Phamaly Theatre ‘changes people’s lives’

Actors with disabilities find their voice, share their passion, on stage

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Joy Carletti was in junior high school when she discovered her love for the stage.

She had won the audition for the lead role in the play. But soon after rehearsals started, she found herself breaking off in the middle of lines and being unable to return to that point in the script. It felt, she said, as if she was daydreaming.

The director thought she was having difficulty memorizing her lines. But, in reality, Carletti was having seizures. By the time doctors had diagnosed her with epilepsy, the director had removed her from the play. He told her: Epileptics don’t belong on stage.

“Those words have stayed with me,” Carletti, 45, said.

But they haven’t stopped her from following her passion for acting, which she continued to do throughout high school and college.

And today, Carletti is an actor with Phamaly Theatre Company, a Denver-based nonprofit that puts on one musical every summer, as well as performances, workshops and classes. She performs the role of Veta in “Harvey” this month at the Olin Hotel Apartments in Denver. The play is about a man named Elwood whose best friend is a human-sized rabbit that only he can see. His sister, Veta, eventually pushes to have him committed to an institution and is instead committed herself.

“I’ve just always wanted to do something where I was able to let my creative juices flow,” Carletti said. “When you find a passion for something, you want to keep going with it. It was like that theater bug bit very quickly.”

Phamaly was founded in 1989 by five students who graduated from the Charles Boettcher School, which served disabled children in Denver from kindergarten through high school. The founders were disappointed in a lack of theater opportunities for disabled people and founded Phamaly to give actors with disabilities a place to perform and be themselves. Members’ of the company have all nature of disabilities: physical, cognitive, intellectual, and emotional. The company does a mix of musicals, comeday and drama shows. The company has performed shows such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Our Town,” “Beauty and the Beast” and more.

Since Phamaly will be celebrating 30 years in 2019, artistic director Regan Linton said the company is looking ahead to how the company can continue embracing its mission in changing the way the world sees people with disabilities. That includes making daring choices in staging productions, such as it did with its show “disLabeled,” a sketch comeday show about living with disabilities.

“Really,” Linton said, “we’re just doing the same thing that any other company would do.”

Linton,37, a Denver native who graduated from East High School, understands her actors’ passion well.

Acting, she said, was how she found herself again after a car accident in 2002 that left her paralyzed. Three years later, she was back on stage.

“It was a really rough period after my injury feeling like everything had changed,” Linton said. “It was pretty terrifying at first, to be honest. This (was) my coming out as a person with a disability.”

Carletti recounts how at one point, before finding medication that worked, she was having 30 to 50 seizures a day. Sometimes, the medication would affect her memory. When she couldn’t work in scripted plays, she relied on improvisation shows.

She found Phamaly last year when she performed in the company’s production of “Annie.”

One reason Carletti enjoys theater is because of the community feel that comes from putting together a show. With Phamaly, that feeling is amplified because of some of the barriers she and other performers face, she said. But, on stage, the boundaries the Phamaly actors face in society become something that helps push their artistry.

“You want to accommodate everybody’s needs,” Carletti said. But “it’s not about making those allowances — it’s about `Let’s see how we can push this further.’ ”

For Carletti, watching a story unfold on stage is an opportunity, and she loves the “a-ha” moment when it all comes together.

Linton oversees the bigger picture, making sure all performers have a place to perform. But more than anything, she wants Phamaly to be a place where actors and actresses can take pride in themselves.

“It’s necessary for every human being to have a place where they can have a voice and feel valued,” she said. “It changes people’s lives.”

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