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The Oklahoma! Tony winner discusses accessibility, representation and playing Anne in Richard III
Ali Stroker won a Tony Award for her incredible performance as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! on Broadway. Now she's back on the boards as another Annie who can't say no: Lady Anne, the unlikely wife of Richard III in The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of the Bard's action-packed tragedy, running at Central Park's Delacorte Theater through July 17. Like Stroker, I use a wheelchair, and if you're a TDF Stages regular, you may have read my piece about accessibility in theatre. In it, I discussed my varying experiences attending shows and the joy of seeing Stroker perform in particular, because representation is so important. It's important to Stroker, too, which is why she spent the pandemic pause writing two children's books featuring lead characters who use wheelchairs. As a huge fan of her work, I was thrilled to chat with Stroker about appearing in this radical reinvention of Richard III, shifting the narrative around disability and why making theatre accessible should be an industry-wide priority.
Christina Trivigno: So, first of all, I read your middle-grade novel The Chance to Fly, loosely inspired by your years as a musical theatre-loving teen who used a wheelchair. As a full-time wheelchair user myself, I identified so much with the protagonist's experiences—the self-advocacy, the challenges of group trips and all those awkward firsts. You also just released a new picture book, Ali and the Sea Stars, based on the summer you performed in your first musical by the Jersey Shore. Can you talk a bit about the importance of telling these stories to different audiences and age groups?
Ali Stroker: Of course! Writing books is such a dream come true. When I was growing up, I didn't have books that I saw myself in; I didn't identify with any of the characters. So, I was just really, really excited about creating characters that felt authentic and relatable to me. The Chance to Fly was my first try at writing, because in middle school I really needed that representation so badly.
Trivigno: Agreed, such an important time.
Stroker: Ali and the Sea Stars is such a great opportunity to reach young kids, because they are so accepting of everything. Something really important to me about the picture book is that the character, Ali, uses a wheelchair, but we don't explain why she's in a wheelchair. And the story is not about Ali being in a wheelchair, but about her putting on a show. That is the progress that I want to see, that when we see a character with a disability, there isn't always some sort of explanation as to why.
Trivigno: I totally agree and understand where you're coming from. I feel the same way. Not every character needs an elaborate backstory to justify why they're disabled. That doesn't need to be the focus. Speaking of that, I saw you in Richard III the other night, and it was great to see so many performers with disabilities in the cast. It's normally a play that uses disability as an outward manifestation of the character flaws of the title villain. How do you think such an inclusive cast impacts the story?
Stroker: I think that this production is so unique because nobody's pretending to be something they're not, and that authenticity is so important. Characters [played by actors with disabilities] have disabilities, and characters [played by actors without disabilities] don't. Characters who are portrayed by actors of color are now characters of color. I'm so glad that the authenticity and the diversity is just there, and I think it works in this particular production.
Trivigno: Incredibly diverse and inclusive. It was a joy to see.
Stroker: I think that disability is very powerful on stage, whether it's talked about or not. The characters with disabilities don't talk about their disabilities, because those aren't disability-specific roles. I like that there is sign language being used in the show. There are other people with different kinds of disabilities on stage, and I think it just makes the story and the characters and this world richer and more interesting. As for Richard, he is so power hungry and described by Shakespeare as "foul" and just a nasty person—we don't need that character to be seen as having some kind of disability [to understand his motivations].
Trivigno: The production takes a gender-blind approach to casting, too. Richard is played by a woman—performer, playwright and general badass Danai Gurira—and a lot of the female characters in the show, including yours, are used as his political stepping-stones. How do you think that impacts the storytelling?
Stroker: We're in such an interesting time in terms of gender. I think it's probably impacting everybody differently. Is the audience interpreting Danai Gurira as a woman playing a man? I don't know. I'm not worried about gender in my scenes. As Anne, I'm worried about getting what I need, which is safety, and getting Richard to understand that he should die, because that's how awful he's been. But I end up getting wooed.
Trivigno: Yes! Richard actually woos Anne over her father-in-law's corpse—and Richard was the one who killed him and Anne's husband! Is Anne's decision to marry Richard challenging to play authentically?
Stroker: As Anne, I understand that my survival lies in Richard's hands. He is my best option, because otherwise I'm going to get killed or banished. My husband was killed and my father-in-law the King was killed. As a woman at that time, that means all my protection is gone. So I'm very, very vulnerable. That for me is the rationalization, that I want to survive.
Trivigno: Is this your first time doing Shakespeare professionally?
Stroker: Yes! I've worked on Shakespeare before in classes and in workshops, but I've never done it professionally on a stage. It's been so cool.
Trivigno: Did The Public Theater need to make any changes to the Delacorte Theater and its spaces to accommodate you?
Stroker: Yes. Most of the dressing rooms are underneath the stage and are not accessible.
