Actor Jenna Bainbridge: Trailblazing her way from Colorado to Broadway

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12min 39sec
The cast of the Broadway musical Suffs waves underneath a banner stating "National American Woman Suffrage Association 1913"
Joan Marcus
Actor Jenna Bainbridge waves from the right rear of this shot of the cast of “Suffs,” with Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt at the front.

Jenna Bainbridge, who describes herself as a proud disabled artist, is making her Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated musical "Suffs" at the Music Box Theatre

The actor’s journey began in Colorado, where she received her early training and performed with companies like Phamaly, BDT Stage, The Aurora Fox, and the Arvada Center.

On Sunday, June 16, Colorado audiences will be able to catch Bainbridge on TV, when she performs with the cast of "Suffs" on the 77th Tony Awards.

Bainbridge sustained a spinal cord injury at 18 months old, which resulted in partial paralysis from the waist down. On stage, she has been a trailblazer in the theater world, often using a wheelchair, cane or crutches in her roles, and at times walking unaided with a pronounced limp. 

Reflecting on her Broadway debut, Bainbridge started with two words: "It's wild.” 

“It is such a wonderful feeling. It is something that, honestly, as a kid, I never thought was possible," she added. "I had never seen anybody like me on a Broadway stage. I'd never seen anybody with a disability performing … The first time I ever saw it was seeing "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Phamaly when I was 12 years old. And I think I had kind of internalized that when disabilities were present on stage, it was the exception."

Bainbridge's journey to Broadway was unexpected. During the pandemic, she started auditioning for "pipe dream jobs," just to meet unemployment requirements. 

"I was like, 'Well, as long as I'm just sitting here in my apartment, why not audition for dream jobs?' And one of those dream jobs that I happened to see on the Equity website was for The Public Theater ... producing a reading of a new musical that at the time was called Suffragist. And I thought, 'Why not?'"

Courtesy of Jenna Bainbridge
Jenna Bainbridge in front of the Music Box Theater in New York City, where she's performing in the musical "Suffs," June, 2024.

Based on the history of the American women's suffrage movement, "Suffs", with music, lyrics, and a book by Shaina Taub, is set in 1913 and chronicles events leading up to the later ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted some women — typically white women — the right to vote. It premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in April 2022, and transferred to Broadway two years later, opening at the Music Box Theatre on April 18, 2024, to mostly positive reviews. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Bainbridge’s audition for "Suffs" led to a chance to work alongside Broadway veterans like Nikki M. James and Jenn Colella, an experience she called “very surreal.” 

"Then to also work with our director, Leigh Silverman, (who) is just so wonderful and so kind and has such brilliant ideas and was so excited to talk to me about disability inclusion and access, and was always so eager to hear my thoughts on how to incorporate my disability into the show and into the choreography and the staging."

In the musical, Bainbridge plays multiple roles, and while those characters weren't initially written with a disability in mind, Bainbridge's presence helped make the production more accessible. 

“Suffs," at its heart, is really a show about activists and about coming together to achieve goals through our activism, through raising our voices, through teamwork,” said Bainbridge. “And that was such a part of the ethos of the production as well, that when I came in, they said, ‘All right, great. If we're doing a show about activism, how can we be activists? How can we make sure that this is accessible?’”

Courtesy of Jenna Bainbridge
Actor Jenna Bainbridge snaps a selfie with some of her castmates on the musical, "Suffs", currently playing at the Music Box Theater in New York City, June 2024.

While the theater industry as a whole is not terribly accessible, Bainbridge said, the people behind "Suffs" want to be part of fixing that.

"The fact that I'm a part of "Suffs" now means that there is a theater on Broadway that is completely wheelchair-accessible backstage. We have a ramp to the stage door that was built specifically for me. There was a dressing room built backstage specifically for me that has completely step-free access, and there is an ADA-compliant bathroom backstage. And none of those things existed before "Suffs" moved into the Music Box Theater."

Opening up performance opportunities to more people is a mission Bainbridge has made a central part of her career; she’s also the co-founder of ConsultAbility, a consulting agency dedicated to making theater more accessible.

A career born in Denver

As a child interested in performing, Bainbridge initially faced rejection from dance studios unwilling to accommodate her disability. 

"It wasn't until (my mother) found Debbie Stark at Dance Kaleidoscope who said, 'Absolutely yes, please bring her here,' that I really started dancing," Bainbridge recalled.

While Bainbridge found another welcoming environment at Phamaly Theater Company, where the mission is to create an artistic home for performers with disabilities, her talent and determination opened other doors as well, leading her to perform at various theaters across the Denver area. She performed in Cinderella at Boulder Dinner Theater one summer and in Midsummer Night's Dream at Colorado Shakespeare Festival the next, until her career, as she put it, started to snowball into roles all around the region.

“I think if 15-year-old Jenna could see where I'm at now, I don't know if 15-year-old me would've just been completely surprised, just like, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't even think it was possible.' Or I think there's part of me that was like, 'Well, yeah, of course. I'm stubborn, I work hard. Of course, that's a possibility.'" 

Bainbridge added, "I'm just so honored, and I'm so excited to get to do this and get to perform and show the world that people with disabilities have a whole lot of talent, and we should be present on every stage."