When Don Mauck, who is blind, was cast as the lead in this summer's The Pajama Game, director Steve Wilson thought it would be compelling to make his character blind, as well. Typically, when the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League (PHAMALy) puts on its annual full-scale musical production, the director does not incorporate the actors' physical challenges into the script, even though all PHAMALy performers have physical disabilities.
However, the romantic comedy, which opens August 1, lent itself to the adaptations. The story takes place in the 1950s, and centers on the rocky romance between Sid Sorokin (Mauck), the big boss at the Sleep-Tite pajama factory, and Babe Williams (Ali Zimmerman), a union leader. Things are relatively sleepy at the factory until the workers strike for a pay increase, creating a war between management and workers as well as a battle of the sexes. In order to integrate Mauck's blindness into the show, some minor adjustments to the script were necessary: For example, a scene in which Sid was supposed to be inspecting a stamp collection had to be changed. For most of the show, however, accommodations were simple. Mauck's character reads in braille, and instead of writing letters he uses a Dictaphone.
Mauck is a software engineer who has also worked in a factory and as a mechanic; he says that portraying Sid as a blind person sends a message that physical disabilities are often not as limiting as people perceive them to be.
Still, since its origins in 1989, the professional production staff of PHAMALy has a track record of turning challenges into assets, even without altering scripts. In several previous shows, props and set pieces have been incorporated into the actors' wheelchairs. For last year's production of Once Upon a Mattress, the king's and queen's wheelchairs became thrones, and a knight had her horse built right onto her chair. In this Game, the factory's stitching girls have their sewing machines affixed to theirs.
Besides creating a set that has the ability to move with the actors, this technique gives the choreographer more freedom. It's sometimes essential for actors in wheelchairs to have their hands free of props when it's time for a musical number. Instead of tap dancing, the actors use their hands to beat out the rhythms. And choreographing the chairs is a discipline that has commanded increased attention in recent years. (Disabled cast member Teri Westerman and her dance partner recently won fourth place at an international wheelchair-dancing competition.)
The cast of the current show is made up of adults and a few teenagers. However, in past productions PHAMALy has included actors as young as eight years old, and children are encouraged to audition. But, possibly because of the rigorous rehearsal schedule, Mayner says, "they're hard to recruit."
Mayner explains that in addition to providing theatrical opportunities for people with disabilities, PHAMALy also aims to educate the theater community through annual full-scale productions and year-round outreach programs.
"We try to get directors to think about casting a challenged actor," she says. Although all members of the PHAMALy cast are amateurs, several have gone on to work with other theaters in the area. PHAMALy is also committed to creating enhanced experiences for people with disabilities who attend the performances. During the run of The Pajama Game, which lasts through August 17, two shows (August 10 and 17) will be audio-described for the visually impaired, and one show (August 10) will be sign- language-interpreted for hearing-impaired audiences.