Art Talk with Phamaly Theatre Artistic Director Regan Linton

By Rebecca Sutton
A group of bedraggled children perform as orphans in a production of Annie

Actors perform as orphans in Phamaly Theatre Company's production of Annie. Costumes by Nicole M. Harrison. Photo by Michael Ensminger, courtesy of Phamaly Theatre Company

Regan Linton grew up as a performer and an athlete. But after a car accident left her in a wheelchair during her junior year of college, she assumed the door had permanently closed to a life in the arts.

But then she discovered Phamaly Theatre Company, a frequent NEA grantee. Based in Denver, Colorado, Phamaly Theatre was founded in 1989, and exclusively casts performers with physical, emotional, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities. Performing with the company helped Linton embrace a life on wheels, and allowed her to reconsider what she had imagined were limited horizons.

Today, after receiving an MFA in acting from the University of California, San Diego and a master’s in social work, Linton is back at Phamaly as its artistic director. We recently caught up with the actor, writer, and director about the company, and how it manages to change perspectives, one performer and audience member at a time.

NEA: What is Phamaly Theatre’s origin story?

REGAN LINTON: Phamaly was founded in 1989. There was a group of five individuals who used wheelchairs who went to a magnet school for kids with disabilities [in Denver]. Once they graduated, they didn't feel like they had any opportunity to participate in theater, both because of environmental barriers—different structures of theater around the city—and also attitudinal barriers. So they formed their own theater company. They really wanted it to feel like a family, that it was a place that was welcoming and supportive and inclusive. So they called it Phamaly—the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors’ League, and then they just tacked on the 'y' at the end. We've since done away with the acronym, largely because a lot of the terms have changed and we're not just actors with physical disabilities; it's now cognitive, intellectual, emotional.

NEA: You started out with Phamaly as a performer. Can you talk about your personal experience with Phamaly and the impact it has had on you?

LINTON: Since I grew up as a bipedal human, and I didn't identify as having a disability, it was quite a shock when I was injured and all of a sudden this social label was imposed on me. I went through a few years where I retreated into a shell, and didn't feel like theater or the arts were open to me anymore or possible for me. It was working with Phamaly as a performer where all of a sudden I was surrounded by these other humans that were thinking differently and had pride in their bodies and their minds. They really helped transform my own conception of myself and see that just because I'm sitting on wheels doesn't mean I can't be an artist. I'm just going to go about it in a different way.

So it really brought me out of that shell. Once I started working with Phamaly, I had more confidence in my body and in my self-image than I ever had when I was younger as a "non-disabled" person. It was the first time I really fully accepted myself as “This is who I am. I'm not changing it, so I might as well figure out the best way to make it work in the things that I'm passionate about.”

I got my training as an actor and was working professionally when I was given the opportunity to come back to head this company. It had such a profound impact on my life, and I've seen it time and time again have an impact not only on the actors who work with us but on audiences who have their perspectives transformed, that I couldn't help but come back and work with the company as an artistic director.

NEA: You mentioned earlier that attitudinal and physical barriers are pervasive for performers with disabilities. Can you describe some of these barriers that a performer might come up against?

LINTON: Initially, because our founders were all wheelchair users, often it was that they couldn't even get into the building. Once things started to change after the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990], it was often audience areas that they could access; many, many onstage and backstage areas in American theaters are not accessible for people who have mobility differences. Even having an accessible bathroom or being able to construct costumes in a way that they're easily removable if you don't have use of one of your arms—things like that should be creative solutions but people are afraid or unwilling to make those accommodations or find those solutions.

Then some [actors] had things that were visible, including their wheelchairs. In theater it often feels like those actors will not get cast unless the narrative explicitly supports that; if there's an actor with a disability in the script, then they will get cast. But otherwise, if it's just a typical American musical, people with disabilities are not considered. That's a whole other conversation around the stigma of disability. It's right there in the term—people assume people with disabilities can't do things, and that includes theater. So it was really working against that typical, “normal" embodiment of what an actor's supposed to look like.

