what people do on a daily basis. You know, somebody walking down the street, they make a certain gesture. Well, you know what that means. And the directors would say, "Well, I want you to gesture to this person to come here." Well, I'd never done that in my life. You know, if I want somebody to come here, I say, "Come here."

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critic Moore says it's this type of dedication that makes audiences rethink why they're there.

JOHN MOORE: It's the equivalent of taking a Brillo pad to your soul, because you may walk into a PHAMALy production expecting to have sort of a patronizing, you know, enjoyable night at the theatre, but it has the ability, just like "The Wizard of Oz," to sort of make you really reconsider what your own priorities are in life.

And what a lot of people who go in there and they're worried about the dry cleaning or the fact that one thing or another hasn't gone very well in their lives, and they go in, and they see what these people have been able to accomplish. And they're probably not complaining about too much about their own lives.

JULIET VILLA (singing): Should we try to stay or should we run away?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And for newcomer Villa in her first PHAMALy production, this has been a defining experience.

JULIET VILLA: This was more of a release more than a proving to myself of anything. This was more of a, "Yes, all of a sudden this is who I am," finding that person in you and knowing that you are the one who can help yourself. And you are the one who's going to be able to step out and go, "Yes, absolutely. Despite what the world says, I'm going to do this."

REGAN LINTON: Now I'm dancing and making a fool of myself or just having a good time, and so I think being on the stage has really brought that out of me again and brought me out of a shell that I kind of had retreated into. I think it's just brought me back to who I am at the core.

And regardless of what I'm sitting in or how I'm moving, that's who I am. I'm an actor, and I'm a performer, and that's what I love to do. So PHAMALy has given me an opportunity to be that person again.

GROUP OF PERFORMERS (singing): Brand new day, can you feel a brand new day?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Next season, the PHAMALy Theater Company will produce not one but two plays, one of them for the first time a non-musical, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."