Denver’s Phamaly, the first national theater company comprised of actors with varying disabilities, has been a local treasure since it was established in 1989, producing serious theater and regular summer musicals. Through many of those years, actor Regan Linton was at the center of the company’s productions. She was an intensely funny, silly Lefou in Beauty and the Beast ; a lovely conjoined singing twin in Side Show; the innocent young Emily Webb in Our Town . And no one who saw her performance as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha — for which she won a Best of Denver award — is likely to forget it; she brought to the role a lovely voice and strong acting chops, all animated by an incandescent fire. Linton has been in a wheelchair since a car accident left her paralyzed when she was still an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. During the rape scene in Man of La Mancha, she was torn from that wheelchair and tossed to the floor, dragging herself across the stage powered by a terrible rage and an unquenchable instinct to survive.
Six years ago, Linton left the area to pursue a Master of Fine Arts acting program at the University of California, San Diego. Now she’s on her way back to Denver to bring the strength, intelligence and energy she showed so often on stage to a new role: Phamaly’s artistic director.
Bryce Alexander has been in charge of the company for the past year; during that time, he introduced sensory-friendly performances; led an international tour to Osaka, Japan; and directed The Glass Menagerie, Cabaret, Taking Leave and Evita. But he’s leaving to become artistic director for the Naples Players in Florida in October, when Linton will take the reins. The season that Alexander had already scheduled for Phamaly will remain in place: The company will tour James and the Giant Peach, present Tiny Tim as its holiday show, and stage Pygmalion in late winter or early spring, and the Denver Center Theatre Company will host the annual musical, Peter Pan. But Linton will also bring in a workshop collaboration she has started with Apothetae, a New York company that’s re-envisioning A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the title Spirits of Another Sort.
Linton says she’s done a lot of theatrical exploring in her time away from Denver, and a lot of thinking about the meaning of disability; she’ll bring those insights to her new position. “I think one of the joys of being gone and getting to interface with different theater companies, philosophies and approaches is that I have a better understanding of some of the stories being left out,” she explains. “One of my primary passions is to tell those stories. Our stories are not always about dying or wanting to die, and Phamaly can be a leader in terms of not only casting, but telling those stories. I’m excited to continue the tradition of what Phamaly has done well — plays and musicals that are fun and engaging — and also to push the envelope a little bit. What are our company members nervous about doing, our patrons nervous about seeing? What are all the different facets and nuances of the people we’re putting on stage?
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“I don’t think we see narratives about people with disabilities in romantic relationships,” she adds. “In terms of the broader theater community, if stories are disability-related, they’re stories of decline and isolation. I’m interested in stories of living. People who are living fruitful lives, and all the aspects of life everyone is dealing with — children, relationships, jobs. It’s important to have a balance. I still want this to be a place for educating young people with disabilities and putting on family-friendly stories.”
For the moment, Linton herself won’t be acting in Phamaly productions, though she may in the future. She is interested in outreach — to the local theater community, to national audiences — and she may take on acting roles for other companies, in part to serve as a model. “I am a working artist with a disability,” she notes, adding that she hopes Phamaly actors will broaden their reach, too. “I’m really passionate about inspiring our actors to continue working beyond Phamaly, and for outside directors to see how that casting can enhance their productions. Our job is to continue exploring beyond what we think we know.
“I’m really passionate about doing that and doing it with Phamaly,” she says, and laughs. “I’m also prepared to be a little messy as we go forward. Mess is a part of life, too.”
Phamaly Theatre Company’s fall season starts with James and the Giant Peach, opening October 21 at the Lakewood Cultural Center. Find out more at phamaly.org.