Preconceived notions dissolved as Stroker described breaking barriers at New York University, on Broadway, and in the minds of people inclined to misjudge the actor who—through pure grit and talent—has earned roles on Glee and on an upcoming ABC series starring Kyra Sedgwick, Ten Days in the Valley.
“Ali has a knack for spreading positivity and hope,” said Groton School Theater Director Laurie Sales. “Her life has been lived with a need for creative problem solving, and because she is such a creative spirit, she has turned challenges into opportunities.”
Indeed, Stroker told her audience that growing up with a disability was “perfect training” for the rough-and-tumble competition and constant disappointment that comes with acting and auditions in New York and Hollywood.
Unfortunately, her “perfect training” began very early. A car accident paralyzed Stroker from the chest down when she was two. She described her first wheelchair as “tiny and red and adorable.” How the world responded to her, however, was not so adorable. People would stare; they would tell her mother how sorry they were.
“The way the world saw me was not OK in my book,” she said. Even as a toddler, she knew that. A light went on when Stroker first tasted musical theater at age seven—cast as the title character in Annie during a backyard production. For the first time, she felt that people were responding to Ali the actor, Ali the singer—not Ali, the little girl in a wheelchair.
Playing Dorothy in The
Wiz and other roles transformed her. “The feeling of being another character really worked for me,” she said.
When it was time for college, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts provided the perfect campus—in some respects. “New York City was the place for me because when I rolled down the street,” she said, “I was not the craziest thing.”
But some at NYU needed convincing that Stroker could participate fully in the program. Other students, she was told, might be uncomfortable. Stroker was directed to stay on the sidelines in dance class and take notes. At first she agreed, but then asked to participate only in the class’ warm-up exercises. “I did that dance warm-up like I was Beyoncé and it was the last dance on earth,” she said. She had proven her point.
After graduating from NYU in 2009, she tried (and tried and tried) to get auditions. Nothing. She flew to Los Angeles to audition for Glee after seeing a character in a wheelchair on the TV show, but heard nothing back for three years, when she was called about The Glee Project, a reality show based on Glee. She landed a spot on The Glee Project (out of 44,000 applicants). In the competition, judged in part through audience feedback, Stroker was a runner-up and earned an appearance on the popular Glee series.
She was the first actor in a wheelchair on Glee who actually uses a wheelchair. She was also the first to act on Broadway in a wheelchair (in a 2015 revival of Spring Awakening) and the first in a wheelchair to earn a drama degree from NYU.
Stroker described to Groton students the principle that dominates her life: to turn limitations into opportunities. She lives that principle on stage and screen, and through community outreach: she co-chairs Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City; co-founded Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign; and has held workshops for women and children with HIV and AIDS through ARTS InsideOut.
“Ali is an amazing role model for me as an artist,” said Lily Cratsley ’19. “She doesn't accept the words ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’—she pushes boundaries, she believes in greater possibilities, and, most of all, she knows what she believes in and fights for it.”
Despite Stroker’s success, self-awareness, and ability to inspire today, she didn’t always accept who she was. Sharing one example, she spoke to the audience about body image, explaining that she did not like her legs until she came to realize, “These legs are Ali Stroker’s legs and they don’t look like anyone else’s.” She began to accept herself as an “original,” inspiring students to do the same.
“At Groton, we always talk about diversity, but the conversation rarely touches on physical disabilities,” said Macy Lipkin ’19. “Ali's talk was an important reminder that diversity means more than race and socioeconomic status.”
Verity Lynch ’17 agreed: “I think exposure to a new type of diversity is really important for Groton students. She engaged every person in her audience with her contagious energy, beautiful voice, and stage presence.”
Before the evening talk, Stroker ran a seminar about leadership through the arts and spoke with students in Groton’s playwriting, public speaking, and theater classes. For students involved in Groton’s two winter shows, Boxes and Black Comedy, she ran a “professional" audition workshop.
“I don't think I was ever as nervous to sing for anyone as I was to sing for Ali," said Lily. “Those nerves quickly flew away as she gave us tricks and tips, quite literally holding our hands and supporting our efforts. Her advice to me as a performer and to me as a person will stick with me through my life.”
In both the workshops and the all-school lecture, Stroker captivated with her sheer talent and upbeat spirit—and clearly made students feel comfortable. After the talk, the first student to speak up during a Q&A asked Stroker to show off her dance moves. Happily complying, Stroker tossed aside her jacket and pulled off her shoes, then called a student on stage to demonstrate a pirouette and followed with a spin herself, her wheelchair a familiar dance partner.
Amidst the song and dance, she shared relatable nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. She urged Groton students not to be afraid to seek help or ask questions. “Asking for help is a moment of connection,” she said. “We all need each other.” She also shared a secret pick-me-up: choosing an “anthem,” a favorite song to use as a mood lifter. “Find your anthem that you turn up loud when you’re not feeling great,” she said. Her own anthem: “Here’s Where I Stand” by Michael Gore and Lynn Ahrens.
Answering a “what not to say” question, Stroker suggested that people who are curious about someone’s disability should not ask, “What’s wrong with you?” Instead, she suggested the open and welcoming, “What’s your story?”
Groton clearly was mesmerized by Stroker’s story. And knowing her story makes it a little easier to tell our own.