The school photographer kept telling Lisa Young to smile, but only half of her face was responding.
It was October 1984, and Young was a popular, vibrant student at Rangeview High School. Try as might, she couldn’t muster a full smile for her school photo session; later that day, she started limping inexplicably. Hospital visits followed and doctors debated the cause. Nearly 30 years later, Young can still recall their words with clarity and no small amount of gallows humor.
“‘It can’t be a stroke. She’s too young,’” Young paraphrased the doctors. She recreated the scene for an audience of physicians, medical school professors and other professionals Nov. 5 at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “It can be. And it was.”
Decades later, Young revisited that unlikely diagnosis in a decidedly different context. As a troupe member in the Phamaly Theatre Company, Young tempered the shock with humor. She embraced her medical struggles with verve and perspective, telling the audience: “I can still die, but can’t we all? I am fear-free and still rolling.”
It’s a message that’s at the heart of “Vox Phamilia: Cinco de Vox,” Phamaly’s original comedy show currently running at the Su Teatro Performing Arts Center in Denver. Now in its fifth year, the award-winning showcase is a compilation of wry stories and first-person accounts, comic vignettes pulled from the everyday lives of Phamaly troupe members.
Perspectives from the nation’s only professional theater composed “entirely of performers with disabilities across the spectrum” was a fitting message, considering the setting. The hourlong session at the new Fulginiti Pavilion was a meeting of medicine and art, a summit of sorts for doctors and for a cast of performers who’ve seen their share of exam rooms.
“It’s so invaluable, it’s hard to put into words,” said Bryce Alexander, a veteran director and manager with Phamaly. “Medical professionals have a connection to people who benefit from the programs that Phamaly offers … Also, they’re a great audience, because they’re educated. They give wonderful critical feedback.”
The presentation at Anschutz included excerpts from the show, which is wrapping up this weekend. Instead of railing against cerebral palsy or life in a wheelchair, Stephanie Williams complained about Wal-Mart greeters and ugly stickers in a monologue. Teri Westerman spoke about rushing to catch a flight at O’Hare airport in Chicago in a wheelchair — because of a broken elevator, she was forced to try her luck on an escalator. Paul Migliorelli remembered getting stranded at a transit station in New York. Blind since birth, Migliorelli found himself stuck in a deserted train yard. After pushing an emergency call button for help, emergency responders treated him dismissively when they found out he wasn’t on fire. Ashley Kelashian talked about the weight gain that comes as a side effect of Dercum’s disease, insisting, “I am not fat; I have fat … I am Ashley.”
All of the pieces hinted at challenges, hurdles overcome with levity, humor and patience. Therese Jones, a director at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the Anschutz Medical Campus, said it fit perfectly with the mission of the new center, a facility designed to explore connections between medicine and art.
“There is still a need for education about disabilities,” Jones said. “The audience is physicians, faculty, students and staff members. I think there are some people who just come from the community to the ‘Arts in Medicine’ series. I think Phamaly is awesome.”
It’s the second year that the troupe has stopped at Anschutz, and officials say the forum offers a critical link, not just to physicians, but to potential performers.
“We get so many people who are very scared of performing, but they go to every Phamaly performance because they can be part of what they see on stage,” Alexander said. “They understand that there’s a community of people out there who are like them.”
Phamaly recently announced an expanded schedule for the 2013 season, a lineup that includes a performance of the comedy “The Foreigner” at the Aurora Fox, as well as productions of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” at venues across the state. With that ambitious schedule in mind, spreading the message of access and opportunity for potential performers is always welcome.