Ali Stroker decided she wanted to pursue theater professionally at the age of 7. After graduating from NYU’s Tisch Drama Department with a degree in Fine Arts, she competed in the “Glee Project,” booking her a guest role on Fox’s hit TV show, “Glee.” In 2015, she booked a role as Anna in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway.
The talented performer accomplished it all while being in a wheelchair.
When Stroker was 2, a car accident caused a spinal cord injury. Since then, Stroker has used a wheelchair for mobility. Though growing up in a wheelchair came with a unique set of challenges, Stroker called her experience “a gift.”
“It has taught me to put my attention to the things that I can do, not the things that I can’t,” said Stroker. “I always say that my experience growing up being in a chair have been perfect training for this industry. I was used to being excluded. I have become a master at flipping those situations. As an artist you’re constantly hearing voices around you—everybody else’s opinions and viewpoints. But the most important feedback you ever get is from yourself. Train that voice to give yourself support. If you’re always relying on everyone else for validation, you’re going to burn out.”
Stroker grew up unfazed by rejection and discrimination. Her perseverance and optimism ultimately led to her accomplishing her dream: Stroker made history as the first actress in a wheelchair on a Broadway stage. She reflected on her 7-year-old self—a wide-eyed big dreamer—and what she would say to her younger self if she had the chance.
“I would say, you’ve found your purpose. Stick with it. Be patient,” said Stroker. “My dad called me the night after Opening Night [of ‘Spring Awakening’] and he was like, ‘Okay. You’ve made it! How do you feel?’ My response was that it was worth the wait. When you work hard and you are patient for something you really want, in the end it always feels so much better. If Broadway had come a little more easily, it if had arrived in my life right after college, I never would have appreciated as much.”
Now Stroker is giving back to the community as a motivational speaker in addition to being a performer. This year, she came to speak at the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) and is also part of a special program called Performing with the Pros, where a select group of students have the opportunity to perform with a professional in the industry.
OCSA students are artists—actors, dancers, singers, visual artists, directors, producers, writers, chefs, you name it—and Stroker, who played Betty Pillsbury on “Glee,” admitted there were many similarities between William McKinley High and OCSA.
“Everyone at OCSA is so into what they do. Everyone is so committed,” said Stroker. “It’s really unique to have everyone so on board and enthusiastic about ‘Performing With The Pros.’ You create a bond with the students that doesn’t always happen in the professional world.”
Karen Rymar, assistant director of OCSA’s Musical Theatre Conservatory, started Performing with the Pros more than a decade ago. She spoke about how students responded to Stroker’s presence as they worked together on a showcase of various numbers.
“I’ve never seen them as attentive and responsive and respectful. She’d barely have to speak and their focus would be 100% on her,” said Rymar. “But what I really find to be incredible about this experience is that there were no differences. Our kids treat her exactly the same. There’s nothing different about what she’s doing. It’s been a beautiful process. I told Ali when she first came that I am not a part of her community, but I am open to learning. And so are my kids. So if we ever do anything inappropriate, educate us. Because we come from a place of love and respect.”
Stroker’s advice for those who feel uncomfortable around differently-abled people is to ask questions and get to know who that person really is.
“I know what it’s like to be uncomfortable around something new, and the only way to move through that discomfort is to lean into it,” explained Stroker. “Ask the questions you would want to be asked. Instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ shift that to ‘What’s your story?’ You learn so much about the person by their answer.”Rymar calls rehearsals a “unifying experience,” watching her kids be inspired by Stroker and see past differences and individual challenges.
“She is so special on a level that has nothing to do with performing. Just the way she is in life is inspiring, and not even referring to her differently-abled situation—she’s magic. It’s been an inspirational ride I don’t want to see end,” said Rymar. “I would hope that I could find a way to incorporate her style of communicating with the kids and drawing stuff out of them. She taught me to see more in a student. To encourage them to be real, to really be who they are, and to celebrate that. To watch her practice that with such ease and grace was amazing.”
Don’t miss out on Performing with the Pros with Ali Stroker! The show is at the Webb Theatre and runs from Friday, Jan. 27 to Saturday, Jan. 29. Tickets can be bought at http://www.ocsarts.net/BoxOffice.