Ali Stroker — Award Winning Actress, Author, Singer & New Mom

Ali Stroker is an American actress and singer who made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway in Deaf West’s acclaimed 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. Ali is also the first person with a disability to be nominated for and win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as ‘Ado Annie’ in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! In addition to her acting and music appearances, Ali is a published author and co-author of children’s literature, including the titles The Chance to Fly and Cut Loose.

Ali Stroker siting cross legged in a wheel chair
Ali Stroker

In a virtual interview with ABILITY Magazine’s Lia Martirosyan, Stroker speaks on navigating accessibility as a new mother, performing as an outlet she used to her express herself and creating children’s literature to support those who may feel lost.

 Lia Martirosyan: How are you doing?

Ali Stroker: My son turned one, so we’ve been doing a lot of that, a lot of birthdays.

Martirosyan: Happy birthday!

Stroker: Yeah, it was so sweet. It was so special. My mom is here taking care of him today.

Martirosyan: One? It’s been a wild year?

Stroker: So sweet. He’s so amazing, and this year has been so intense and so good. Like both. (laughs)

Martirosyan: Yeah.

Stroker: But it’s been wonderful.

Martirosyan: It’s your first baby?

Stroker: Yeah. So, he’s my first and only. So, it’s like a lot of – a lot of firsts. A lot of like – “oh, this is what it feels like to not sleep.” and “this is what it feels like to have transitions and different changes all the time.”

Martirosyan: But is he sleeping through the night now? How’s his sleep?

Stroker: Yeah, for the most part he just gets up really early. He gets up at anywhere between 4:30 and 5:00.

Martirosyan: So, no matter what time he goes to bed, that’s what time he wakes up?

Stroker: Yes, and that is what is maddening to me because I’m like, I’ll be fine at eleven as long as I can sleep past like five. Then last night – so funny – the monitor was off for some reason, so I didn’t hear him until like 6:00 and I was like, “He slept in!” and I went in and he was standing in his crib awake for like a half hour. (laughter) But it’s fine. It’s all good. He’s such a good boy.

Martirosyan: Oh, that’s nice. You’re living in New York right now? Yes.

ali stroker husband david perlow son jesse
Ali and husband David with Jesse

Stroker: Yeah, I’m up in Westchester.

Martirosyan: Oh, okay.

Stroker: Yeah, we love it. It’s so good. Where are you living?

Martirosyan: I’m in LA.

Stroker: Amazing. How is it?

Martirosyan: Weather wise? Or everything?

(laughter)

Stroker: Everything! Do you love it?

Martirosyan: This is all really what I know. I mean, I wasn’t born here, but it’s what I know. I grew up here, so I’m okay with it.

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Stroker: Awesome, where in LA are you?

Martirosyan: Glendale. Are you familiar with it?

Stroker: Yeah! So, I lived in LA for a total of four years. Two years one time, and then two and a half another time, and I loved it. But of course, I grew up in New Jersey, so it always felt a little like ‘not home.’ Even though I was there for a certain amount of time,  I felt like at some point I was like – well, actually, what brought me back to New York was Spring Awakening.

Martirosyan: Okay.

Stroker: And then I ended up staying.

Martirosyan: But you came here (LA) for the acting, right? You came here for auditions?

Stroker: Yeah! So, I came there the first time – I had just graduated from NYU and wanted to –I had always been curious about LA, and then the second time I went out there was after the Glee project, after Glee, when I just wanted to do more.

Martirosyan: Have you always been interested in performing and all that? Has it always been in your veins?

Stroker: Yeah. I was introduced to theater when I was seven, and so I just have loved it. Loved it, loved it. Loved performing, loved singing, loved acting, loved dancing since then. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be on the stage, and acting. TV and film came a little bit later because I think there’s more opportunity for kids to do theater, so that was where I put my attention and my time. I took voice lessons growing up. I always loved music, even before I knew about musical theater. The story behind being introduced to theater was that my family had just bought a house on the Jersey Shore, and our next-door neighbors had three kids, and their oldest daughter, who was twelve at the time, decided to direct a production of Annie, and she cast me as Annie, and the rest is history.

