Sunday, July 17, 2011

PHAMALy, Denver's disability theatre troupe, opens musical that includes first deaf performer

From John Moore, The Denver Post theater critic:

Actress Nicki Runge (pictured) calls herself not just deaf, but "deaf with a capital D." And that has nothing to do with the completeness of her hearing loss.

"To me, 'Big-D deaf' means I am proud that I am deaf. And I am happy to call myself deaf," Runge said through Lynn Williams, one of the many volunteer interpreters who have made it possible for the veteran actor to perform in the handicapped theater PHAMALy's just-opened musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying " at the Denver Center.
Wait . . . musical?

It's OK to snicker. Runge does that — a lot. It's really the only time you can hear any sound come out of her.

"It is interesting, because one thing musical theater requires is singing — and obviously, I can't," she said through Williams, letting out a little infectious squeak.

"I don't have a voice."

She can dance in the numbers by following those around her and counting out the beat in her head. When her character has lines, castmates feed her sign language, and repeat out loud what she says with her hands in return.

Steve Wilson has encountered many challenges in his 12 years directing this celebrated theater group that is made up entirely of actors with some sort of disability (their word).

He's welcomed many hearing-impaired actors before, but never one who is completely deaf. "When you think about having a person in a musical who cannot speak, your first thought is, 'Well, that seems very odd,' " he admits.

"But my first thought is never 'no.' It's, 'How can we make this work?' "

The challenge was great: There was no money in the budget for the unexpected cost of needing interpreters for 10 weeks of rehearsals and three more of performances. But Ronni Gallup, founder of the local sign-language interpreting company Hands On Productions, made it happen.

At first, even Runge, 36, thought it might be impossible. But not Williams. "Oh, no," Runge's interpreter said. "I have been watching PHAMALy for years and years. I know they can do anything."

And they don't do anything halfway. While Runge is a member of the "How to Succeed in Business" chorus, Wilson isn't hiding her in the back of the office break room. He's taking the opportunity to spotlight her disability in a new and innovative way.

Interpreters often line the aisles during PHAMALy performances offering American Sign Language for the benefit of hearing-impaired audiences. But this is the first time ASL is being incorporated into the performance itself.

A fundamental tenet of PHAMALy musicals is that whatever disabilities the actors have, so then do the characters they play. So if several deaf women work in this musical's fictional office setting, Wilson said, it stands to reason that the other people who work there can communicate with them. So choreographer Debbie Stark has one and all demonstrating sign language in the big dance number, "Coffee Break."

But not everyone in the cast got it, at first. At one point, an actor asked Wilson flat-out why everyone needed to learn sign language for the big number, when audiences are not going to understand what's being signed.

"But some of the audience will understand, and that's enough for me," Wilson responded. Runge was blown away. "It meant so much to see how he really supports my deafness," she said.

While Runge could do without labels — "I am not disabled," she says flatly, "I just can't hear, that's all." But she's found that she and PHAMALy "make a really good fit."

It fits, Wilson said, because Runge is a legitimately good actor. He knew it from the moment she performed her audition monologue. Runge used sign language, while an interpreter communicated her words to Wilson and his creative team.

"It was clear early on that we were looking at an accomplished actress," said Wilson.

Just not one who had ever performed in a musical in her life. But that doesn't daunt her.

"It's one more thing I can check off my list," she said.

Runge, who was born deaf, is the surviving twin of her mother's miscarriage. She grew up in Belgium and fell in love with music through feeling drum percussion and heavy bass vibration.

When she was little, Runge's dad would take her to concerts (Christina Aguilera was her favorite). "I would always look for an amp to sit on so I could feel the bass better," she said. "And I really felt it. I just loved it.

"Whenever I am driving now, I like to really turn up the radio so I can feel that bass. It helps me to relax."

Even if that prompts agitated nearby motorists to yell, "You're gonna go deaf!"

Because Runge was always raised in mainstream environments, she never felt all that different. She has acted since childhood and came to Colorado in 1994 to study theater at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, which is regarded as one of the top undergraduate theater programs in the country.

UNC professor Tom McNally remembers Runge as a dedicated, hungry, inquisitive student.

"She was really one of the top actresses here," said McNally. "She just went after it, no holds barred, whatever scene she was doing."

Runge is believed to be the only deaf student ever to major in theater at UNC. Even then, she needed an interpreter with her at all times.

"It was always great fun, because if someone said something that was funny, maybe the class might laugh," McNally said. "And then there would be this beat, beat . . . and then I'd see a little smile on Nicki's face."

Runge has remained a serious actress. She's performed Shakespeare in England, with the National Theatre for the Deaf, and for Deaf West Theatre in California. She taught and acted for Disney, and she now teaches and directs theater for the Rocky Mountain Deaf School.

Her next plan is to establish the Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre, with a targeted Nov. 2 opening. She describes it as a theater company much like PHAMALy — "but for deaf people." She hopes they can work together in tandem.

"Everyone is so just supportive of my dream here," she said.

That dream is to reach audiences far beyond those with an immediate connection to the deaf community. To those living in a hearing world where Runge is fully comfortable. Even when people, without knowing better, blurt potentially awkward cliches that don't bother Runge — they elicit a happy squeak.

"Sometimes people will tell my husband, 'Let's play it by ear,' " she said with a smile.

"And I will joke back, 'You play it by ear . . . we'll play it by eye.' "