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A theater company in Denver gives the spotlight to people with disabilities

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DENVER — Ben Raanan has a mission to change societal attitudes about people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

As the artistic director of Phamaly Theater Company, which is considered a creative home for theater artists with disabilities, he often challenges people with questions like, “Why does a dancer have to have the quote unquote 'perfectly shaped body?' Why does a singer have to only be able to breathe standing up? Why can’t they be in a wheelchair?”  

Phamaly stands for "Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League." Five students from the Boettcher School, each living with a disability, founded the theatre company in 1989. The idea for the company came out of their collective frustration over the lack of acting and theater opportunities for people with mental or physical disabilities.

Phamaly put on its first show — "Guys and Dolls" — in 1990.

“My job here at the theatre is [to create] an environment where disability is looked at as an asset rather than a detriment, as well as creating artistically rigorous work for people with disabilities within our community,” Raanan explained.

Ranaan was born with a rare bone disorder called Erb’s Palsy. Disability has always been a part of his life.

"I was born with zero movement in my left arm and the left side of my body, but in addition to that my brother was born with what I like to call Autism with a capital ‘A,’" he explained.

Raanan believes there is no such thing as a "fully accessible theater."

“A fully accessible theater, for me, is creating accessibility for every single person,” he added, saying that this shouldn’t be confused with working with people of every single type of disability, but instead creating more inclusion and opportunities for each person.

Matching Raanan’s passion for theatre and advocy for those with disabilities is fellow actress Madison Stout. Stout has a prosthetic leg, and says she never let that stop her from pursuing her dreams of showing her talents on stage.

Credit: Phamaly Theatre Company

Stout learned about Phamaly Theatre when she was in middle school and saw one of the company's performances. She recently started performing in the company herself.

“I was like, 'Oh! this actually happens?" Stout said. "'I don’t have to be in the background? Talented people, even if they’re disabled can be part of the show in a really big way?’”

Stout said others sharing their experiences resonates with her. 

“It was so cool to not only be part of something that I’m super passionate about, but also talking about all these hard things because everyone in the room had something that they’re dealing with,” she explained, adding that Phamaly Theatre Company is a better representation of the world’s diversity. “We live in a society that is very white, straight, and male. And that’s not an accurate representation of the world we live in."


Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at lindseyford@rmpbs.org.

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