Martirosyan: How cute. I was going to ask, anything in your family performance wise or music wise?

Stroker singing and dancing with a cowboy in the play Oklahoma
Ali Stroker singing and dancing in the play Oklahoma

Stroker: Yeah, there’s a lot of music on both sides, both my mom and my dad. My mom and dad are not in the industry in any way; my dad was a teacher and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. So, in many ways, it sounds like it’s sort of  by chance, but what was so unique for me about theater was that it came at a time in my life when I was seven.– I was injured when I was two. – When I found theater, I found myself and I found an outlet. So, it was more than just a passion. It was a place where I could express myself, and it felt safe to connect to my feelings. Before that, I think the trauma of the car accident and my new life and my injury and my new body– I was so little, I didn’t really have words for it, but I definitely had big feelings around it. So I had a lot to get off my chest, but to have something that was so artistic and a place where I could play characters that weren’t me and have feelings that I was feeling felt so good and it was such a release. Then when I learned that I could sing, singing for me was where I felt like ultimate freedom. Having a disability, being paralyzed, I definitely felt my limitations in my body so I wasn’t really able to express myself fully physically, but my voice I could express myself in. There were no limits, and it just felt– It was healing. It was exciting. It was dangerous. It was all the things that I wanted to test and explore in my life that I couldn’t do physically, but I could do vocally.

Martirosyan: Oh, that’s beautiful. That really is beautiful. What an opportunity. I think it’s a blessing to be able to have that kind of an outlet. Not everybody gets that.

Stroker: Yeah! I do think that through my life I have needed theater and singing and acting and dance so that I could express myself because I think there’s a lot to express living with a disability.

Martirosyan: Did you get an agent almost immediately or manager or did that come way later?

Stroker: No, I was working with an agent when I was a kid, around when I was eleven, but it wasn’t anything super serious. I was called for auditions occasionally, but I got an agent and managers when I graduated from college; and I was so excited. I actually am with the same agent that I was with since I graduated college, which is a really incredible, beautiful relationship. I had one manager when I moved to LA who I met, and then now I have different managers who I met after Spring Awakening.

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Martirosyan: That’s great. Did you ever feel like you had trouble tapping into the world of agents and managers?

Stroker: Yes. It was like one of the places where I did feel like the industry was sort of unsure about how they were going to work with somebody with a disability. So, when I was looking for representation at one point, I was not able to get any meetings. I think that especially in the early 2000s and then after I graduated college in 2009, and in the theater world, there were very few people with disabilities working. I think there was a lot of hesitance and sort of fear around “how do we do this?” And also with commercial agents, they would always say, “oh, we only get auditions, like once or twice a year for somebody in a wheelchair.” It was more this diversity revolution where diversity was what people wanted. I get the impression now that that is – or at least that’s my experience – that people are more interested in diversity now than they were. I’m so grateful that the world has changed, and I hope that I have been a little part of that.

Martirosyan: Well, you definitely have been, so good for you!

(laughter)

Stroker: Thank you.

Martirosyan: That’s fantastic. Do you want to talk a little bit about your books?

Ali Stroker's book cover Ali and the Seas Stars with cartoon drawings of diverse children
Ali Stroker’s book Ali and the Seas Stars

Stroker: I’d love to. So, my most recent book is called Cut Loose, and it’s a middle grade sequel to our first middle grade novel, The Chance to Fly. Cut Loose is about our main character, Nat Beacon, who uses a wheelchair. She is starting middle school at a new school in New Jersey – 8th grade – and she is obsessed with musical theater and had just done a musical this past summer. She wants to audition, and her school is doing Footloose, which is a really dance heavy show. She auditions and she ends up getting the lead, but she ends up getting sort of – she has some issues with some of the new girls that are at the school. The show – her show, Footloose, is entered into a competition called the Timmies, which is like a middle school theater competition. Her show ends up getting chosen, and she has the opportunity to perform on a Broadway stage. And of course, a bunch of things go wrong. And I’m not going to give away the end, but it is a really heartwarming, authentic and exciting book about, I think, a young person coming into their power and friendship.

