By Tom Alsip |
‘This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena – you are!’
– Ali Stroker, on accepting the 2019 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Trailblazer. Tony winner. Advocate.
Ali Stroker (she/her) has collected quite the list of superlatives in her career. And it seems she is only just getting started. The 2019 Tony Award winner was a keynote at this year’s SETC Virtual Convention, where she continued to inspire and excite young performers across the country with her story, message and success.
Asked during her keynote address what advice she would give her younger self today, Stroker shared words that are valuable for all artists starting out in the business: “Be patient and trust in timing. If you continue to work hard, if you continue to apply yourself and put yourself out there and go after the things that are exciting to you … you will find your way.”
Breaking new ground with her talent
Of the many adjectives used to describe Stroker, the one that in many ways defines her is trailblazer. And that comes from her incredible success as a performer who uses a wheelchair.
When she was 2 years old, Stroker was paralyzed from the chest down in an automobile accident and began using a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her goals. She was introduced to theatre when she was cast in a production of Annie at age 7, and a passion for the stage drove her throughout her childhood and into her professional career. Despite her differences from others on that journey, she never stopped believing in her dream. And she hopes that her success can serve as inspiration for others who use wheelchairs and are starting out on that same journey.
As she told the New York Times in a May 15, 2019, story, “I’m very aware that when I was a little girl, I wasn’t seeing anybody like me, and on days when I’m exhausted or discouraged about something, that lights a fire. I hope that for young people in chairs who feel that this is too hard, that they see that being in a chair is like getting a secret key to an unknown door – that they see what I’m doing and are reassured that anything is possible.”
Once bitten by the theatre bug, Stroker never looked back. With her stunning voice and natural acting talent, Stroker performed in high school productions in Ridgewood, NJ, and in the Papermill Playhouse Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory program. She was accepted into New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied musical theatre at the Cap 21 Studio.
She became the first actress who uses a wheelchair to graduate from the Tisch School of the Arts drama program. That was just the first of many barriers she has broken in her career. Soon after graduating from NYU, Stroker auditioned for and was subsequently cast in the second season of The Glee Project, a reality television competition where the grand prize was a chance to appear on Fox’s popular musical television series Glee. Stroker was a runner-up, but was chosen to guest star on the show in 2013.
That opened doors for her as a performer and also provided an opportunity for her to share her personal journey with others.
“[The Glee Project] … was kind of the perfect opportunity, because I got to sing, dance and act and make music videos every week,” Stroker told her SETC keynote audience. “And then I also could tell my story. And one of the realities of when I first started auditioning was, people were very curious. They were like, ‘Who is this? What’s up? What’s with her chair?’ So, I was able to share my story on that show in a very public way, in a way that felt comfortable to me. And that was really helpful because people are curious. And it was kind of nice. It sort of got it out of the way.”
She continued to find success in TV and film, appearing as a guest star on TV in Faking It, Instinct and Lethal Weapon and earning a recurring role on ABC’s Ten Days in the Valley. She also appeared in Blue Bloods and starred in the Lifetime Christmas movie Christmas Ever After.
But as successful as Stroker has been in the world of film/TV, she is best known for her work in theatre. She portrayed Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in several theatres across the country, including a performance with the Philadelphia Theatre Company that earned her a Barrymore Award.
On to Broadway – and a Tony Award
Stroker made her Broadway debut in 2015 in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening. With that performance, Stroker became the first wheelchair-using actress to appear on a Broadway stage. Three years later, she was back on Broadway with the revival of Oklahoma! in the role of Ado Annie. The show was a hit at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn before it traveled across the river to the Circle in the Square Theatre for a successful Broadway run.
“When this revival came along, what I knew about it was that it was going to be something very different,” Stroker said. “And you never know what that’s going to be like until there you are in rehearsal, and you realize that this is not going to be anything like the Oklahoma! that I know … It was really, really amazing and difficult and hard and also just a blast.”
She was excited to win the role of Ado Annie, because she “is so fun, and she is so unapologetically herself and she asks a million questions,” Stroker said. “And she just doesn’t have any shame about who she is, and that’s so fun to get to play every single night.”
Any time she’s auditioning for a show, Stroker said, she considers what being a wheelchair user will mean to her character.
“When I’m auditioning for a role that’s not specifically a disabled role, I think, ‘Could this work? Is this possible?’” Stroker said. “And, in this case, I thought, ‘Absolutely.’”
Playing Ado Annie in a wheelchair opened new opportunities and challenged what Stroker believes are some preconceived notions.
