Ali Stroker and the Tonys – The Rising Tide of Artists with Disabilities

Washington, DC June 14,2019 – On behalf of everyone at Open Circle Theatre and our community of professional artists with and without disabilities in the DC Metro Area, we want to wish a big congratulations to Ali Stroker on her Tony win for her portrayal of Ado Annie in the Broadway revival production of Oklahoma!  She is an amazing artist who lights up the stage and as Variety says, her performance is, “Full of fun… Whirling and twirling in her wheelchair, a darling dervish, and her singing…is an invitation to smile.”  As the first actor with a disability to receive a Tony, her win marks a historical achievement in employment in the arts for persons with disabilities.

Suzanne Richard, Aarron Loggins, D’Arcess Charington Neal, Will Hayes

Beyond the arts community, Stroker’s accomplishment has broken a glass ceiling, and her achievement is a recognition and acknowledgment that many generations of artists and activists with disabilities have been fighting for since the beginning of the disability rights movement.  Actors such as Kitty Lunn in Agnes of God at Alliance Theatre, and Neil Marcus writer and actor of Storm Reading at Access Theatre in Santa Barbara in 1988. In recent years, actors working in Equity houses such as Greg Mozgala in New York City, Michael Thornton in Chicago, and Open Circle members Rob McQuay and Suzanne Richard in DC have contributed to a theatre culture that has grown increasingly open to innovation and inclusion.  Add to this the strides that Deaf Theatre artists have been making in major theatres, and it is evident that a shift in the diversity of artistic culture has been gaining momentum. It may have taken until the year 2019, but this is a moment which artists and people with disabilities of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life have been striving for.

As Stroker stated in her acceptance speech, it is important for the next generation to see themselves represented on the professional stage.  Open Circle has always held that if you want to change society, start with the arts, and the immediacy and intimacy of the stage will most often be where paradigms are shifted first.       

Directed by Daniel Fish with choreography by John Heginbotham, Stroker’s use of her wheelchair is seamlessly integrated on stage.  Ado Annie is not a role specifically designated for an actor with a disability, nor is the character written with a disability. However, as an actor with a disability and wheelchair user, Stroker brings a nuance to the character that makes the portrayal uniquely hers.  What Stroker, Fish and the creative team have accomplished with this Broadway production exemplifies what Open Circle Theatre shows audiences – that an actors’ disability enhances the artistic experience and aesthetic of the production. “Performer With a Disability” doesn’t have to be a separate casting category, it is just a quality of who the character (and actor) is. This creates endless possibilities and roles that can be performed by professional actors with disabilities. We hope the success and example of Stroker’s talent and abilities will encourage other directors, producers, and designers in the theatre to open their doors and provide more opportunities to professional artists with disabilities.

Many people watching the awards ceremony voiced on social media that they were not happy with the fact that Radio City Music Hall did not construct a ramp (even just a temporary one,) from the audience for Stroker to be able to come up directly on stage and receive her award in the same way her professional peers did.  This lack of accessibility became more noticeable when Oklahoma! won the Tony for Best Musical Revival, because Stroker was not able to be on stage at that moment with her colleagues when that award was presented.  This is one example of the work that still needs to be done with regard to addressing physical barriers in theatre.

Open Circle Theatre has seen a marked increase in requests from theatres and other production companies looking for artists with disabilities.  At Open Circle we not only encourage theatre companies and theatre industry professionals to consider providing opportunities, we also serve as a resource to identify and include professional actors with disabilities in productions.  Find an artist who’s talent excites you – don’t think about why it will not work to cast them, try collaborating with them to see what they can bring to the role and your production. If artists with disabilities and creative teams work together it can expand creative possibilities.  Here’s to seeing the tide continue to rise for all persons and artists with disabilities, that Stroker’s amazing talent and success helps to build!

Contributing writers: Suzanne Richard, Artistic Director; Jennifer Camp

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