December 21, 2020

LIVING THE TRUTH

Musical theater artist, writer, and UMass grad Meredith Aleigha Wells ’17 lives life one gig at a time

Meredith Aleigha Wells ’17, has discovered that limitation breeds creativity. Since graduating from UMass Amherst with a BDIC (Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration) in musical theater, Wells has found many ways to work in the field, despite a scarcity of roles for performers with disabilities and the constraints of COVID-19.

Wells identifies as a queer disabled musical theatre artist and writer. As a UMass sophomore, after about a year of unexplained symptoms, they were diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a form of autonomic dysfunction (dysautonomia). Wells’s symptoms—including fatigue and dizziness—vary day to day and they use a wheelchair most of the time.

Despite the diagnosis, Wells doubled down on theatrical ambitions. At UMass, Wells was the first performer using a wheelchair to perform on the mainstage when they appeared in the workshop production of the musical Donny Johns. Wells was also a vocal soloist with the UMass Minutemen Marching Band, performing with the band at Gillette Stadium and in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In senior year, Wells wrote and performed an autobiographical one-person musical called Dysfunctioning Just Fine as a capstone project. After a sold-out UMass run, Wells brought the show to the My True Colors Festival in New York City and there won the Purple Skies Playwright Award.

“I was able to tell my story as a queer person and as a disabled person navigating in an able-bodied world,” says Wells.

Judyie Al-Bilali, associate professor in Performance and Theater for Social Change, remembers Meredith as “a gifted artist, an exceptional collaborator, and an inspired cultural activist.” Al-Bilali says, “While at UMass, Meredith offered a bold, clear vision for the work while maintaining an open mind and an open heart for the input of the creative team."

The summer after graduating in 2017, Wells moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to take up a new challenge—dance—as a member of Dancing Wheels, a physically integrated touring repertory company. “Most people assume people in wheelchairs don’t dance, and they don’t get what I do until they see me do it,” they say. As a company member for one year and then as a guest artist, Wells mastered the art of movement translation and performed in Chicago, St. Louis, at the Alvin Ailey Theater in New York City, and in Beijing.

“I had actually not been a concert dancer before that,” Wells says, “although I had been dancing since I was a kid, it was mostly in the context of musical theater. It wasn’t until I became disabled that I considered dance as an option, but that is the beauty of the training I received at UMass; I felt prepared to pursue music, theater, and dance together or separately.”

Wells was rehearsing for a new play about Albert Einstein in Columbus, Ohio, when COVID-19 shut down performance spaces. Since then, Wells has moved to Chicago and has been performing virtually whenever they can and using the downtime to prepare for performance and activism in post-COVID times. “At UMass I learned how theater can spark social change and I enjoy using art as a platform to empower people with and without disabilities,” Wells says. 

In June, for Pride Month, recognizing that people were “starved for art,” Wells produced a monthlong virtual fringe festival, showcasing LGBT+ actors, singers, and comedians. Proceeds from the performances went toward a grant for a queer Black artist and to Black Lives Matter related organizations. “That’s been my proudest accomplishment during quarantine,” Wells said.

Wells is excited for a time when there are greater opportunities for performers with disabilities. “When there are more disabled writers, that’s when you’ll see the pace of change accelerate,” they say. “Today, only 2 percent of roles on screen are for disabled characters and 95 percent of those roles go to able-bodied actors. As for me, I don’t know what projects will come up next, but I will be ready.”