Meredith Aleigha Wells is a hyphenate in more ways than one: They're an actor-singer-dancer and theater-maker, as well as a disability-and-LGBTQ-rights activist who works to improve visibility for disabled and LGBTQ performers. Earlier this summer, they sent us an announcement for their current prodject: one of the principal roles in Sister Act at The Muny, in St. Louis, running now through August 20.
We wanted to know more about the role, and how they bring their activism into their creative work, so they agreed to answer some questions for us via email.
Question: How did you learn about the Sister Act production — did you read about it, or do you have a prior relationship with The MUNY?
Wells: No prior relationship. I believe I saw the casting notice for Muny’s season on Playbill.com if I recall. As a non-union performer, my only option was to attend the St. Louis nonunion dance call. I generally go for an EPA (Equity Principal Auditions) or singer’s call if I have the option, so I was pretty nervous. They had us do a dance combination and then a portion of us were asked to stay and sing something from our book for the casting directors. That night, I got a phone call that the next morning they wanted me to come in and read for Sister Mary Robert and dance for a few of the other shows. The callback day was absolutely wild but so fun and then I got the call about a week or two later.
Question: Have you begun rehearsing yet?
Wells: Not yet. It’s a very quick process. We have about a week and half to learn the role, some technical rehearsals, and then we open and run for about a week. I fly to St. Louis on August 2.
Question: What’s appealing to you about your role?
Wells: If I’m being completely honest, I was not familiar with Sister Act so the role of Sister Mary Robert was not even on my radar before my callback. However, as soon as I started reading the lyrics for The Life I Never Led, I immediately resonated with the final verse. It really spoke to me in regards to my feelings around being disabled in this industry and the precipice I’m at in my career. This is my first principal role in a musical as a working professional so I couldn’t be more excited!
Question: Where are you usually based? (Are you living in St Louis or did you travel there for this show?)
Wells: I’ve been based in Chicago Illinois for a few years now. I was a digital nomad for a while beforehand so being based anywhere still feels so foreign to me. I joke sometimes that I am “loosely based” in Chicago because I still travel a lot and spend extended periods of time touring or working on out-of-town contracts most years.
Question: There are actually two folks from UMass on this show, the other being Katy Geraghty (extended and touring cast for Broadway's Into the Woods revival) — have you had a chance to catch up about your time here?
Wells: Yeah, the few times I’ve been in NYC we’ve been able to catch up!
Question: Can you talk a bit about how your work as an activist for disability and LGBTQ awareness played into both your decision to take the role and how/if it affects your interpretation of the role? (During their time at UMass, Wells was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS,) a form of autonomic dysfunction. They use a wheelchair and were the first performer in a wheelchair in one of our mainstage productions.)
Wells: I believe we can ignite the most positive change when we advocate in ways that are aligned with our purpose. We all have our lane. Right now, my focus is paving a path for more disabled and LGBTQIA+ artists to be a part of this industry. More often than not, I am the first wheelchair user to work at the venues I’ve been hired at. So my career looks a lot like setting the precedent again, and again, and again, until being gender non-conforming or disabled and onstage isn’t a headline but common.
I don’t think we are there yet so it’s still important to uplift underrepresented artists when they are breaking ground. When it comes to gender nonconformity there’s still so much to fight for; de-gendering awards, running coed dance calls, just to name a few. I hope to leave venues more accessible and inclusive then I found them for the next performer.
As far as my interpretation of the role, part of Sister Mary Robert’s storyline is that she was left at the door as a toddler. I think casting a disabled actor is actually brilliant and I’m excited to imbue this part of her backstory with this additional layer of complexity. I’m also excited in general to be playing a role not specifically written as disabled!
Question: I’m curious about the process of choreographing a role to incorporate movement with a wheelchair. Are the director/choreographer experienced in working with artists who use a wheelchair or are they new to it — and if the latter, do you anticipate doing some educating/collaborating to make the process work?
Wells: When I auditioned, I translated the choreography (which was demonstrated by a non disabled dancer) on the spot. Translating, or adapting, is a skill I’ve honed in on over the years so that no matter what a choreographer’s experience with choreographing for seated bodies is, I know I’ll be able to bring their vision to life. However, I actually have a meeting with Denis later this week to talk over this very subject. It’s the first time a choreographer has ever asked to collaborate in this way, prior to the start of rehearsals, so I’m really optimistic and excited to see what he is cooking up!
Question: Could you expand on what it means to translate movement?
Wells: Becoming a wheelchair user led me to develop a personal movement lexicon, where each gesture of traditional techniques found its seated expression. I refer to this process as translation because of its resemblance to the linguistic expertise demonstrated by polyglots. It requires a fluency in numerous movement languages and the capacity to instantaneously interpret instructed sequences of gestures into a seated movement vernacular. Embracing improvisation and composition allowed me to originate supplementary modus operandi outside the scope of the conventional, non-disabled-centered paradigms taught in universities and major dance companies. I am interested in utilizing these skills to disrupt and immerse myself in traditional performance spaces and create entirely new ones that prioritize accessibility.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about how your training at UMass connects with your role? Are there things you learned here, or experiences you had on MainStage or student shows, that helped shape your approach to this musical?
Wells: I tap into my training every day on the job but I think in particular I’ll be focusing on techniques I learned in my private voice lessons with Dr, Jamie-Rose Guarrine (I hope she is proud of how far my mixed belt has come). Also, Sister Mary Robert has a lot of dialogue interruptions within her songs so I imagine I’ll be pulling from the lessons on scene into song work covered in my musical theater classes as well.
Question: What’s up next for you after this role?
Wells: After Sister Act, I am choreographing and performing in CounterBalance, Chicago’s Physically Integrated Dance Festival put on by Momenta Dance Company. I also have an exciting project lined up for the holidays but I can’t share the details yet. But stay tuned because that project will have me in New England for a little bit!