written with the help of Cheyenne Michaels
The Physically Handicapped Actors & Musical Artists League (better known as PHAMALY) brings Little Shop of Horrors to the Denver community this summer. A horror comedy rock musical, Little Shop tells the story of unlucky Seymour, a worker in a florist shop who finds and raises a Venus Fly Trap that feeds on flesh and blood. According to director Steve Wilson, the show itself has “this fun balance between the cheeky, farcical funny and pathos,” but Wilson also makes one guarantee about PHAMALY’s production of the show: “You’re never going to see a production of Little Shop like this.”
Wilson is referring to his typical tweaks to the show that connect the material to the current place, time, and the characteristics of the company that is producing the show. For the present production, the most notable change might be the inclusion of nine urchins, who function as a greek chorus for the show, instead of the scripted three. But PHAMALY’s most distinctive mark on the show will be a pair of dark shades on the carnivorous plant, Audrey II. Wilson reminded us that the plant puppet is typically rendered without eyes, so has always been blind, but adding the shades help the audience make the connection between the character and the performer, blind actor Don Mauck, who is bringing the voice of the plant to life.
This casting, however, wasn’t without its logistic consequences. The script actually includes language that is quite direct about the importance of the actor playing the voice of the plant can see the puppet, so that the movement of the puppet is synchronized with the delivery of the lines and lyrics. “I never, never, ever opt someone out [of a role] because of their disability,” says Wilson when reflecting on the casting process. “We can never start at that place, we always have to solve the problem, which to some degree is the story of the company.”
This problem-solving, positive attitude of the company is also reflected in the hero of Little Shop of Horrors. Seymour’s optimism is what makes him relatable to audiences and somewhat of an inspiration to the community of which PHAMALY is comprised. “He knows that this is the way it is,” says Daniel Traylor, who will be playing the role of Seymour. “He owes so much life to skid row. He hates it but he finds the beauty in the smallest things: with his plants, with Audrey, even if it’s just as friends. He’s a sweet guy.”
Despite having a hearing impairment, playing Seymour has been considerably easy for Traylor because of his previous adoration of the show. “This show is probably one of the easiest times I’ve ever had with music, just because I know the music, it’s in my bones, it’s all muscle memory,” he says. “Typically I have an absolutely terrible time with tempo, but this is so in my body.” Aside from Traylor’s familiarity with the show, the company has an innovative solution to Traylor’s tempo troubles. Traylor uses an assisted listening ear bud that feeds the orchestral and microphone sound directly into his ear to help him stay with the orchestra and rest of the cast.
This will be Traylor’s first time playing the leading role in a musical, but Traylor has been a presence at PHAMALY since he was two years old when his mother co-founded the non-profit group in 1989. Wilson says it’s been amazing to watch Daniel grow up into a flourishing actor in the twelve years he has directed there. For Wilson, “The great joy of being an artistic director is watching artists grow [and having] the chance to participate in their artistic journey.”
For many performers with disabilities, the opportunity to participate in any theatrical experience, not to mention productions with level of professionalism, can be rare. “The disabled community does not have an ethic to go train to be a part of the theatre,” says Wilson. “If you’re the parent of a child with a disability, as a general rule, the last thing you want to do is put that child on stage for a bunch of people to gawk at. What is interesting is how freeing the theatre experience is, especially for kids.” For former kids like Traylor, PHAMALY has been an unparalleled training ground, and he hopes that other professional companies in Colorado will take note of how feasible and creative it can be to hire performers with disabilities. Seeing the results at PHAMALY, it’s hard to see how anyone would conclude otherwise. “How glorious is it and unusual is it that Colorado has one of the planet’s only all-disabled theatre companies?” says Wilson. “It’s bizarre, but great. I think it’s a great testament to the community.”
PHAMALY’s production of Little Shop of Horrors opens July 15 and running through August 5 at the Space Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Purchase tickets online at http://www.phamaly.org. Call 303.893.9582 for more information.