So, that’s sort of my synopsis of Cut Loose. But kind of on a side note, the reason that I wanted to write what Cut Loose is about, which is like, the dancing side of theater and friendships, is that when I was in middle school, it was something I really struggled with. “We’re friends, I’m just not feeling like I fit in”. It was also accessibility within my school, and I just didn’t have the words for it then. So, I just felt really tight and really kind of nervous all the time and just so wanting to fit in. It’s just so exciting and healing and wonderful to write about middle school because it was one of the hardest parts of my life. So, a lot of Nat’s feelings and experiences are my own, but we also made sure that it was not exactly my own. We wanted her to have her own journey and her own experiences as well.

Martirosyan: Have you always wanted to write a children’s book, or was it inspired by having a baby yourself?

Stroker: So, I co-wrote this book with a woman named Stacey Davidowitz, and she wanted to interview me back, like, five years ago. She wanted to write a character who was in a wheelchair who did theater. I met up with her, and I was like, “you can totally interview me, or what if we wrote a book about that character?” And she was like, “would you really want to do that?” And I was like, “yeah.” So that’s how this kind of came about, and Stacey writes, middle grade. I never imagined that I could write a book because it’s not what I do, but, you know, writing with somebody who does write books is really awesome because you learn very quickly how it works. The Chance to Fly was a success, and people really loved it, so our publishers came to us and asked us if we wanted to create a sequel and write a sequel. So, that’s what Cut Loose is, a sequel.

Martirosyan: Oh, that’s nice.

Stroker: Oh! One other thing about this is that one of the reasons that I really wanted to do this, when she brought it up, was that, number one, I kept being asked about, “what was it like growing up being in a chair and doing theater?” So many people were asking me this question, whether it be in an interview or just in my life. The other part of it was that I didn’t have any books when I was in middle school that I felt like I saw myself or there was any representation that I saw in books or movies or on stage, and I really needed that. I really needed to know that I was going to be okay and that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts and my feelings and my struggles in my experience. So, this is for any kid who feels really different, who doesn’t feel like they fit in, who really wants something and, you know, might be a little clumsy at times about getting it, and who also struggles socially because I did.

Martirosyan: Yeah. Great. Are there more on the horizon?

Stroker: I don’t know yet. Since it just came out, we’re not sure. I also have a children’s book called Ali and the Sea Stars, which came out a few years ago, and I love it, but it’s for a younger group, more like babies and kids.

Martirosyan: Oh, I love that. Do you read it to your baby?

Stroker: Yeah, we read it. My nephew loves it. My other nephews love it. I have friends whose kids read it and they send me pictures. It’s so sweet.

Martirosyan: What a fun adventure you’re on.

Stroker: Yeah, the book thing has been so cool.

Martirosyan: What’s on the path next?

Stroker: Well, the strike ended yesterday.

Martirosyan: Yes.

Stroker: So that’s great news. I have some projects that I’m writing right now, so I’m really happy about being able to work again and pitch some stuff. I do a lot of voiceover work, which I love. And it’s also really amazing being a new mom and being able – I actually have a studio in my house.

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Martirosyan: Oh, great.

Stroker: So, I can do it from home, which is amazing because I really want to be here to take care of my son right now. He’s still really little and not in school yet, so the opportunities that are coming my way are just really wonderful. I can’t really talk about a whole lot else, but some new writing projects, some new projects that– Thank goodness the strike has been resolved and able to move forward.

Martirosyan: Are you writing parts for yourself or are you pitching to as a director?

Stroker: Yeah, I mean, writing things. Not all of the roles are for me, but some of them are. So, yeah, there’s one project where I am writing for me and another project where writing for a younger person in a chair and that kind of thing.

Martirosyan: Is anything going to bring you out to LA?

Stroker: I hope so! I love LA. I love LA so much, and I love to work there. But we’ll see. You know they shoot now everywhere. It’s amazing. I’ve shot in Atlanta. I’ve shot in Montreal and in Canada – where else have I been? – LA, New York. So, you know, we’ll see. I’m not sure.

Martirosyan: How fun! Do you want to take anything international?

Stroker: I mean, that would be amazing. I don’t have any plans at the moment.