“What I loved about it is that I feel like people with disabilities are often sort of labeled as not sexual people,” she said. “And Ado Annie has such a handle on her sexuality. She is not afraid to pursue relationships and be physical. So, this felt like such an opportunity … to sort of get to do this role and share my physical vocabulary. And we found so much play and fun in the relationships and how those were physically going to manifest.”
Stroker believes that, rather than being a disability for a performer, using a wheelchair can unlock a wealth of unexplored possibilities in the characters she portrays.
And that, she noted, impacts the audience, which has been “sort of taught to not stare, not ask, not point around disability,” Stroker said. “And so, when I’m on stage, I’m telling the audience, ‘NO, you CAN look. You can look and you can watch, and you can begin to understand, and you can be a part of this world.’ And so, it’s sort of like an invitation, versus the way that our culture has sort of decided that disability … you have to be very polite around it.”
That is liberating, not just for the audience, but for her as a performer as well, Stroker said.
“Being on stage and being in a chair and inviting people to watch and look is probably the most empowering thing that has ever happened to me,” she said.
It was in the Broadway production of Oklahoma! that Stroker broke down her most recent barriers: becoming the first wheelchair user to be nominated for a Tony and the first wheelchair user to WIN a Tony Award. The win had a far-reaching impact for all people with disabilities, something that was not lost on Stroker.
“It makes me feel amazing to be able to be that for them,” Stroker told the New York Times after winning the Tony Award, “because I didn’t have that as an 11-year-old girl pursuing this dream.”
Advocacy: Opening doors for all
Throughout her life, Stroker has not been defined by her limitations, but rather has thrived with them, finding success through her talent and her drive. And everywhere she has worked, she has made it clear that she belongs. She has continually spoken about the need to make the Broadway world more accessible to wheelchair users, so others can follow in her footsteps. She notes that when Oklahoma! transferred to Broadway, the theatre was not accessible for her as a performer.
“So, we had to bring in a disability consultant,” she said. “My partner, David [Perlow], came with me to the theatre before they had done all of the accommodations. And he carried me around and we figured it out … And the producers paid for it. And I’m so grateful for the producers that I’ve worked with because they have said, ‘Yes. We want Ali a part of this, so, yes, we will raise the money to make this happen.’”
All theatres need to work at making backstage areas accessible, she noted.
“Most theatres are accessible to patrons, and not accessible backstage,” she said. “So, I think it comes down to the people who own the theatres sitting down and looking at all their departments. And if somebody were to apply for a job who had a disability how can they make certain things accessible?”
In addition to her work in theatre accessibility, Stroker is passionate about a number of other causes. She has served as co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City. She started an anti-bullying campaign, Be More Heroic, which has toured the United States to pass on a message about acceptance. And she continues to work as an advocate, through a trip to South Africa with ARTS InsideOut, where she taught theatre workshops for children affected by AIDS, and her new work with the theatre company ATTENTION Theatre, which she founded with Perlow. She has a book coming out in April about a girl who uses a wheelchair and wants to be a performer.
Ali Stroker. She is a trailblazer. A Tony winner. An advocate. But most importantly, she is someone who chases her dreams.
As Oklahoma! director Daniel Fish told the Los Angeles Times on the day Stroker won the Tony Award: “I hope they [others with disabilities] see that anyone can be on Broadway if they’re great, and if they hurl themselves at it with the passion and soul and intelligence that Ali Stroker has. There should be no barriers.”
BFA, Theatre, New York University, 2009
SELECTED BROADWAY CREDITS:
Oklahoma!, Ado Annie (2019)
Spring Awakening, Anna (2015-2016)
Oklahoma!, Ado Annie, St. Ann’s Warehouse; 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Olive Ostrovsky, Papermill/Philadelphia Theatre Co./Cleveland Playhouse; Spring Awakening, Anna, Deaf West Theatre; Annie, Star-to-Be, Hollywood Bowl; Finding Glee, One-Woman Show, 54 Below
The Glee Project, Contestant (Second Place), Oxygen; Glee, Guest Star, Fox; Ten Days in the Valley, Recurring, ABC; Christmas Ever After, Izzi Simmons, Lifetime; Blue Bloods, Guest Star, CBS; Instinct, Guest Star, CBS; Lethal Weapon, Guest Star, CBS; Charmed, Guest Star, CW; The Bold Type, Guest Star, Freeform
Tony Award: Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Oklahoma! (2019)
Drama Desk Award: Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, Oklahoma! (2019)
Barrymore Award: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2011)
Co-Chair, Women Who Care, United Cerebral Palsy of New York City; Founding member, Be More Heroic, Anti-Bullying Campaign
This article originally appeared in Southern Theatre, The Magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference,
Volume LXII Number 2, Spring-Summer 2021