The 2019 Tony Awards made history when Ali Stroker won for featured actress in a musical, becoming the first actor who uses a wheelchair ever to score a trophy at the Tonys. But while the win was a landmark for actors with disabilities, it also pointed up how much work remains to done to make theater fully inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities, not only for audiences but for artists and crew members on stage and behind the scenes.
Most immediately, Stroker’s triumph at the ceremony felt to artists and advocates like a vital and still-too-rare example of representation.
“As a child I was told repeatedly that it would be nearly impossible to have a career in the arts,” said DJ Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, the L.A.-based company whose revival of “Spring Awakening” provided Stroker with her Broadway debut. “A voice like Ali’s last night was unquestionably a huge moment in the development of the hopes and aspirations of thousands of children. In fact, I look forward to the moment when the Alis of the world are not regarded as trailblazers anymore.”
“For us, for the performers-with-disabilities community, Ali’s win is huge, because we have faced for generations a historic lack of representation,” echoed actress and disability inclusion consultant Christine Bruno (“Public Servant”). “But we hope that this is not a one-off.”
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Signs suggest that it might not be.
“I think there’s been an inflection point over the last couple of years, and we’ve seen more representation on Broadway and Off Broadway of actors with disabilities,” noted Gregg Mozgala (“Teenage Dick”), an actor with cerebral palsy and also the director of inclusion at Queens Theatre in New York City. In addition to Stroker’s performance as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!,” he pointed to deaf actor Russell Harvard’s role in the just-closed Broadway revival of “King Lear” and to the Deaf West revival of “Spring Awakening” as two recent, high-profile examples.
Still, there’s further progress to be made. Some Tony viewers, for instance, noted on social media that at Radio City Music Hall, accommodations weren’t made for Stroker to move down the aisle and ascend to the stage to accept her award. Instead she entered from backstage.
“Broadway theaters [are] all made accessible to patrons, but the backstage areas are not,” Stroker said soon after her win on Tony night. “So I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible so that performers with disabilities can get around.”
But it’s not just issues of physical accessibility at play here. “Access doesn’t just mean structural access; it means programmatic and economic accessibility,” Mozgala said. “What is the responsibility of artists and institutions to make sure that when people go looking, they don’t say, ‘We couldn’t find anyone’? Who is welcoming and training the next generation of Ali Strokers, and how does the larger culture need to change?”
One in four people identify as a person with a disability, according to the CDC, and artists and advocates say that the ultimate goal is to see that fact reflected in the fabric of the entertainment industry at large — in front of the camera, on stage and behind the scenes.
“The last year or two has felt like a real sea change for us,” said Bruno. “There are definite things happening that show that the industry is starting to recognize that there is a lot of talent out there in the community, and that it just makes smart economic sense, too. Ali’s win feels like the manifestation of all the efforts that we’ve all been putting in for decades.”