Martirosyan: Have you traveled anywhere in particular?

Stroker: Have I ever?

Martirosyan: Yeah, did you ever go outside of the States?

Stroker: Yeah. So, I’ve been to South Africa three times because I was a part of a group that did an arts program, like a teaching program, at this home called Nkosi’s Haven. We did like a two-week arts program for this entire community of people, like probably over 100 people. It was amazing. So, I’ve been there. I studied abroad one summer in Amsterdam, which is amazing. I love Amsterdam so much. Then I’ve traveled to the Czech Republic, I’ve traveled to London, I’ve traveled to Mexico for just vacation and weddings.

Martirosyan: How do you find accessibility in these different places? Have you run into anything where you’re like, “oh, man”?

Stroker: Where? In the States or –?

Martirosyan: Outside, internationally? Have you?

Stroker: Oh, it’s definitely a lot spottier than it is in the States. In South Africa, there was not a lot of accessibility. I think – Well, Europe is hard just because it’s so old. Certain parts of it, the streets are just really difficult. The cobblestone is not great being there, but I dream of doing more traveling, for sure. I mean, it’s hard with a little baby. He had one flight in his first year, but we’ll see if we’re going to do –

Martirosyan: You said you’ve been on a flight with him?

Stroker: Yeah, I took him to San Francisco.

Martirosyan: Oh, my gosh. How was that?

Stroker: It was amazing! It was like a long flight, definitely, and I was really nervous, but he did so great. He slept. I brought my mom with me to help me, and he was amazing. Like, he slept and he was really good, and he was very excited and loved looking out the window. I mean, he was adorable and did not scream, which was really my only hope.

(laughter)

Martirosyan: No, I think the biggest thing is when they get the pain in their ears from the altitude.

Stroker: He didn’t have any of that.

Martirosyan: That’s so great. That’s nice.

Stroker: I know. I was so relieved. And if he did, he didn’t seem to mind.

(laughter)

Martirosyan: He was singing through it.

Stroker: Yeah, exactly.

Stroker and femail cast members singing on stage during a scene
Ali Stroker on broadway

Martirosyan: So, do you think he’s going to enter the world of performance?

Stroker: We’ll see. I have no idea. I mean, he loves music, and it seems like he’s really vocal, and it seems like sometimes he’s singing so – He’s still so little, but I’m just so excited for him to find what he loves and to support him in all of the exploration of figuring out what he wants to do or what are his passions, and I just think that’s one of the coolest parts of becoming a parent.

Martirosyan: I know, it’s such a beautiful thing to watch.

Stroker: Do you have any children?

Martirosyan: I do, I do. She’s nine months.

Stroker: Really? Oh, my gosh. Congratulations! How are you doing?

Martirosyan: I’m…I’m okay. (laughs)

Stroker: (laughs) You’re like “I’m hanging in.” Yeah. Are you sleeping?

Martirosyan: Oh, no…no.

Stroker: No, why would you sleep? Why? Why? (laughs) 

Martirosyan: What is sleep?

Stroker: Yeah, exactly. I know. I feel the exact same. Is it a little boy or a little girl?

Martirosyan: It’s a girl.

Stroker: What’s her name?

Martirosyan: Soli.

Stroker: Oh, beautiful. Oh, my gosh! How exciting! I know this is not usually my job, but how have you found accessibility, being as a parent?

Martirosyan: Oh, you kind of have to create it yourself, I think.

Stroker: Yeah, I felt the same thing.

Martirosyan: I haven’t had much of even anything from the crib to –

Stroker: Oh, I know

Martirosyan: Everything I do. I do just exactly what I need to do. There’s nothing really out there, too, and if there is, it’s super expensive to get it super custom –

Stroker: Thank you! I know that crib online is like, $8,000.

Martirosyan: Yeah. Do you know what I’m talking about? (laughs)

Stroker: Yes! I looked at it because I was, like, great to be able to open it. So, I ended up getting a crib and taking the legs off – like, the legs didn’t come attached – so I reach in. I can reach in. But now we’ve dropped the mattress, so it’s harder.

