Art News

Phamaly's Immersive Rocky Horror Show Is a Knockout

Left to right, Annie Sand, Miranda Ireland,  Trenton Schindele, Madison Stout, Matty Umbriaco.
Left to right, Annie Sand, Miranda Ireland, Trenton Schindele, Madison Stout, Matty Umbriaco. Michael Ensminger Photography
When you show up for an immersive performance of The Rocky Horror Show — Phamaly Theatre’s summer production — you’ll have the opportunity to roar like a velociraptor, do the time warp, and gleefully shout “Asshole!” at the stage. And if you spring for the $5 bag of props, you’ll also be able to throw playing cards, wear a party hat and hold a newspaper over your head as directed.

It's an experience that resembles the typical audience participation you'd find at a showing of the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the production doesn’t shy away from the raunchiness of the original, either. However, Phamaly also offers a non-interactive performances for those who prefer a more traditional experience. As always, Denver’s disability-affirmative theater company is all about making the show accessible for everyone.

“This is not a watered-down version of Rocky Horror,” says Phamaly Artistic Director Ben Raanan. “This is not the disabled version of Rocky Horror, where we're going to do Rocky lite. [We] have things that you've never seen before in the show.”

One of Raanan’s top priorities for the production was bringing in Caitlin Lowans, artistic director at Theatreworks Colorado Springs, to direct.

“The show, at its core, is about acceptance, right?” says Raanan. “The show is about accepting a group of ‘weirdos’ who are of all races, creeds, disabilities in our production — gender orientation, sexual orientation, everything. For me, Caitlin is someone who embodies that welcoming spirit that is present in Rocky Horror. Caitlin…is a master of calling in rather than calling out. And also, Caitlin’s the coolest person ever, and Rocky Horror 2022 needs to be a party.”

Not every show Phamaly puts on has that same party feel, but building community is at the core of the theater's mission both on and off the stage.

Phamaly has historically collaborated with other theaters across the metro area, and this year has been no exception, with performances in Arvada, Lone Tree and, for the first time, Northglenn. Raanan’s especially excited about the theater's partnership with Su Teatro, which is hosting The Rocky Horror Show.

“You walk into Su Teatro and it feels like an old movie theater. It feels like something that has been grown by the community,” says Raanan. “People want to constantly be putting us in a box of, like, ‘Oh, this is the disability theater,’ and ‘That’s the LatinX theater,’ when in reality it’s like, yeah, we focus on disability, but the same things we’re focusing on, which is inclusion, telling our stories honestly, accessibility, growing theater for different people — [those are] the same things they’re doing.”

It’s been a landmark year for the actors, as well, some of whom are new to Phamaly — and even to the stage. The cast of the theater’s spring musical, The Spitfire Grill, even got to travel to New York City to perform their show at the Queens Theatre as part of the Forward Festival of the Arts.

“Even five, six years ago, the idea of actors with all sorts of disabilities being welcomed into these usually inaccessible spaces is just kind of profound,” says Raanan.

The icing on the cake for the cast’s New York trip happened when they visited the Drama Book Shop on their last day in the city. The manager recognized them from the show, gushed over their performances and even asked for their autographs.

“It just was important for those actors to know that their art isn't considered secondary, it's not considered any lesser than — it's just as valuable,” says Raanan.

And for Raanan himself, who moved here from Chicago for this job just over a year ago, it’s been a dream come true. “There’s no other position like this in the United States,” he says. “It’s been a humbling experience learning from an organization that’s been doing this for so long.”

Phamaly Theatre was founded in 1989, making it the longest-running disability theater company in the United States. Last month, the five founders received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Colorado Theatre Guild’s annual Henry Awards ceremony.

Phamaly’s fall production and season closer, Vox Vergere, opens October 13, and is a compilation of eight short plays about intersectionality and love written by eight disabled artists and playwrights, including Ryan Haddad, A.A. Brenner and locals Sheila Traister and Twanna LaTrice Hill.

“We've tasked them each to write a five- to fifteen-minute show or play about intersectionality and love,” says Raanan, “and how they experience love every single day with all of their various identities. We're looking to create a throughline through it, so it feels like one play cannot exist without the next one.”

Raanan isn’t giving any spoilers about the 2023 season, which will be announced in late fall, but hints it will also be centered around community. “It is a season built around optimism and love and change,” he says. “It is a season built around showcasing who our actors are at their core, not so much who they are just with their disabilities.”

The Rocky Horror Show, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through September 4. Tickets are $40.
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