NEA: How do you think that we as a field, as a society, as people can help theater move toward being more willing to find these creative solutions?

LINTON: I think there are a number of potential solutions. One is getting away from this binary concept of disability versus able-bodied, or whatever term you want to use. We're all on the spectrum of ability somewhere and we all have different abilities—physical, cognitive, intellectual, emotional—that we can employ, and then places where we need others. So I think that's one thing: starting to think away from the binary and more [toward a] holistic way of what each person is bringing to the table.

Then I think a lot of it is just fear. I've had many, many conversations with people across the national theater community that they're afraid of doing the wrong thing, they're afraid of saying the wrong thing, they're maybe afraid of their own way of thinking about somebody with a disability and whether that means they're a bad person. We've got to push past that fear and go with the improv mantra of just saying “yes” to things and giving it a go, and then being flexible. That's the other thing: Phamaly by its nature is a very adaptable company and that's where the skill of disability comes in. Disability gives you the skill of adaptability because you're constantly adapting to a world that is not quite fit for you. So how do we, as an industry, as a society, be more flexible? We have to have certain structures and policies and guidelines, but how do we make sure they're flexible for dealing with human beings that don't always fit into that mold?

NEA: In reading your grant application, it mentions that disability can be a creative asset, which I think is in part what you're talking about with flexibility. Can you elaborate on that idea?

LINTON: Historically, disability has been seen as a barrier. But if you think from the social model of disability, it really shows us that it's not the person that is the problem; it's the way society has been constructed around that person. Having a missing limb or having your cognitive processes work differently, or whatever the "disability" is, is not making you less of a human. It's the fact that the society around you has not been built to work symbiotically with that particular body or brain.

So [we’re] throwing out the mold of what we're trying to fit into and flipping that on its head. We just have our own unique instruments, and they work in all sorts of different ways. How do you get to know your instrument, just like any other artist or performer would, and bring out all the different assets and possibilities and creativities that exist in that body? Then you can really find all sorts of possibilities that haven't been explored much in the American theater. How does this body move differently, how does it think differently, and where does that open up new creative frontiers?

NEA: What sort of impact do you hope Phamaly has on audiences?

LINTON: One of the things we often hear from audiences is that they come in and maybe they're nervous about what they're going to see and they don't know how they're supposed to react. Are they supposed to look at the people with disabilities or not? Within five to ten minutes, what they say is that they don't see the disabilities anymore—the disabilities just melt away and what they see are performers.

However, the way that they speak about it makes it sound like the actors are changing. And the actors are not changing—their disabilities are not melting away. What is changing is the person's perspective and their fear. All of a sudden they feel comfortable, and can relate to these individuals and these performers like anybody else. To put it simplistically, they’re realizing that things that they thought were impossible are possible. I think that's a major mind shift for anybody, particularly if you identify with the actor. If you're somebody who is blind or visually impaired or deaf or hard-of-hearing, and then all of a sudden you see someone else do something that you were terrified to do, it changes your ideas around what is possible.

I think that's the effect that we have. The experience of Phamaly is one that is love; it is heart; it is welcoming. You're in this mix of incredibly diverse humans, and it’s a place where everybody feels significant. In the Phamaly space, everybody means something.

NEA: I read in your grant application that you tend to choose well-known plays because in many ways they can challenge established expectations.

LINTON: Exactly. Our typical experience is taking established works and bringing them to life in a different way that people didn't expect. By using these unique humans that we have as our actors, they bring out different aspects of the narrative or the story that you don't necessarily get in other contexts. But I do believe it's important to have the disability voice represented in American theater, so we’ve started to explore how do we do that? Do we continue doing established works but also add in new plays by playwrights with disabilities? We're still in a place of flexibility around what makes the most sense as opposed to when we were founded in 1989. What makes an impact today, and what is the story we want to be telling?

NEA: How do you feel that Phamaly is becoming a leader in terms of showing what's possible for American theater?

