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Oz, Against All Odds

Actress Lucy Roucis, who's playing the witch Addaperle in The Wiz, her thirteenth production with the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors' League (PHAMALy), has a standup routine about the pros and cons of her Parkinson's disease, which she recites softly during a break in rehearsal:

Pro: Killer parking spaces.

Con: Inability to drive to killer parking spaces.

Pro: Inadvertent movement and medication burn so many calories that you can eat anything you want.

Con: Except soup.

Pro: You're never asked to babysit.

Con: If you offer to hold the kid for just a minute, he ends up in that tree over there.

Pro: Superstrength sexual muscles.

Con: Superstrength sexual muscles.

Two years ago, Roucis played Adelaide in PHAMALy's Guys and Dolls and made the role her own. Her Adelaide took tiny steps and shook now and then. But she sang beautifully, acted with conviction, and exuded an unaffected strength and sweetness that entirely seduced the audience. Roucis's illness is progressive, and she can do less every year. An aide comes to her house three times a day to wash dishes and help her shower. She still teaches children's acting classes, though -- children are wonderful about her disability, she says, simultaneously intrigued and accepting, and always wanting to help. And in addition to performing, she serves as a coach for PHAMALy. The Wiz, the company's seventeenth production, opens July 14, and director Steve Wilson has completed two blocking plans for Roucis because she never knows in advance how much movement she'll have or whether she'll be able to walk.

Roucis was an acting major at Denver's now-defunct Loretto Heights College, then moved to Los Angeles. Although she was more drawn to classical theater, she found herself performing in musicals, including a Rockettes Christmas show. The diagnosis of Parkinson's came when she was 27, and she returned to Denver, defeated. But after she saw a TV piece on PHAMALy, she decided to audition. When Roucis performs, other PHAMALy members say, the adrenaline kicks in, and her work is radiant. "Giving to the community is the best thing I can do to keep from freaking out," she says simply.

Although there are theater companies in the United States organized around specific disabilities -- the National Theatre of the Deaf, for example -- PHAMALy is the only group working with published scripts that uses actors with all kinds of disabilities and uses only disabled actors. The company was started by Kathleen Traylor, Teri Westerman and two of their classmates at Boettcher School, Gregg Vigil and Kevin Ahl. A teacher at that Denver public school had exposed them to musical theater, but after graduating, they realized there were no acting opportunities for people with disabilities. So they decided to create their own. Having decided on a name for their company and acquired non-profit status, Traylor submitted a $3,000 grant application to the Colorado Council on the Arts. "They gave us the money first time out," Westerman says. "And we realized, 'Oh, my goodness, now we have to do a show.'"

That first production took place at their old high school, which had a handicapped-accessible stage. As for casting, "Kathleen and I would be in a shopping mall, and if we saw anyone with any kind of disability, we'd go up and say, 'Are you a performer?'" Westerman recalls. Now PHAMALy auditions attract more actors than the company can use.

Generations of acting teachers have told students how important it is to live "in the moment" on stage -- to be present and able to respond to whatever is happening without anticipating your next line or action or worrying about how you've done so far. Often the most compelling moments in a performance occur when the actor is completely immersed in a specific task -- putting on a coat, eating toast -- or when he faces an unanticipated glitch, such as a missing prop, a flubbed line or a partner who's changed the blocking on him. PHAMALy actors tend to be present in a highly focused and particular way. Whether singing, laughing, shouting or simply moving across the stage, they give the performance everything they have.

Watching PHAMALy at work isn't an exercise in sentimentality or compassion; what you get is real theater, powerful and joyous. And it's not that the performers triumph in spite of their disabilities. Just as Roucis's faltering steps made her Adelaide memorable, the other performers' physical weaknesses add dimension and piquancy to their work. Singing can be difficult for someone in a wheelchair; it's hard to support the voice, because "everything is kind of crushed," Traylor points out. So when she has a sentimental ballad -- as she did in Guys and Dolls and does again in The Wiz -- musical director Donna Kolpan Debreceni rearranges the music, shortening the phrases. The song sounds new -- less sentimental and, paradoxically, more moving.

 

Westerman, who's playing several roles in The Wiz, has danced in her wheelchair since she was eleven years old and now performs with Ballet Arts Center in Denver and the Berthoud Dance Company. Four years ago, she went to Belgium to learn wheelchair ballroom dancing -- which is very popular overseas, she says, though little known in this country. She and her partner learned to waltz, tango, quickstep and fox-trot, rehearsed for eight days and became the first Americans to enter an international competition. They won fourth place.

