Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2004, Volume 24, No. 4
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Judge, D. & Ansbacher, H. (Directors). (2003). We Are PHAMALy. [Film]. Denver, CO: Phamaly & Just Media. Distributor: Fanlight Productions. www.fanlight.com.

Reviewed by Alana Kumbier, The Ohio State University.

Daniel Judge and Henry Ansbacher's short documentary We Are PHAMALy follows members of the musical theatre troupe PHAMALy (the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League) as they prepare for their production of Once Upon A Mattress. The documentary's narrative arc combines the chronological progression of the production process -- from auditions to rehearsals to the opening night performance – while also focusing on three of the troupe's long-term performers: Troy Willis, Tara Cowan, and Stephen Hahn. By maintaining this dual focus, the documentary is attentive to the three performers' specific experiences in the context of PHAMALy's production process, in which the performance is adapted to suit its diverse cast.

The scenes in the documentary that focus on the troupe's production process suggest that the adaptations made in the course of this process would not be difficult to incorporate in the preparation for many other theatrical productions. The moments when the troupe's specific accommodations are integrated into the production routine could be considered both exemplary and normalizing moments, as they offer insight into the specific ways in which these accommodations are implemented, and they allow us to recognize these practices as de rigeur. For example, when Hahn expresses concern about the appearance of his lower body in tights, the show's costumer has no trouble developing a plan for the costume's alteration. Later, during rehearsal, when Cowan's wheelchair doesn't seem to comply with the script's order of movement operations, the sequence is easily re-arranged in a routine moment of troubleshooting, of the sort that would occur during the blocking of any production. Through additional rehearsal scenes in which actors are given notes from the show's director, we learn that the troupe holds high standards for the quality of each actor's performance; this message – that the troupe doesn't lower its performance standards while making its accommodations – seems to be part of the documentary's overarching goal to establish this troupe's work as comparable to that of any other amateur performance group.

The scenes featuring the trio of performers at the center of Once Upon a Mattress allow the documentary to extend its representation of the troupe and its members beyond the technical and logistical aspects of theatrical production. During rehearsal interviews, we learn that the three performers are all on the brink of accepting major roles for the first time. We are first introduced to Troy Willis (Jester), who is returning to PHAMALy after a three-year hiatus. Willis is living with diabetes and has experienced related complications, including kidney failure and vision impairment. Willis credits his participation in the troupe as meaningful to the quality of his daily life, and his return to the troupe is a joyous, welcoming moment early in the video.

Tara Cowan (Queen Aggravain) became disabled as an adult, and describes her decision to act as part of her reclamation of a full life after the injury that requires her to use a wheelchair. Cowan's performance as the evil queen is fierce; Cowan's greatest obstacle during rehearsal is memorizing lines (an understandable challenge given that this is her first major role), but by opening night, the footage shows that she has not only mastered her lines but has also fully met the demands of the character, as she embodies Aggravain's villainous mannerisms.

Like Cowan, Stephen Hahn (Sir Harry) is an energetic performer with a presence that translates well to video. Hahn, who has lived with the impact of spina bifida since childhood, is experiencing increasing difficulties in his mobility, and observes that one of the important aspects of his participation in the troupe is the motivation he experiences while working with other performers who are also living with disabilities. While Hahn's description of the inspiration he receives through participation, and his belief in the normalizing function of the troupe's performances, might seem evocative of traditional tropes surrounding disability (e.g., the disabled person as inspirational object, and the ability of the physically disabled to fit in as normal), we can also understand his statements as earnest and his own.

Through interviews with the three performers, we come to understand the meaning of membership in the troupe to each performer's life; I would suggest that this is the strongest, most compelling aspect of the documentary, as We Are PHAMALy recognizes that PHAMALy's most significant function for its members is that of providing a space for community, collaboration, and performance. Given its message and content, We Are PHAMALy seems suited for a variety of audiences, and a variety of ages. The documentary is also suited to comprehension and critique from multiple viewer positions, and could be appropriate for use in a high school or college classroom, or for viewing with a community group.