LINTON: When [theater professionals] come and see shows they never envisioned being performed by actors with disabilities, they take that with them and think, "I could cast an actor with a disability as well." We also have our actors audition for other companies across the country—that's been happening more and more. We do a lot of access programming, and anytime a school or a theater reaches out to us, we try to be very open with the processes that we use and the things that we've learned about how to make your environment as inclusive as possible. We have an accommodations list that we send out to conferences and share with theaters to give them an idea of things they maybe didn't realize were ways to create more access and inclusion. A lot of them are pretty simple and don't require a lot of expense. Then of course we bring in theater professionals who don't have disabilities, whether it's directors or designers or technicians, to work with our company so they have that experience and can take that back to other theaters and start to build a more inclusive space.

NEA: Is there an effort made to hire artistic team with disabilities? It sounds like there’s a benefit to not doing so?

LINTON: Historically, that was not the intention or the goal. It was really the onstage opportunities that were the sacred, protected roles for people with disabilities. However, we've been expanding that in the last several years in a variety of capacities, whether it's designers or technicians or interns and now leadership of our company.

At the same time, it’s important that we bring in people that don't necessarily identify as having a disability so that we have that cross-cultural dialogue and experience. Over the years, people have sometimes asked, "Are you being exclusive by not casting actors who don't have disabilities? Wouldn't that be a great opportunity to have an integrated experience?" It's not an either/or. But for our company, because we still don't have what I consider adequate representation, we still believe it's really important to protect those [onstage] opportunities in our company. Once actors are on other stages, maybe we’ll start looking at more integrated experiences.

NEA: You mentioned you often share accommodations list with other theater companies. What are some of the items on that list that companies might not think about?

LINTON: It spans throughout the entire process, starting with having somebody that's a point of contact [for] access questions about your programs. It’s making sure that your website is inclusive and screen reader compatible, and making sure the venue is accommodating and accessible. For auditions, it’s making sure you have people on hand to assist in filling out forms, or that you have large-print sides or braille sides for actors who are blind or visually impaired. Moving into the production process, it’s creating extra time for bathroom breaks, or if there's somebody who needs to be reminded to take their medicine, making sure the stage manager knows that. It’s realizing that scheduling is a different beast for people with disabilities who may have transportation challenges because they don't drive themselves, or health things that come up day to day. So being flexible about trying to get schedules out ahead of time so that people can plan around that. In production, it’s having volunteers who can assist people in doing their hair or getting their costumes on, making sure that all the backstage spaces are accessible and don't have props and scenery stuck in the way where a wheelchair needs to go. It's pretty extensive, but again, a lot of them are just being thoughtful. It's not building a brand new building. It's just thinking of how do we say “yes” and make this work and get creative as opposed to cutting these individuals out of the process?

NEA: Are there any particularly memorable moments from your time with Phamaly that have really encapsulated what the company means to you?

LINTON: About ten years in, Phamaly did the musical Side Show. It's about two conjoined twins. Even though Phamaly often does musicals that have no disability content, this was one of the first times that they did a show that really touched on similar challenges. One of the first numbers is "Come Look at the Freaks," and you have a bunch of individuals with disabilities who've had the experience in their lives of being treated like freaks. It was one of those transformative theater moments where you're not just watching something; you're a part of something, and you're experiencing transformation in the moment.

Another similar experience was when I played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha several years ago. There's a scene where Aldonza is raped. They took my chair away, and afterward I had to crawl back onstage without my chair. It was a really human moment of seeing somebody's vulnerability.

Every moment onstage with Phamaly, our actors are being vulnerable and genuine and exactly who they are. There's no artifice. Even though they are acting, there's a piece of them that can't help but be completely authentic. I think that's what people are drawn to in our work, as well as the creativity. The authenticity is very moving.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LINTON: Like so many amazing theater experiences, it's really being in person and having the human energy in the space that makes you understand Phamaly. Phamaly is very much a lived experience. I hope American theater continues to value the opportunity to be with other humans, and to be moved by work and dialogue about it and have your perspectives transformed.