Ali Stroker knows what she wants, and she has the talent to back it up. The Ridgewood native can act and do comedy, and her Broadway belt rivals the best in the industry. At twenty-three, she is beautiful, accomplished and self-assured. But when Stroker goes into an audition room, her most important asset is courage.
Stroker is wheelchair-bound. When she was two years old, she sustained a spinal chord injury in a car accident that left her unable to walk. But the aspiring actress and singer doesn’t dwell on that. These days, she’s too busy having fun, honing her craft and shuttling back and forth between New York and LA for auditions.
“It’s sad but not sad,” she says matter-of-factly. “Most people are afraid of the unknown. But (after the accident) my parents and I were like, ‘We have to find a way to make this work.’ That’s my strategy every day of my life.”
Stroker feels fortunate to have grown up with the strong support of family, friends and community.
“Ridgewood is such a supportive community. All of my life, my family and I have been surrounded with love and care from the town, and we are so grateful for that,” she says warmly.
Her parents, Jody Schleicher and Jim Stroker, still live in Ridgewood with her brother, while her sister attends Skidmore College. Her father teaches at Benjamin Franklin Middle School and her mom works for the department of Parks and Recreation.
Since graduating from NYU last year, Stroker returns home about once a month to see her family and appear in, or audition for, shows in New York.
Stroker is here this weekend for that reason. She will be performing in two concerts at the popular Manhattan venue, Joe's Pub, in the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. As part of the “Composers Sing Composers” series, she will sing in the Joey Contreras show, "Love Me, Love Me Not," on Sunday March 27 at 9:30 PM.
The following night, Monday, March 28 at 9:30 p.m., she will perform in the Drew Gasparini musical theater showcase. Sharing the stage with Stroker will be top notch Broadway talent from the musicals Wicked, Spring Awakening, Rent, Grease and more.
Stroker maintains that knowing what she wanted early in life made her career path obvious.
“At age six I did a production of Annie in our backyard with the neighborhood kids at the shore. I remember my life starting then. That was the summer I became me.”
Shortly after that, Stroker actively sought formal training in the performing arts. She says she never let her disability get in her way.
“My drama teacher Noreen Clarke cast me as when I was in 4th grade,” she remembers. “She gave me the chance to play my first lead role in Ridgewood. And Susan McBrayer was my voice teacher, who was not only an amazing teacher but a second mom to me.”
These positive experiences were followed by training in the Summer Musical Theater Conservatory program at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn. Stroker treasures the memories from that experience.
“When you’re on that stage it’s magic,” she sighs. “You can feel the passion and great performances of the people who have performed there before you.”
When it came time for college, Stroker was admitted to New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. A drama major at NYU’s CAP 21 Musical Theater Studio, she studied intensive voice and drama and did a stint at the international experimental theater in Amsterdam. Her best friends ("they're still my best friends") were NYU’s . With such stellar arts training and the support of the NYU arts community, Stroker flourished.
“Everyone knows everyone in this business,” she says sagely, noting that her NYU contacts opened doors for her in the industry. “I got my agents because of a showcase I did at CAP 21.” She is currently represented by the Talent House in New York and “A” Management in Los Angeles.
But the road to stardom is never easy, as Stroker well knows. Currently she is doing “lots of voiceover work in L.A.” while trying to break into the acting and sitcom business. She has been taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where comedians like Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, Jack Black, Mike Myers, Conan O'Brien, Robin Williams and Tina Fey got their start. She loves it.
“This is a test of what I really want right now,” she says. “I feel lucky to have this opportunity. But theater is a huge part of my life and always will be.”
Earlier this year, Stroker was cast in a lead role in the Papermill Playhouse musical, Spelling Bee. She calls it one of best theater experiences of her life.
Though waiting three or four weeks for the results of the callback was “torture,” the audition itself was an interesting, positive experience. “I got really emotional,” she says, still a little surprised by her reaction.
“I connected with who [the character of] Olive was, even though she’s only a nine-year-old girl. Olive is one of those kids who’s just different, you know? I’ll never forget those moments growing up, how bad you want to be like everyone else. But you have to be different – you have no choice. You have to be different all by yourself.”
It’s not surprising that Stroker’s intense connection to the character’s plight won her the role. What is surprising, however, is that the character of Olive was not written as a handicapped role. Stroker was cast over able-bodied actors.
“Olive is like me to a ‘T,’ ” maintains Stroker. “She’s just one of those kids who’s had to suck it up and make things happen for herself. But still, she has a positive outlook.”
That positive outlook defines Stroker’s whole philosophy of life.
“Because of my wheelchair I couldn’t do what everyone else was doing (as a child),” she remembers. “There’s something about having to be an individual, when you don’t have a choice about it . . . I realized I was on my own path, my own journey. You can’t change what life has handed you. So if you can’t change it, why not own it?
“I’ve gotten so many (telephone and email) messages from people saying I was an inspiration, and that what I did encouraged them to try things in their own lives.”
Stroker feels that her disability has helped her gain a deeper understanding of how art relates to the human condition.
“The arts are a neat way to show the world, ‘Let’s be real.’ Some of the greatest artists in the world had some disability or issue, when you think about it.” She pauses. “I can’t walk. Which means I can focus on my voice so much more. It’s so cool. My sister’s a dancer. What she does with her body I can do with my voice.”
For now, Stroker focuses on the future with characteristic optimism.
“Everything (in my life) has turned out to be the best it could have been. I’m twenty-three. I’m having a blast. Everything is new. (I’m) trying everything, figuring everything out.
“I have to apply that strategy to the business I’m in. I want to work because I’m the right actress and singer for the part, not because of my situation. But because of what I bring to the table. I feel hopeful.”