Like most of the Internet, Ali Stroker, a cast member in the Deaf West Theater revival of “Spring Awakening,” had a strong reaction to Kylie Jenner’s controversial photoshoot in Interview magazine. But as Broadway’s first actress who uses wheelchair, she doesn’t condemn the images of Jenner using a wheelchair as a fetish prop. Instead, Stroker wants to keep the conversation going.
“I’m really excited about it, because it’s bringing a lot of conversation about sexuality and disability,” Stroker said. “I feel so strongly that we can represent ourselves here. It’s something that doesn’t get a spotlight, and therefore has created pain and fetish and resentment and not feeling powerful in your sexuality. I’ve had my own journey with it, obviously, and I feel like it’s so important that it’s shared.”
To that end, Stroker said she’s looking for a photographer to help her recreate the Jenner photoshoot — with herself as the subject. It’s all part of her broader efforts to keep up a pop culture discussion about the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of the entertainment industry — efforts that hit a landmark with her casting in “Spring Awakening.”
It shocks most observers to hear that Stroker is the first actor who uses a wheelchair on Broadway. But one of the many things keeping performers with disabilities off Broadway stages are the physical and infrastructural limitations of Broadway theaters themselves. Most Broadway venues are old buildings, erected long before the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, with backstage areas that are cramped warrens of narrow hallways with multiple floors. It’s not uncommon for an actor to have to climb more than one flight of stairs to get to a dressing room.
“In the past, I’ve not gone on auditions because theaters are not accessible,” said Stroker, who’s acted professionally since she was a teenager and cultivated a fanbase on “The Glee Project” (and subsequently in an episode of “Glee”).
At the Brooks Atkinson Theater, construction was done on a stage-level dressing room to make it accessible for Stroker. The production’s staging ensures that she always exits and then re-enters from the same side of the stage, because the theater’s backstage crossover is in the basement. And to get into the building, she uses a ramp at an alternate entrance. (Exiting the theater after the show, she said, she sometimes just bumps down the stair at the main stage door.)
Broadway theater owners (like the Nederlander Organization, which owns the Brooks Atkinson and eight other Broadway venues) are aware of such issues of accessibility and slowly addressing the necessary changes, and all the architectural challenges they bring along with them. Stroker’s run at the Brooks Atkinson makes it clear the obstacles aren’t insurmountable. “‘Spring Awakening’ broke that barrier,” said Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity. “It proved that we can do it. And the backstage issues can be dealt with.”
In a broader sense, the inclusion of people with disabilities is increasingly on the theater world’s radar, just as diversity overall, both onstage and behind the scenes, has become a hot topic. In recent weeks, the Casting Society of America and the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts organized a town-hall meeting on the subject.
When it comes to casting characters with disabilities, there’s tremendous value in setting a precedent, according to Inclusion in the Arts’ Howard Sherman. “If a part is initially cast authentically, then all of the productions that follow seem to understand that the role should be cast authentically,” he said.
Advocates say there’s a long way to go, and the fact remains that Stroker appears in a production from Deaf West, the L.A.-based troupe specifically dedicated to the cultural inclusion of performers who are deaf and hard of hearing. With a cast made up of both hearing and deaf actors, the production is already geared toward showcasing actors of different abilities.
“It is my impression that theater makers will celebrate the artistry and accomplishments of Deaf West, but that the work we do does not make other companies want to create inclusive theater,” said DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West. “I mean, that’s fine — we’ll continue to fill that niche — but I think that what we do is seen as too artistically risky for other companies to take on.”
“Disability remains a tough sell,” echoed Nicholas Viselli, the artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, the Off Broadway group devoted to creating opportunities for theater creatives of all abilities. This summer the organization will present the world premiere of a new play it commissioned from MacArthur Fellowship winner Samuel D. Hunter.
As for Stroker, she’s appearing in “Spring Awakening” through the end of its limited run Jan. 24, and relishing the reaction she gets from audiences — particularly from theatergoers with disabilities. “They say it means so much to them that this is happening and that this road is being paved,” she said. “That was something I really craved, as a teenager. I was looking for someone who was like me and wasn’t finding it. To not feel like you are being represented, something happens inside of you. It’s like, ‘Wait, do I not count?’
“But I really believe our industry is changing,” she continued. Her next career goals: Creating an original role on Broadway, and appearing as a regular in a sitcom. “There’s so much curiosity around disability,” she said. “I feel it every day of my life. There is something untouched here that I think audiences want to know about. There are so many fun stories to tell, with and without my chair. People are ready.”