Six Lessons I Learned from Ali Stroker
As a theatre performer with a disability, I was very excited to learn that the production of Spring Awakening on Broadway not only hosted a very talented cast of Deaf performers but also the first Broadway actress to use a wheelchair. Most people don’t know how historic that is for all artists with disabilities because the disabled have notoriously had some difficulties getting into the theatre industry (and not always because they can't get up the stairs).
So I mustered up the courage and decided to reach out to Ali Stroker, a Jersey native who got her start in musicals in places like the Papermill playhouse. Surprisingly she called me up and we had the best talk. Here are six lessons that I learned from her about hitting the boards even with a disability.
Lesson One: There is a rich community of performers with disabilities out there.
Ricky Young-Howze: Do you have a community of artists to fall back on?
Ali Stroker: I do. I have a few communities of differently abled artists. I am on a wheelchair dance team with the Walk and Roll Foundation. It’s a group of girls who are in chairs. I’ve had the chance to perform with them all over the country, and they are really important to me. I am also on a committee called “I am PWD”: I am a performer with a disability. It’s a task force and we work to create more opportunities for people who are differently abled. And then this production of Spring Awakening has brought me into contact with the Deaf community which is really cool.
The only way to make a change is to either go out there to do the work, or have conversations that help shift perspectives.
Lesson Two: The biggest problem is dealing with people’s limited point of view.
Ricky: Have you personally encountered disability discrimination?
Ali: I don’t really see it as discrimination. I do encounter people who are not necessarily educated or aware. I’ve been working professionally since I was a teenager and it’s different now than it was ten years ago. When I wanted to audition for a musical theatre program in college, there were a few programs that said that I should not audition because they had a very strong dance program and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I think it’s pretty close-minded to assume that someone in a chair can’t dance. I am also very fortunate to have an agent who probably hears a more of the rejection and maybe some of the explanation and I don’t actually have to deal with all of it.
I don’t really feel like I face discrimination on a day to day basis. I sometimes meet people who are not educated about how to handle certain situations and that is an opportunity for me to explain and share with them how something could be handled. I have no problem, if someone says something that I don’t think is appropriate, kindly correcting them or offering another perspective. The main thing I’ve found is people don’t really know always what language to use. We live in a time where language is always changing, and so I think that speaking up and speaking the truth and offering other ways to handle situations is really important.
Ricky: So would you say it’s a lack of resources and education in the arts?
Ali: No, I haven’t experienced that as a whole. There are individuals who are not aware, but I wouldn’t say that the industry doesn’t understand. I do think that the industry is really open to me. I’ve been fortunate enough to work a lot. But I do encounter individuals that don’t always know which language to use or how to handle certain situations.
Lesson Three: Dialogue is important.
Ricky: So when you meet someone who doesn’t use the right language or has a misconception you try to reach out and offer your perspective?
Ali: Yes, I think that dialogue and conversation around these topics is so important. The only way to make a change is to either go out there to do the work, or have conversations that help shift perspectives. That’s my own experience. So if you can be doing both I feel that’s where change begins to happen.
I am having a very specific experience, and so I think it’s important to speak my truth about what I’ve found is possible and what I’ve found is still difficult and challenging.
Lesson Four: The struggle is just as real as any artist.
Ricky: And so you try to speak the very specific story which is your own.
Ali: Yeah, and I know that sometimes my experiences have not been everyone’s experiences. I know there are a lot of people who have struggled a long time and by no means has this been easy. My career has been a very up and down experience. I haven’t always been working. People like to look and say “oh my God, so many good things!” And it’s like, “Yes, so many good things,” but there have been moments in between where it’s been like, “Oh my God, what am I doing?”
Lesson Five: The payoff is amazing.
Ricky: What has the reaction been from other artists with disabilities and other people to the work you’ve been doing?
Ali: I think my community has been really excited. The response has been like, “It’s time!” It’s 2016 and it’s time for us to be represented onstage and to be given these kinds of opportunities. I’ve received a lot of messages and letters from younger people with disabilities and they’re saying, “I never thought that Broadway is possible, but now it is.” And that’s really exciting because the first step to pursuing this career is believing it’s possible.
Ricky: Absolutely, it’s that stubborn belief that you know something’s going to happen. What have been the positive effects of working in the arts with a disability and the community that you have has been?
Ali: When I work with people who have never worked with someone with a disability before, I see this moment happen where in the beginning there are nerves and they’re really unsure, but then all of a sudden it’s like everyone just melts and it’s like, “Yeah, of course this is just how we do it.” That’s a really cool moment of “yeah, we can all create art,” and actually these are not limitations or boundaries, these are opportunities to work in a different way and create something new and different.
Lesson Six: Family and mentors are key.
Ricky: Is there someone who has been a constant force in your life through this journey?
Ali: My family. My parents have been unbelievably supportive of this dream of mine and they have been there every single step of the way. My dad is a coach: he has been able to be the constant support for me. My mom is really passionate about the arts, and has appreciated and been interested in all of the projects and the work that I’ve done. My mom has always been the person that I could really talk to about what it’s like to feel different or disabled and how people are receiving me, and she is a cool mirror for me. We’re able to talk really deeply.
Ricky: Were there any times in your early career that they had to go to bat for you?
Ali: Absolutely. When I was seven years old I wanted to perform, and every single time we would approach a company or a director or choreographer my mom was having these conversations with them about “Listen, she’s in a chair and this is what she does and she is very talented and she wants to be a part of it.” They had to have so many of these conversations, and it worked out pretty beautifully. They were advocating for me before I was, and they taught me how to make people comfortable and to be your own champion. That was one of the greatest skills that I have learned. Half of it is just communicating with somebody about what you do and articulating yourself because sometimes that is the first step for someone to open up when you’re met with any sort of fear.
Bonus: Everyone's story is important.
Ricky: Do you have a question that you wish people would ask you more often?
Ali: What a deep question! I think the question I am always curious to ask other people who are in my position is, “What has your experience been, being disabled?” We are all are categorized by this label, but I know that every single one of us has a different experience.
And that last point hits very close to me. As performers with disabilities we are all stuck in categories, diagnoses, and different levels of abilities. We have to remember that a victory for one artist in our community is a victory for all of us and we have to keep up the fight. The struggle is real but we are not alone. We are all in this together.