"Alright, I've got to find my way in. I've got find a way in," says Ali Stroker of the challenges she faces on a daily basis. Stroker, who made her Broadway debut as Anna in Spring Awakening and was the first performer to rock a wheelchair on the Main Stem, says that the main obstacle she faces in her daily life is fear. "We have a lot of fear to deal with. About what someone can and can't do and about our ideas of what is possible."
So, how does an actress who uses a wheelchair find her way "in" and push past the fear?
"I've just decided to completely surrender and own it and be creative and let it stump me and let it take people places," she says.
Stroker was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was two years old. She, however, chooses not to view the crash as an accident, but as something that was meant to happen. "I've been given this chair to use and to live in and to navigate through my life. I don't believe it's an accident that I'm in this chair. I'm supposed to do this. It's part of my journey," she says. "Why resist it?"
She made her acting debut starring as the titular character in a backyard production of Annie, directed by fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, her role model and then next-door neighbor at her family's beach house in New Jersey. "She was so passionate and excited about theatre. I wanted to be like her!" Stroker's other role models include her parents, Jane Krakowski (with whom she worked on readings of Ryan Scott Oliver's Mrs. Sharp), Kristin Chenoweth (one of her favorite "powerhouses") and Judith Light (who she went as for Halloween this year).
"It was actually a mistake – the hair," she said, explaining her Light-inspired look. "I was going for some other hairstyle and then I did it like [Judith], and I was like, 'There she is!' I have a friend who works over at Thérèse Raquin, and he was like, 'I just showed Judith your Halloween costume, and she loves it,' and I was dead." She laughed. "Dead! I've met her before. I don't know if she remembers me, but she's kind of one of my idols. She's so beautiful. I love her."
From the backyard production of Annie, Stroker went on to play Dorothy in her fourth-grade production of The Wiz, a role she considers to be her biggest success to date. The experience was a turning point for her and her community. "I was seen in this other light — like, 'Oh, she's a talented little girl.' It wasn't just about, 'Oh, this is a little girl who's gone through a trauma,'" says Stroker. "For me it was like, 'I've found my purpose!' I have something to live for and something I love and am so passionate about and that makes me so happy."
Since then she has starred as Olive Ostrovsky in Paper Mill Playhouse's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (directed by Marc Bruni, whom she has known since high school) and appeared on both The Glee Project and Glee.
When auditioning, Stroker says that she is usually called in to play "the bitch." "She just…she lives inside of me, and people love it, and so I play that role a lot."
Stroker goes into auditions with the same philosophy she does when dating: Hey! How about this? Most of the roles she has played were not originally written for actresses who use wheelchairs, which means that directors have to look at characters in new ways when she is auditioning for them.
"Some people are afraid and not ready and some people are ready," she explained. "I've been able to work with a lot of people who are ready, who embrace it and love it and are not afraid. It's just this beautiful connection and process because they're learning things, and I'm learning things. I just have always felt like my wheelchair has opened doors and that the doors it has closed were not the doors I was supposed to open."
At her first audition for Spring Awakening all she had to do was sing. For callbacks, she sang and signed "The Song of Purple Summer." Her dance call, however, was where Stroker really got to strut her stuff.
"I just went in and adapted it the way that I do," she says. "I'm on a wheelchair dance team called the 'Walk and Roll Dance Team,' and I've been dancing and moving my whole life because I've been involved in musicals, so I've gotten good at just translating movement that somebody who's standing does to someone who's sitting. "When I'm in a dance call I usually do my own thing, and then if there's a moment I'll just say to the choreographer, 'If you have any ideas, please let me know, but I'm going to translate it the way I do,' and I actually enjoy that more because I understand my vocabulary better than somebody who's not in a chair because this is what I do, and this is how I roll — literally," she explained.
Stroker found out that the Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening would be transferring to Broadway while she was teaching with Arts InsideOut in South Africa. "I saw the email and my jaw dropped, and my whole body went hot, and then I didn't say anything. When we broke from the class I went and found my friend, and we hugged and cried, and I was like, 'I'm going to be on Broadway!' It was so cool."
Art imitates life in this staging of the coming-of-age musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. If an actor is living with a different set of abilities, his or her character shares that experience onstage. Actors who are Deaf in real life play Deaf characters onstage.
"It just feels truthful. It feels honest," she said. "It feels like real life. The beautiful part of it is that, once you've acknowledged the character, you don't have to say it. Once the character acknowledges it, then we can tell the story."
hrough all of life's challenges Stroker keeps her head held high with a bright smile. "I have felt defeated many times, of course, but I've never wanted to throw in the towel because I just love it too much," she says. "There's always another way to approach something, and there's always another door waiting to be opened. It's just a matter of whether or not you're ready to see it."