Ali Stroker made her Broadway debut in 2015, with a side of history. As Anna in Deaf West Theater’s production of Spring Awakening, she became the first actor on a Broadway stage who uses a wheelchair. A bit over three years later, she’s back (after doing a bunch of TV) as the promiscuous, gullible, hysterical Ado Annie Carnes in Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma!, which is transferring to Circle in the Square. Is the world ready to see a sassy, sexy cowgirl on wheels?
I didn’t ask her that question. But after our conversation, I’m sure she’d tell me that it’s not her job to care whether anyone is ready for her or not. Her job is to perform eight times a week — period. As a wheelchair user myself, I’ve wondered how she does it. During rehearsals, at her dinner break, we talked about dancing, asking for help, and (yes) the chili that was served to audiences during the Off Broadway run.
I saw the production at St. Ann’s, and I remember feeling that it was especially important that a performer who uses a wheelchair got this role because, to put it pretty bluntly, the character is promiscuous. It’s so rare to see a woman in a wheelchair played as a sexual being.
Well, I think that this role has come at such an important time in my life both as an actress and as a person. Because I feel like I have arrived in my sexual power, meaning that I feel the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life. Especially growing up and as a teenager, I was always looking for role models who were in chairs. I always felt like a sexual person — I just didn’t know how to always portray that, and I never really was sure, as a kid, if being in a wheelchair could be sexy. So, to arrive at this point is so exciting — more than exciting, it’s like a relief in many ways. Because finally we get to see someone who is so real.
In what ways does she challenge you?
She asks a lot of questions. [Laughs.] And she doesn’t always get it right away. But I think that’s something that I love about her, too, because she’s so inquisitive.
And she dances. I’m wondering if you can break down your choreography process for any disabled people who might consider their physical limitations as a barrier to getting onstage?
Usually, the first day of rehearsal, whether we’re working on choreography or not, I always introduce myself to the choreographer. It’s important, if you move differently, to have a good relationship. The next part is about translation — I use that term a lot when I talk about dance. It basically means that I take what everyone else is doing and then I translate it for my body. So if they’re doing something with their feet, I might translate it and do it with my shoulders or my hands, capturing the essence and the spirit of each move. Because — is it satisfying to see everyone doing the same exact movement? Yes. But it’s more satisfying to see somebody move and express themselves.
To go off of that a little bit, do you have any advice for someone who is fearful of getting onstage?
I think the first part is to connect with the joy of movement. If you put on your favorite song in the world, it’s pretty hard not to move some part of your body. And moving, even if it’s just your head or shoulders — that is dance and that is movement. Even if it’s just your eyes. We generalize that dance has to be full-body, physical, extreme athletic movement, and there are so many other paths that you can go down.
I’m not sure how involved you were in the process of making the theater physically accessible, but how did Circle in the Square provide for you?
I will speak from my own experience because people with disabilities all have different needs, but I’m in a wheelchair, so it’s pretty straightforward that I can’t get up and down stairs, and I need an accessible bathroom. I am fortunate to have representatives who do a lot of that advocating for me. But in this situation, Circle in the Square was not accessible at all [for actors] — I can get to the lobby of the theater through another entrance down an elevator, but then we had to figure out how I was going to get from the theater to the stage level, and they put in a lift. They also brought in a disability consultant because the reality is that I know what I need, but I don’t always know what is possible in a building. So that was really helpful, that they brought in somebody who could see: “This is what we can put here.” All of those accommodations are great, but the reality is that I need help from people every day. And a huge part of my success is being someone who asks for help.
Yeah, it’s a big lesson to learn — independence comes with asking for help.
Sometimes it’s really hard. Because there are days that you just kind of want to do your own thing if you’re just feeling crabby, but the truth is, my work day starts the minute I get off the elevator in my building. [Laughs.] Because somebody opens the door for me when I leave, and then somebody’s there to help me in and out of the car, and then someone is there to help me into the building, somebody is there to help me down the lift, and all of these steps are a part of the process and part of me arriving to get to do a Broadway show.
Can you talk about some of the pressure that comes with being one of the few very well known performers who uses a wheelchair? How do you balance being an actor with being an advocate?
Well, it’s just a case-by-case situation. In certain situations, and on certain days, I really want to talk about my disability. And then there are other times that I just feel that “this isn’t something that I want to share or talk about.” I’ve just learned how to articulate myself and either talk about what I want to talk about or set a boundary. Because I don’t necessarily feel like disability is something that everyone knows how to talk about, therefore, sometimes we have to teach how to talk about it. [Laughs.]
One of the biggest excuses for casting nondisabled actors in disabled parts is that they have more star power and will reach more people. What are your thoughts on that issue?
Well … Hollywood is a business [laughs], and I am not a casting director or a producer. What I can control is doing the best work that I possibly can do. So I choose to put my attention on getting better and going after roles and opportunities that are going to give me more exposure so that I will be cast in [disabled character] roles and they won’t have any excuse … The problem is that this happens with every minority. They cast a big name that’s gonna sell tickets at the box office. So in my opinion — should they cast somebody who has a disability in that role? Yes, 100 percent. Can I change that right now? That’s what I’m trying to do. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I’m doing everything I can.
Finally, I think everyone wants to know if chili will be served.
You know, I actually don’t know, Esme. The last time, when we did it at St. Ann’s, the Crock-Pots were on the tables. But I’m never sure if they’re gonna be used.
Oklahoma! begins previews tonight at Circle in the Square for an April 7 opening. [Update from the publicity team: Chili and cornbread will indeed be on offer.]