NEW YORK CITY: Ali Stroker doesn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams. She has used a wheelchair since an accident left her paralyzed from the chest down when she was two years old. Her vibrant personality and singing voice led her to the stage, where she has been performing professionally since she was 11. Ali is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in drama. After attending an open casting call, Stroker became a finalist on the second season of “The Glee Project” and landed a role on the show. Now she is making her Broadway debut in Spring Awakening as the first person on record who uses a wheelchair to be cast on the Great White.
Stroker is blazing a trail and becoming a role model for performers with disabilities—something she never had herself. I caught up with Ali to learn how she is tackling her to-do list and how she stays positive.
You have dreamed of being on Broadway since you were a little girl. Now you are the first person in a chair to appear on Broadway. When did you become aware of that?
When I was growing up and dreaming of being on Broadway, I didn’t know that I was going to be the first person ever in a wheelchair on Broadway. My agents let me know that when we found out that the show was going to Broadway—that was a really exciting moment. And also a moment of “Wow, it’s time.” Things need to change and we are at a moment and time where things are shifting and changing. It is exciting that people with disabilities and who are differently abled are getting opportunities on Broadway.
The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the home of Spring Awakening, was built in the year 1926. What’s it like getting around backstage?
Of course my first question was, what is the accessibility like? They made one of the stage entrances accessible with an accessible bathroom, and there was an accessible entrance to get backstage. The producers and the theatre were totally down to do it—it wasn’t even a question. Which is really exciting and cool that I didn’t even need to have that conversation with them. I can’t do a crossover because the space onstage is filled with set pieces and things for the show, so we had to be strategic that every side I exit, I enter on that side as well. But all of that is sort of like the fun, creative part.
You didn’t know American Sign Language going in. What was like to learn?
It was really amazing, and it was hard. Because it is a language that I respect so deeply and I felt badly when I was learning it—I felt like I wasn’t doing it well. I learned it probably a lot faster than I would have if I was taking a class, because there was a need to learn it. I wanted to communicate with my cast members, and I really wanted to serve this piece of theatre in the best way possible. I learned all of the signs that I needed to know for the show first, and then slowly started learning. Now I am conversational, and it is really fun.
What’s it like juggling the signing and moving around the stage?
That was something that early on, I thought: I need my hands! I got to work with Spencer Liff who is absolutely a genius, and he and I have had a lot of fun figuring out, Okay, what is a priority here, movement or the sign? Do I need to get someone to push me if I do need to sign? With all the projects that I work on, the movement is always an adventure. I think of it as a puzzle that I have to solve, and this show has brought up more—I wouldn’t say challenges, but different paths that I have had to go down and figure out. It’s been fun working with my other cast members as well because we all have to help each other.
In many ways, “Glee” has been a forerunner for representing disabilities on television. Can you talk a bit about your experience on “The Glee Project” and on “Glee”?
When I first got on “The Glee Project,” I didn’t know what reality TV was going to be like. I was very, very nervous about how I was going to be portrayed. And then realized this was an incredible opportunity, not only to get to do this thing I do as an actress and a singer, but also to tell my story, which is a part of who I am as an actor and as an artist. It really worked out beautifully; it was so exciting to be one of the finalists and then I ending up getting on the show. And getting to work on the show was another dream of mine—the first time I saw “Glee” I thought, “I have to be on that show. I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to be on that show.” It took a long time, but I always feel like whatever the goal or whatever the dream, there are a lot of different ways to get there, and you usually get there in a way that you don’t expect. I never thought that doing a musical out in L.A. would get me to Broadway.
What was the timeline of Spring Awakening from Deaf West Theatre to Broadway?
It was a year and a half, which is unheard of. I auditioned for the show in March of 2014, and did the smaller sort of 99-seat theatre run. In 2015, we did a production of it at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which is a bit bigger. Then we were rehearsing to get it on Broadway! It was really, really fast.
Are you glad to be back here on the East Coast in this cold weather?
What do you mean am I glad to be back? It’s so good! [laughs]
What advice would you give to performers who use a wheelchair and want to pursue acting in NYC?
My training and that experience of solving those puzzles in classes and getting around New York was really helpful for me when I began pursuing this professionally. So I really recommend to get training and take classes. Treat every audition and every opportunity as a moment for yourself to explore something new, not only about your art but also how you can work with people. Collaborating is really the name of the game for me and I don’t have all the answers, but I have some answers. There are artists out there who are excited and ready and wanting to work with our community. Trust that you are on your way and that the opportunities are coming to you.
What advice do you have for theatres that are maybe apprehensive to work with disabled actors?
I think that working with people who are differently abled is another opportunity to be creative. It’s also an opportunity to tell a story, and allow a voice to be heard that needs to be heard. Our community, unfortunately, when you look at the history of it, has not always been given equal opportunity and equal access. There are a lot of stories and there is a lot passion within our community, so it is a really cool opportunity I think to tell different kinds of stories, even if you don’t realize you are. I have been cast many times in roles that are not wheelchair-specific, but it is cool because no matter what, it might appear as an issue but then the story ends—and that is real life. There are times I am going about my day when [my wheelchair] is not a thing, and then I am like, “Man, this is a thing!”
In addition to being able to do some awesome wheelies onstage, I also read that you hold a national record for wheelchair racing.
When I was younger I used to wheelchair race, and I have this national record for my age, my injury, and a specific race. My dad always reminds me!
You’ve been conquering all your dreams. What is next for you?
I want to be on a TV sitcom and I would like to originate a role on Broadway. Those are on the list—I haven’t really give myself a specific timeline, but those are two things I’d love to do. Another thing I am working on that I am really excited about is I want to start a workshop or a camp with younger people who are differently abled who want to pursue the arts. I want to create a program where they can come to New York and study, and not only work with each other, but meet people with disabilities who work in the industry.