I have been a fan of Ali Stroker’s since my hard-core gleek days. I, along with the rest of the world, was introduced to her back in 2012 on season two of The Glee Project. Ali was a hopeful contestant on Oxygen’s reality program vying for a spot on Glee. From episode one, it was clear Ali was a star. Viewers instantly knew that Ali had a beautiful voice, with a golden heart to match. Four years later, Ali is making her Broadway debut in Spring Awakening as Anna where she shines once again. The revival is a Broadway game changer. Originally performed through Deaf West in LA, Spring Awakening uses hearing and deaf actors to tell the story. It is the ultimate theatrical collaboration, not to mention a triumph for disability rights. Spring Awakening is the first Broadway show to feature a wheelchair bound actress: Ali. In this interview, Ali discusses her journey to success, Spring Awakening, and how “limitations can be opportunities” on Broadway.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
AS: I caught the theater bug when I was 7 years old. I did a production of Annie in the backyard of my family’s summer home. I played the role of Annie and I was hooked.
You grew up in New Jersey. Did you take advantage of your access to the city and see a lot of shows?
Yeah I went in to see shows all the time. My family would come with me and go see Broadway shows. And then I was a part of a singing group in New York when I was 11 called the Kids for Kids Project. It was a touring kids group that did a variety show and we raised money for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
You studied at NYU Tisch. What studio were you in?
I was at CAP21, which is no longer a part of NYU. At the time that was their musical theater studio.
What were your big take-aways from your college training?
I really enjoyed all my classes and my teachers…I took away that I would have to pave my own way. There isn’t one way to do this. I was going to have to figure out how it was going to work for me. There would be doors that wouldn’t open. There are creative people that are excited and want to do things differently—those are the people I’m excited about working with. NYU taught me that you follow your excitement and your passion. You work hard. One of my other favorite parts about NYU was that we were taught to appreciate all art and appreciate all kinds of theater.
Once you graduated, what was your game plan of paving your own path?
I wanted to get an agent and I wanted to start auditioning. I really wanted to be on Glee.
What was the experience like being on The Glee Project?
I had a really positive experience and I met a lot of amazing people. I had the opportunity to not only perform on TV but also tell my story, which is a huge part of who I am as a performer.
What were your thoughts about the reality show aspect of it?
I was nervous about doing reality because you can be edited in anyway that serves the story. But it was also exciting to be able to share my story and kind of introduce myself to the world in that way.
What other benefits did you reap from the experience?
Well I ended up being on [Glee], which was the main goal. And getting the experience of working on a TV show. You know when you’re doing a reality TV show you also get to see the other side of it—it’s not just the final presentation. You get to work in the process of it…I was there for 10 weeks, so I really got to know the producers and everyone working on the show. That was a really cool. I loved my time on The Glee Project and on Glee.
Let’s discuss Spring Awakening! How did you get involved? What did your audition entail?
I auditioned a year and a half ago—the spring of 2014. It was for the first production, which was in like a 99 seat black box theater…it was a really small production. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I started learning American Sign Language. The process was really challenging, really scary, but also obviously so rewarding. After that we did another production in Beverly Hills this past spring at the Annenberg Theater. That was a bigger theater—there was more money involved. That was amazing, which then led to the Broadway production.
It’s clear to see on stage that the cast has an undeniable connection. How did you all bond so tightly? How does the close dynamic inform the performance every night?
All of us have to rely on each other for so many parts of the show. I rely on some of my cast members to get around the stage and the deaf cast members rely on me to cue them. It’s a really beautiful connection we have to have to tell the story in the way that we are. Everyone is doing something new, whether it be signing or dancing or being a part of a musical. All of us are a little bit vulnerable. We’ve become really close, like a family. It’s been so special to be able to do this production with this specific group of people.
Have you become fluent in ASL?
I’m definitely conversational, I’m not fluent…
Before the show starts, all the actors are on stage warming up, being themselves, in front of the audience. Why did the director choose to stage it that way?
It’s a moment for us to really connect as a group, as an ensemble. Basically all of us are onstage the entire time, so it’s really a moment for us all to connect and touch base before the show begins. Also, it’s fun to get ready on stage so the audience sees that these people are becoming the characters. The audience gets to be a part of that transition into the show.
Has there been something surprising about being on Broadway?
It was definitely worth the wait. I really appreciate the experience so much now that I am where I am in my career. It’s everything I really dreamt it would be and more. You’re very close with the cast and the entire crew. It’s like a huge family doing this every night.
Do you think that Spring Awakening has revolutionized the Broadway experience?
I hope that it has opened people’s eyes to the idea that limitations can be opportunities, especially on stage. I hope that there are more people with different kinds of abilities cast in Broadway shows. I think that people who do have disabilities, and different abilities, bring such a special, unique voice to a production. I hope there’s more of that.
There’s a lot of conversation about that right now with our cast. Of course the hope is that people with disabilities are playing those roles. It’s an authenticity thing. But it’s also an opportunity. There are not as many opportunities for people who are different abled. The
hope is that they are getting those roles. However, we can see still that people are being cast to play characters who have disabilities. So hopefully we will see a shift and a change [where] it will become inappropriate for people who are not disabled to play disabled characters…We’ve done the same thing with race. It’s inappropriate for a [white person] to pretend they’re black. It’s not happening on TV anymore, it’s not happening onstage anymore. It’s still happening with the disabled—different abled—community. I hope that with time and with more differently abled actors and artists to say, “No. This isn’t appropriate. This isn’t going to happen any longer.” But that’s going to take time and a shift for people. I think that’s what’s starting to happen right now.
On the flip side, in Hamilton you see race blind casting. You can view that choice as a way to serve the story or you can see the racial aspect as something that is irrelevant to the core of what Hamilton is about. Do you think we can get to a place (that I hope and believe that we can) where people with a variety of abilities play roles that were not necessarily written for the different abled like Spring Awakening was able to do?
I’m totally with you. I hope. I hope that with ability that we can get to a place where it’s not as much of “a thing.” But at the same time, one of the most beautiful things about disability is that you can’t hide it. Why are we going to hide it in a show? Why would we hide it in a story? It doesn’t need to be about that. But we don’t ever have to hide it. Often I get hired for work for roles that are not specifically for someone with a disability. So it’s already happening. There could be more of it…so it becomes normal.
What’s your dream role?
I don’t know. People ask me that all the time. I always joke and say Glinda. But I think actually, in reality, it would be an original role on Broadway. Something that’s new.
If you could be miscast in a role who would you want to play?
Oh that’s hard. I always thought it’d be funny to be cast in A Chorus Line a dancer in a wheelchair. Something like that. Or like a tap dancing role, like Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. Something that’s totally not expected.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
My advice is to follow your excitement. Make really great relationships with people in the industry. Support each other, support your peers. There’s no one way to do this; there’s no “should” and there’s no right way. It’s just getting clear about your dream or goal is and slowly chipping away. ♦