By Maddie Orton
“My name is Ali Stroker…And I wanted to be an actress and I wanted to be a singer from seven years old on.”
If Stroker looks familiar, it might be from her role as Betty on the hit TV show Glee or her stint on the audition-based reality series, The Glee Project. Now the Ridgewood-native adds Broadway to her resume with the highly-anticipated revival of the musical Spring Awakening. She’s been told this makes her the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway. Ever.
“And that’s really exciting and also surprising,” says Stroker, “because it’s like, ‘Wait, really? It’s 2015!’ It’s really exciting because I think it’s a moment in our industry where we can see that everyone can be included. Inclusion makes beautiful art.”
That’s especially true with this production created by Deaf West, a theatre company out of North Hollywood. They serve audiences and artists alike who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Signing or captioning is used throughout the show, and Stroker shares the stage with Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin among several other deaf or hard-of-hearing performers.
“I wish people knew that disabilities and people who are differently-abled are just an opportunity to be even more creative,” says Stroker. “When I come into a room, it opens up a conversation.”
It’s a conversation Stroker is used to having. When she started in NYU’s prestigious CAP 21 program for musical theater she quickly ran into a challenge.
“We weren’t sure how I was going to do the dance program, and I think, at first, everyone was a little nervous about how it would happen,” she explains. “I immediately learned that I had to be my own advocate, and that I had to really get good at having conversations with people that would ease their nerves about what would happen. I became really good at translating movement for myself.
That’s a skill that continues to help in her career. And when Stroker performs in musicals like Spring Awakening on Broadway or The 25th Annual “Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Paper Mill Playhouse, she says it shows people that casting actors with disabilities works.
That may seem obvious, but in many cases, actors with disabilities are not seen for characters who aren’t explicitly disabled. Or, perhaps more aggravating, they’re not seen for characters who are differently-abled.
“I feel really passionately about people with disabilities playing the roles of a character who has a disability,” Stroker says. “There still are so many parts of characters who have disabilities and we’re just putting people in wheelchairs and having somebody play blind or play deaf. And it’s a shame because when you live with a disability, you come with all of this information and this experience that will only heighten and make the role more authentic.”
Glee fans may know that the character of Artie, who is in a wheelchair, is played by the actor Kevin McHale, who is not. Stroker is very clear on the point that she does not begrudge actors who play these parts, and she wants roles because she is right for them, not because she fits the description. But, she says seeing her community represented in the media isn’t just about equality, it’s about eliminating fear of the unknown.
“I always feel like TV and media is the first place where we can break down those walls and barriers and talk about those things that, maybe you wouldn’t want to have a conversation in real life, but you can have that conversation watching,” Stroker says.
Though Stroker’s happy to talk about her disability in real life, too. She says she understands some people have never had first-hand experience with someone who’s differently-abled, so she wishes they would simply ask: “What’s your story?”