This summer, Denver's Phamaly Theatre Company had big plans to produce Alice in Wonderland, with original music by rapper Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp. Those were scuttled when COVID-19 forced artistic director Regan Linton and managing director Sasha Hutchings to postpone. Now, like most theater groups, the company, whose name stands for Physically Handicapped Amateur Music Actors League, is trying to figure out how to continue offering productions and stay afloat through coronavirus closures.
Part of carrying on is finding a new way to host the troupe's annual fundraiser, Phamaly’s Big Night, which will take place virtually at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 18. The company hopes to raise at least $180,000 to make up for lost revenue. But while donations are encouraged, the fundraiser is free and will stream live on Phamaly’s YouTube channel.
“Taking on challenges and adapting to what is needed is what Phamaly does,” Hutchings says. “We are excited that the webathon will be viewed nationally and that people will be able to see it regardless of their financial ability. We will have a wider reach and be more accessible.”
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The fundraiser, a long-running tradition for Phamaly, was inspired by the late comedian Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon; Phamaly's version lasts around eighty minutes and gives actors a chance to showcase their performance chops.
“Unlike the [Jerry Lewis] telethon, it is not merely benefiting people with disabilities,” Hutchings explains. “It is putting the spotlight on people who are typically on the margins. All of the performers are people living with disabilities.”
One of the featured performers is Laurice Quinn, who has performed with Phamaly for eleven years and has played Mama Morton in Chicago, Kit Kat Girl in Cabaret, Granny in Into the Woods and Potiphar’s wife in Jesus Christ Superstar, among other roles.
“Phamaly community is unlike any other,” Quinn says. “It is like family. You're so excited to see everyone, it makes you cry.”
Quinn will sing Lena Horne's "Ain't It de Truth" from the musical Jamaica, as well as participate in some comedy bits throughout the webathon.
Sam Barrasso, a Phamaly actor and singer for fifteen years, will emcee this year’s event. “What I like most about performing with Phamaly is the ability to get performing opportunities most people only dream of,” Barrasso says. “I had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo before the pandemic as part of Phamaly’s production of Honk: The Musical.”
Some of her favorite roles include the cat in Honk: The Musical, Caroline from A Bag of Sand at Applebee's and Rebecca from Our Town.
"Caroline was one of those people I wish I could be sometimes — not taking anything from anyone," Barrasso says. "[The role] also gave me a chance to work on my memorization skills. Rebecca was the first supporting role I was fortunate to play. The personification of the obnoxious little sister was who I was in real life then."
For the remainder of Phamaly’s 31st season, which runs through 2020, Linton wants to continue virtual performances. One is the premiere of Rewrite, Phamaly’s retelling of classic texts such as the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, A Christmas Carol and more. All are told from the perspective of disabled people.
Along with various web series, including Disability Etiquette and CineVox, Rewrite will premiere on Phamaly’s YouTube channel this fall.
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Like the other online productions, Rewrite was filmed outdoors, with strict social distancing and sanitizing precautions in place and a limited number of actors included.
“Safety is Phamaly’s first concern, especially regarding COVID-19,” Linton says. “The organization has shifted to virtual programming to protect artists as well as audiences.”
“People with disabilities continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 as well as marginalized within our society,” Hutchings says. “Phamaly will continue to use our platform to change social narratives around disability and make sure people with disabilities are not devalued or forgotten during this crisis.”