Chicago-based dancer, actress, singer, and writer Meredith Aleigha Wells dreamed of an artistic career from a young age and landed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to pursue that dream. It was there, however, that Wells (who uses the pronouns they/them) was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a form of autonomic dysfunction, which eventually required them to use a wheelchair. While a debilitating illness might have forced Wells to abandon performance aspirations altogether, they instead say their disabilities have reinvigorated their craft and forced them to reflect on why they want a career in the performing arts in first place. After graduating, Wells continued to perform at festivals around the world and even created his own musical, Very well.
This month, Wells set out to conquer even more uncharted territory as the first wheelchair artist to embark on a national tour: How the Grinch Stole Dr. Seuss’ Christmas! Musical comedy. The production just wrapped up performances after playing in Paducah, KY, Charlotte, NC, Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA.
spoke to Wells about the challenges and opportunities they encountered on tour.
Dance Spirit: In what ways does having a disability affect your life as an artist?
Meredith Aleigha Wells:
Being disabled affects every aspect of my life, including performance. When auditioning, I need to consider things like venue accessibility, outdoor venue climates, and any disability accommodations I need if I book the job.
When I learn choreography, I have to double work and wear both my “dancer’s hat” and my “choreographer’s/master-movement-translator’s hat” so that I can immediately translate what is being taught while seated. I call it “translating” because it’s like being bilingual. I have a set of vocabulary in my seated movement language and know what each of my steps translates into traditional ballet and jazz terminology.
Once in the theatre, my costumes tend to be changed and my dressing rooms are at stage level. What I found particularly difficult on tour was that every theater is different. Some theaters have inaccessible crossings, so my show blocking, mainly my exits and entrances, changes slightly from room to room, depending on which side of the stage my box is on.
DS: How did you book the Grinch tour?
Before booking the Grumpy, I was in a bit of a rut, I always felt like I was sending solid material, getting very close and finally not booking. This had happened so many times in the last year that I started to wonder if national tours were logistically possible for someone in a wheelchair, as many tour houses are not accessible. I was one rejection away from putting the pause button on the national tour auditions when I booked this show.
I auditioned only through self-tapes. An early submission of interest for an audition on Actors Access led to a request from casting directors to prepare the Who Kid material package, which included a song and dance combination from the show, as well as an acrobatic tape . I was told a few weeks later that everyone loved my tapes and wanted to explore and play with some options. I was then asked to prepare the material for Grandma Who. Submitting for two very different characters was really fun, and a few weeks later I got an email with the offer to join the tour as Punky Who!
DS: What made you most nervous about taking part in this experiment?
Before landing in Paducah, KY for rehearsals, I was very nervous about bringing my service dog, Scout, on tour. Because the theaters have been closed for over 18 months, Scout has never accompanied me to rehearsals or backstage. Fortunately, our producers, my castmates, and our creative team have all been so supportive and patient as we navigate this new territory as a team.
DS: What challenges did you have to overcome on tour?
The biggest challenge for me in touring is the constant change of routine. There are parts on a more macro level that stay relatively the same (shows around the same time at night, three days of show on Saturdays, etc.), but with each change of city there are micro -parts of your routine that are constantly changing, like unfamiliar grocery stores in each area, different times for nearby food, new gym equipment, laundry situations and more. Much of my chronic disease management relies on routine, so finding ways to give myself routine without depriving myself of exploring and enjoying each new city has been an exciting new challenge.
Another challenge I have faced is that with all the flights I do, parts of my chair have been broken by various airlines. It’s no surprise, given that an average of 28 wheelchairs are broken or damaged per day by airlines, but it’s frustrating and time-consuming to have to file a report at baggage claim and have the impression of keeping the group waiting. Luckily my cast is very understanding and luckily I only had minor damage to my chair that didn’t affect my ability to perform.
DS: Which accommodations helped you the most on tour?
Having two crates for my service dog so I don’t have to lug a crate every day between the hotel and the theater was a game changer. One lives in my hotel room, and the other lives in my dressing room and travels with the decor. My costume socks are compression socks, which has been great in minimizing my cognitive dysfunction. And it may seem obvious, but all hotels and theaters are wheelchair accessible. It’s actually not something I’m used to.
DS: What moments stood out to you the most during the tour?
It may be cliché, but to come out on opening night and put on this show for the first time. It was a moment that I was never sure of living.
DS: What lesson will you take away from this tour?
When you feel like you’re running out of time, slow down. I didn’t book this show overnight. I was not lucky. I dedicated half a life to a dream and stayed constant every day until that dream came true. Stay patient.
DS: What do you hope other artists with disabilities will learn from your example?
Sometimes the path will not be paved for you. It can be lonely at times, but keep showing yourself anyway. Create the precedent. Keep taking up space. Keep putting disability and access on their radar. My work is always dedicated to underdogs; strong, resilient humans who break stereotypes and exceed expectations every day!