Wilson finds that his cast's disabilities inspire innovative touches. "There are a million moments when we come up against a challenge that's different from a challenge you might normally have," he explains. Juliet Villa, his Dorothy, is visually impaired, for example, which could have made the scene where she throws water at Evillene, the wicked witch, a minor disaster. In the original version of The Wiz, the Lion sets down the bucket beside Dorothy, but PHAMALy's Lion, Don Mauck, is himself visually impaired (which led to a fascinating moment during rehearsal when he deliberately whacked himself on the back of the head and his specially designed cats' eyes popped out). So Wilson has the Tin Girl (Regan Linton, PHAMALy's version of the Tin Man) hand Dorothy the bucket, then position herself in such a way that Villa knows the witch is right in front of her.

Toto is played by Villa's guide dog, Deidra.

Wilson has thought long and hard about the dramatic significance of a visually impaired Dorothy. Blindness can help explain her isolation at the beginning of the tale, and if -- as one interpretation has it -- Oz exists only in Dorothy's imagination, it makes sense that she would people it with others who are handicapped. Frank Baum's Oz books are very visual, Wilson points out, and in the Judy Garland movie, the action begins in black and white before blossoming into color when Dorothy enters Oz. In The Wiz, Oz shows Dorothy new ways of viewing herself and the world, and her last spoken line is "Don't you all see?"

Wilson is very aware that some of his actors face huge difficulties just getting out of bed, dressing and reaching the theater. Nonetheless, he insists on professional standards. "I don't see myself as working with a bunch of disabled actors," he says. "I'm working with actors." But he admits that knowing what his cast members have gone through to achieve their dramatic triumphs sometimes moves him deeply.

PHAMALy has assembled a skilled group of technical artists. Mallory Nelson designs the costumes -- including a skirt for Evillene, played by Tara Cowan, that goes clear around both Cowan and her wheelchair. The Denver Center Theatre Company's Matt Swartz is in charge of sound, and Charles Dean Packard designs lighting and sets. For this show, he has created a slightly raised stage with ramps for exits and entrances. "People are never put off in a corner because somebody doesn't know how to work with that disability," Westerman explains. "It may take longer to figure it out, but they figure it out. I know a wheelchair can't move sideways, but I know how to make it look like it's moving sideways."

Leonard Barrett, who plays the Wiz, is a hugely talented and profoundly instinctual actor, wise and playful on stage, with a fluidly exciting singing voice. While most people play the Wiz for comedy, "I'm enjoying the idea of playing it for pathos," he says. "I like the multi-dimensional layering of a part." He became interested in theater at his high school in Philadelphia, when a friend dragged him to an audition and he found himself cast as Felix in The Odd Couple. On graduation, he applied to only one acting school -- Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, because he'd heard it was the best -- and was accepted. Ever restless, though, he left the program. At his brother's suggestion, he began singing in Atlantic City. "I didn't know I could sing," he comments. "I threw a band together and started killing my voice. Then, by trial and error, I found the correct way of doing it."

He got bored. He didn't like the kinds of songs the Atlantic City gigs demanded; he preferred jazz. He came to Denver, started teaching computer software classes and didn't step onto a stage for ten years -- although he did perform and teach drama for his church group. There he met a young man who took him to see PHAMALy's Pajama Game, and was bowled over. He attended a PHAMALy Valentine's Day party, where someone found out he could sing and asked him to perform. He did, a cappella. After that, he remembers, "I'm surrounded. They're like, 'What's your disability?' I said, 'I've been diagnosed with MS,' and they said, 'That's good enough.'"

 

Although PHAMALy members pressed him to audition for Guys and Dolls, Barrett had no intention of doing it. But just as he was leaving the party, he says, "Kathleen Traylor rolls up in her wheelchair and puts her arms round my neck, pulls me down and whispers, 'Please come,' and my heart melted."

Barrett played Sky Masterson, to rave reviews. Again, he learned on the job, finding a more lyrical approach to the songs. "I accepted myself as a singer from that time on," he says. "I felt at home, and I've never felt at home in theater before. The PHAMALy people are beautiful. There's a clarity in them and a genuineness that you don't find anywhere else."

Because of his multiple sclerosis, Barrett sometimes has trouble with words. "When they go by really fast, I get muckle-mouthed," he notes. "With symptoms like these, you feel odd. To be in an environment where that kind of odd is okay, yeah, that helps a lot. Nobody else can quite understand like PHAMALy can. When you go to another environment and they hear you're from PHAMALy, the first question is, 'What's wrong with you?' Odd how the outside world seems to not do the math that these individuals can do it and get to rehearsals and pull it off. I mean, did you see the show last year? They can do anything. All it takes is a little ramp to get them up there."


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