Trivigno: Super-steep ramps to get under the stage, I've seen them.
Stroker: Yes. So, they built this separate building for the dressing room for me, and then they had chairlifts installed on both sides of the stage.
Stroker: Yeah, it's been amazing to feel the momentum and the will of producers and directors who really want me in their productions. They're willing to do what it takes to make the backstage accessible. I'm very grateful to [director Robert O'Hara] and The Public for doing that.
Trivigno: I love the use of American Sign Language (ASL) in the show. At times it's not even translated for the audience. You made your Broadway debut in Deaf West's production of Spring Awakening, which also featured ASL. Did you learn to sign for that show, or were you already proficient?
Stroker: I learned it for the show and now I can sign a little bit. I wouldn't say my sign language is great, but I think it's so effective on stage.
Trivigno: It's beautiful.
Stroker: Yeah, I think it's a really beautiful form of expression and I think it works really well theatrically.
Trivigno: I agree. Even when it's not translated in the production, you understand the emotions of the character. Richard III, Deaf West's Spring Awakening, your Tony Award-winning turn in Daniel Fish's very dark Oklahoma!—you seem drawn to projects that take classics and turn them on their heads. Why is that? And what show would you like to see reinvented next?
Stroker: What I love is that it sort of goes along with my entire life, to see things differently. Doing things outside the box can be really exciting. You don't have to do a production the way it's always been done. We find so many gifts and so many new creative explorations through doing shows in different ways, or telling stories in different ways, and we learn more about ourselves. So, it's really exciting to work on revivals that are being done differently. As for what I would like to see done differently next? I know they're working on an all-Black production of Death of a Salesman. I'm really excited about that.
Trivigno: I think I've heard you mention Little Shop of Horrors as something that you'd like to take on.
Stroker: Yeah! I'd love to do Audrey in Little Shop. That would great! It's so funny, because of my experiences doing classics differently, I forget that they're being done differently. It just feels like this is what theatre is now and I love that.
Trivigno: I certainly think accessibility in theatre has come a long way in my lifetime, on stage, backstage and in the audience. But there's still a lot of work to do. What issues should be spotlighted next?
Stroker: I think it's two parts. Part one is accessibility, and defining accessibility as more than structural, more than just ramps and elevators, making theatre accessible for all audiences. The reality is Broadway is not that accessible because of how expensive it is, or for people with certain kinds of disabilities, like Deaf audiences [who must attend designated performances]. We need to create more theatre that is accessible to all people all the time.
Trivigno: Yes, more captions, more ASL, more audio description.
Stroker: And then part two, the other piece—and I touched on this a bit with the books that I've written—is creating characters or casting actors with disabilities, and not needing to defend or explain that choice. We need to accept disability as just being a part of our world. So much of my life has been like, "Oh, you're in a wheelchair. What happened to you? What's wrong?" I want to see that narrative change. I have a disability and not everybody needs to know why, and people shouldn't assume that all of my challenges come from having a disability. The entertainment industry has the power to shift that narrative, to shift the way our world looks at disability.
Trivigno: I think that's so powerful. I sympathize with all of that. I can't tell you how many people I've met for the first time, or gone on first dates with who ask wildly inappropriate questions.
Stroker: Yeah, and it's like, where are the love stories? We all have love stories in some way, shape or form. It's scary growing up and seeing rom-coms and all the lead characters look only one way. You begin to wonder, where is my story?
Trivigno: I'm 40 and you're probably the first person using a wheelchair I've seen in a story that was romantic. I saw The Light in the Piazza, which is a love story, and the character Clara has a disability, but with a wild and tragic explanation, sadly.
Stroker: There's love and romance for every single person but like, growing up in the '80s and the '90s, that was not being represented at all.
Trivigno: Not at all.
Stroker: Right. I know I'm preaching to the choir. You get it. I think there's so much room. Also, it shouldn't be some crazy accident or like the story of Peter Dinklage's Cyrano, where the disabled person pretends that they're somebody else. These love stories need to exist because they are real. Disability and relationships and love and romance—it's possible and it's real and it's out there. For people who don't have a disability and don't know anything about somebody with a disability, they might be hesitant about getting involved with someone who has a disability, and part of that is because we don't see it represented. I just really believe that the writers with disabilities are out there, and I think that it's our turn to tell our story.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Find out how to get free tickets to Richard III on The Public Theater's website.
Christina Trivigno is the Director of Digital Strategy for TDF. She has more than 10 years of experience working in the digital space and a lifetime of experience as a disability advocate. She has spoken and written about accessibility at organizations around the country, addressing topics such as transportation, reasonable accommodation, digital accessibility and access at the theatre. She was proud to marry her passions with the launch of TheatreAccess.NYC.
Top image: Ali Stroker and Danai Gurira in The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III. Photo by Joan Marcus.