Martirosyan: So, you know what I do? I have a low-profile bed, so I got the crib that converts into a toddler bed. I left one side of it out and then pressed it against my bed, because recently the doctor said she’s too tall to be in a double mattress. So, I took a mattress out – that actually makes it a lot safer – so she won’t just roll over onto my bed, which she does at night, and I hold her. I’m a very light sleeper anyway. I take one mattress out and there’s kind of a step, and she has fun with that, so it’s easier for me to handle her through the night. It’s very easy to do with her in that situation.

Stroker: Yeah, that’s incredible.

Martirosyan: It’s kind of like a co-sleeping thing, which people are against, but I don’t –

Stroker: Look, whatever you do, whatever you need to do.

Martirosyan: She’s safe, she’s fine.

Stroker: Yeah, she’s fine. That’s amazing.

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Martirosyan: My mom’s feeding her now, she’s calling out for me.

Stroker: Oh! She says “Ma!”

Martirosyan: She’s saying “Mama” … I’m hearing what I want to hear. (laughs)

Stroker: (laughs) Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Martirosyan: Is there anything you want to share – to put out there? Anything from what you’re doing or how you want people to go about their lives or anything?

Stroker: I think just kind of piggybacking on this conversation about accessibility, I think it’s just so important for our generation now to be creating our own accessibility because I think the groundwork was laid with the ADA and that was, what, like, 34 or 5 years ago? So now we have the opportunity to kind of take it to the next level. So I’m just so excited to see what – I think also, we’re in sort of a time of creation, whether it be content or inventions and electric cars. So, I’m just so excited to see what is going to become available for people with disabilities because I feel like we’ve kind of hit a ceiling. I really hope that – I hope people with disabilities continue to make really amazing things because I see that there are a lot of new things out, and I’m just always looking for new cool things that are going to make my life easier. Especially with a kid, I think there’s a huge market for parents, and I think more and more people in chairs are having kids, whether they’re giving birth or adopting or are dads or whatever, or their partner.

I think that there is a demand now because we are the ADA generation. It’s not like we’re blown away by accessibility, right? That is something that’s been a part of our lives, but now I think that we have an opportunity to create. I’m really excited by all the social media that I see about all the new things that are out there and also just like, community. It’s a time where you can reach more and more people than ever, so I just hope that as a community, as the disabled community, we continue to really expand on that and there’s just so many different ways to do it. I don’t even want to say specifically how because everyone has a different version of that, but I’m just really excited about our community coming together.

Martirosyan: Yeah, absolutely. It’s wonderful to see it unravel.

Stroker: Yeah, exactly.

Martirosyan: Be a part of it in little ways.

Stroker: 100%.

Martirosyan: And be a part of it a big way.

Stroker: Yes! And this is totally on a side note, but if you ever are looking for support or help around mom stuff, please reach out to me anytime. I’m obviously trying to figure it out still, too, but if you ever want to connect.

Stroker in bed with a young man with glasses from a scene from Glee

Martirosyan: I would love that!

Stroker: Yeah. I always feel like if there’s any moms out there in chairs, like, I want to talk to them!

Martirosyan: Yeah, actually, now that you mention it, I don’t know anybody.

Stroker: Please, if you ever want to reach out, if you ever want to chat, I’m on Instagram, or I can give you my email or whatever, but I’d love to connect on some stuff if you want. I also had this dream – of course, I haven’t had the time yet – but I really want to create a mom’s group. On Facebook there’s a Broadway moms’ group – and maybe there is one – but you can always start another one, and you could always reach out to other people.

Martirosyan: There’s always a need for more. I’ll send you a message on Instagram.

Stroker: Please do. Please do. I’m so excited that you have a little one, too.

Martirosyan: It seems like that took the lead in the conversation.

Stroker: Yes. Well, it’s a part –

 Martirosyan: It’s the biggest part of our lives right now.

Stroker: Yeah, literally. The books have been amazing because it’s so nice to have a work outlet, but I am eating, breathing and sleeping.

Martirosyan: I know. I’m like “how are we going to make this work?”

Stroker: 100%. So please reach out to me, I’d love to connect on Insta.

Martirosyan: I’d love to. I’ll definitely send you a message.

Ali Stroker

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