Accessibility is the thing most take for granted. The whole entire world is designed for people without disabilities and, due to such rigidity, found itself stumbling to create the kind of necessary tools and improve access (telecommuting, remote services, increased availability of PPE, and a greater understanding of disability, to name a few) when everything tried to lockdown in the spring of 2020. Even seeing how these changes made it easier for more people to participate in work and recreation and utilizing them for the past two years, too much of the world remains on default mode, looking at those with disabilities as individuals with little to nothing to contribute, showing little to no interest in these changes that allow more accessibility to become the norm. Thanks to the Phamaly Theatre Company of Denver, Colorado, a new narrative about the disabled community can be crafted, fighting preconceived notions and reconfiguring the coded language of storytelling through inclusion. In their documentary imperfect, co-directors Regan Linton and Brian Malone track the period from auditions to the opening night as Phamaly puts on a production of Maurine Dallas Watkins’s Chicago, as adapted into a musical by Fred Ebb and John Kander, with Linton as director.
Founded in 1989 as PHAMALy (Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League), the company is now known as Phamaly Theatre Company (PTC), operating with a specific vision: “to create a world in which disability and the differences within the human condition are celebrated and the theatre experience is accessible and welcoming to all.” Working toward this, all of the performers in each show possess a disability of some kind. Physical, cognitive, intellectual, or emotional disabilities take all forms and PTC welcomes them all, affirming the performers as individuals with gifts they should be given the opportunity to share. In the case of Linton and Malone’s imperfect, Linton is taking on the role of director in order to put on Chicago. As someone who’s spent time on stage in an academic capacity in high school and college, what’s most striking in watching Linton at work as director is the respect she (and the rest of the PTC crew) affords the performers. Some of them have light sensitives, making performing with stage lights a potential issue; others grapple with memory retention, making line delivery a possible struggle; others just have confidence issues which many performers possess. Whatever the concern or trouble, Linton (as director of the show) and the rest of the cast and crew provide space for whomever needs it to regulate and recenter. There’s no judgement or undue pressure. There’s only love and affirmation. Based on what we are shown, this doesn’t mean that the performers are coddled. Rather, Linton and Malone show the audience that the performers are given the same level of responsibility as their able-bodied counterparts and are just given the space to address their struggles. I can only suspect that you wouldn’t see this level of individual respect or accommodation for a Broadway cast and, frankly, that speaks to the quality of PTC as an artistic organization. Art comes from the artist and the notion of “the tortured artist” is about as horrible a stereotype as the ones which tend to follow individuals with disabilities. Through the lenses of Linton and Malone, the audience is invited in to see what it looks like to develop a PTC show and, while the pressure is high to put on a strong show, what differentiates their production from others is merely the respect which each performer is afforded. The downside to imperfect, however, is the split focus which enables the documentary to have a tight run-time with tons of coverage (positive, of course), yet does so at the detriment to its two parts.
The documentary opens with co-director Linton preparing for her day while she offers narration on her life and her view of the disabled community in relation to the rest of the world’s perspective. Considering that there are film critics who struggle to have their reasonable accommodations taken seriously, by starting with how she manages her morning routine amid photos of her post-accident from her college days, it brings some attention to just how much effort Linton expends before starting her day proper. Throughout the film, we’re given glimpses like this, private moments away from PTC, in which Linton shares about her specific experience. One particularly notable moment is the time she takes to adjust her wheelchair, a task she compares to finding the right pair of sneakers, except, in this case, she needs to adjust fairly regularly and inches matter far more to measure comfort for her than a sneaker-head. In case you don’t think that a wheelchair isn’t a significant piece of equipment, disabled activist Engracia Figueroa passed away late 2021 after she developed body sores associated with a prolonged battle she was undertaking against United Airlines who broke her $30k wheelchair. Around this sequence, Linton shares a physical therapy treatment she receives on her legs, inviting the audience to see some of the additional care she receives. In between and around these moments, the audience is introduced to and follows a few of the members of the Chicago cast. We get a glimpse at their home lives, social lives (if important to their respective personal characters), and how they react or respond to developing their role in the show. There is an ever-present intimacy to these moments because the camera doesn’t judge any more than Linton’s voiceover throughout does, the combination never offering a feeling of tokenism or superficial heroism that regular films especially so often place an any disabled individual. By focusing on their humanity imperfect looks past the disability into the individual person, revealing who they are.
The issue, however, is that imperfect concludes feeling a tad imbalanced and rushed. It opens with Linton and ends with Linton, yet her story is so mixed in with the cast that we don’t feel like we get Linton’s full perspective on life as a person with a disability or as a director. We get some raw footage of her discussing her concerns over taking on the role, but the scenes where we watch her directing are usually within the context of the performer she’s speaking with. Conversely, though the documentary makes a point to introduce us to several of the cast members, we never feel like we are following any of them particularly deeply. This isn’t to suggest that what we receive is shallow, so much as it’s too brief. By the end of the film, I felt a connection with the cast, excited to see their work, feeling like I’d gone on a journey with them, but then the doc speeds through opening night in an effort to get to what makes up the final moments of the doc: final thoughts from Linton. Here, again, if the film had been longer or had picked one perspective as the guide through everything else (like staying on Linton throughout), then the whole might’ve felt more thorough and penetrative by the conclusion.
Art is a great way to effect change in a community. It can be as simple as a poem, as complex as a song; it need only resonate within the individual in order for someone to feel altered in some way. Given the long history of coded characters often reaffirming stereotypes of communities and cultures, the work of PTC matters to undo so much of the presumption ingrained in individuals. Linton and Malone’s imperfect may wear its namesake title well, but it’s still a fantastic step forward in shifting wider public perception. That it does it while avoiding all the tropes that far too many stories — oral, written, or cinematic — continue to reassert is the best part of it, allowing it to serve as a guide for future documentaries and features which include people with disabilities.
Premiering at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival: January 27, 2022 – February 6, 2022.
For more information, head to the official imperfect website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.