Chicago-based dancer, actress, singer, and writer Meredith Aliga Wells dreamed of working in the arts since she was young, and she landed at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to make that dream come true. There was, however, that Wells (who uses their pronouns) 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 could have forced Welles to give up their performance aspirations altogether, they say their disabilities have revitalized their craft and forced them to consider why they wanted a career in the performing arts in the first place. After graduation, Wells continued to perform at festivals around the world, even creating his own music from one person, Dysfunction just fine.
This month, Wells set out to conquer more uncharted territory as the first artist in a wheelchair to set out on a national tour: Dr. Seuss how the Grinch stole Christmas! musical. Production just ended shows after playing in Paducah, KY, Charlotte, NC, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Georgia.
They spoke to Wells about the challenges and opportunities they faced on the tour.
Dance Soul: What are some of the ways a disability affects your life as an artist?
Meredith Aliga Wells:
Being disabled affects every aspect of my life, including performance. When taking the test, I have to think about things like the accessibility of the venues, the climate of the outdoors, and what handicap accommodations I would need if I booked the job.
When I learn choreography, I have to work on double duty and wear my “Dancer Hat” and “Choreographer/Motion Master and Translator Hat” to be able to instantly translate what is being taught into a seated position. I call it “translation” because it’s like bilingualism. I have a bunch of vocabulary in the language of the seated motion, and I know what each of my steps translates to in traditional ballet and jazz terms.
Once I get to the stage, my outfits tend to adjust, and my dressing rooms are at stage level. What I found particularly challenging on the tour is that every theater is different. Some theaters have inaccessible crossovers, so my show blocking, especially my exits and entrances, changes quite a bit from place to place, depending on which side of the stage my dressing room is on.
DS: How did you book the Grinch tour?
Before booking the killjoy, I was in a rut, always feeling like I’m sending in solids, getting really close, and eventually not booking. It’s happened so many times in the past year that I’m starting to wonder if national tours are logistically feasible for someone in a wheelchair, as many tourist homes are inaccessible. I was one decline away from putting the pause button on the national tour tests when I booked this show.
I have only tested by self-tapes. The initial submission of interest to audition on Actors Access led to a request from casting directors to prepare a Who Kid package of material, which included a selection of songs and dance from the show, as well as an acrobatic tape. A few weeks later I was told that everyone loved my strips, and that they wanted to explore and play around with some options. Then I was asked to prepare the grandmother’s stuff. Introducing two completely different characters was really fun, and a few weeks later I got an email with an offer to join the tour as a Punky Who!
DS: What were you most worried about going through this experience?
Before landing in Paducah, KY, for rehearsals, I was very nervous about bringing my service dog, Scout, on tour. With theaters closed over 18 months ago, Scout never accompanied me to rehearsal or backstage. Fortunately, our producers, co-workers, and creative staff were all very supportive and patient as we navigated this new territory as a team.
DS: What challenges did you face on tour?
The biggest challenge for me getting around is the constant shift in routine. There are macro-level parts that remain relatively the same (they appear at about the same time at night, three-day show on Saturdays, etc.), but with every change of city there are small parts of your routine that are constantly changing, like non-grocery stores. Familiar in each area, different hours for nearby food, new gym equipment, laundry stops and more. Much of my chronic disease management thrives on routine, so finding ways to give myself a routine without depriving myself of exploring and enjoying each new city was a new and exciting challenge.
One of the other challenges I had is that with all the flights I take, few parts of my seat have been smashed by many airlines. Not surprising, considering 28 wheelchairs are broken or damaged daily by airlines, but it’s frustrating and time-consuming to report at baggage claim and I feel like I’m keeping the group waiting. Luckily my cast really understands, and luckily I only had minor damage to my seat that didn’t affect my ability to perform.
DS: What accommodations helped you the most on the tour?
Having two crates for my service dog so I don’t have to carry a crate every day between the hotel and the theater was a game changer. One lives in my hotel room, the other lives in my dressing room and is transported with the group. My fashion socks are compression stockings, which were great for reducing my cognitive impairment. It may seem like a no-brainer, but all hotels and theaters are wheelchair accessible. This is actually not something I’m used to.
DS: What were your most memorable moments on the tour?
It may be cliched, but going out on opening night and doing this show is for the first time. It was a moment I wasn’t sure I would experience.
DS: What lesson will you learn from this tour?
When you feel like you’re running out of time, slow down. I didn’t book this overnight offer. I was not lucky. I devoted half my life to a dream and held steady every day until that dream came true. be patient.
DS: What do you hope other performers with disabilities will learn from your example?
Sometimes the path is not smooth for you. You may feel lonely at times, but keep showing up anyway. Set a precedent. Keep taking up space. Hold on to handicap and access their radar. My work is always dedicated to vulnerable groups. Strong and resilient humans who shatter stereotypes and exceed expectations every day!
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