When Ali Stroker was growing up, she had a dream of being on Broadway. Already a challenging feat, Stroker’s goal seemed even further away since she was confined to a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was two years old. Nevertheless, in 2015, Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway, originating the role of Anna in Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening,” achieving her dreams and defying the odds.
On Sunday Feb. 11, actress Ali Stroker will be headlining the 16th annual Modfest at 3 p.m. in the Martel Theater. Stroker will give a performance followed by a discussion with Professor of English Leslie Dunn and recent graduate Christian Lewis ’17. Tickets are available through the Vassar Box Office.
Co-directed by Christine Howlett and Tom Pacio, Modfest’s theme this year is “Adapting.” Howlett is Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities and Pacio is Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator of Creative Arts Across Disciplines.
Pacio explained why Stroker’s artistry and advocacy made her the perfect fit to headline this year’s Modfest: “Ali is a very successful performer and activist, as her bio will show. Her message, ‘Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities,’ seemed a perfect fit for the Adapting theme for 2018. My hope is that different people will connect to different parts of her story and journey. Some of it is very clearly related to the theme, while other aspects may be more personal to each audience member who attends. I think that is part of the magic of live performance—each person ‘adapts’ what they see and hear to their own experiences and points of view to make it personal.”
Stroker has defied the assumptions of someone living with a disability. In 2009, she became the first actress in a wheelchair to earn a degree in Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and in 2012, Stroker was a contestant on “The Glee Project,” finishing the show as a runner-up and making an appearance on “Glee.” In 2014, Stroker appeared on the MTV comedy series “Faking It.” She has given solo performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Town Hall and made concert appearances at Lincoln Center.
Last year, Tony–award winner Audra McDonald headlined the 15th Modfest, which revolved around the theme of “Raising Voices.” McDonald performed selections from her favorite musicals, including “The Glamorous Life” from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from Rogers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” while interweaving anecdotes about her career and motherhood. Afterward, McDonald held a moderated discussion with Professor of Film Mia Mask.
Pacio believes that Stroker’s story, fueled by her motto of “Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities,” will deliver an encouraging message for the audience: “I hope the audience is entertained, moved, and inspired by Ms. Stroker’s story. I had the great pleasure of working with Professor Leslie Dunn on an artist’s residency for deaf poet, Peter Cook, who along with his long-time interpreter, Kenny Lerner, came to campus in 2015. I could think of no one better to lead an open conversation with Ms. Stroker. Dunn will be joined by recent Vassar alum Christian Lewis [’17], who also has a deep interest in disability studies, paired with a love for musical theater. I think the combination of these three is a unique and powerful recipe for some wonderful conversations. Also, Ali can really sing!”
Modfest started in 2003 when Dee Wilson ’69 and Professor of Music Richard Wilson wanted to establish a festival to explore and celebrate the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with the Music Department, the festival has grown to incorporate other Arts departments as well as language departments in the various creative projects and performances through the years. For the last two years, Howlett and Pacio have been directing Modfest; however, the Wilsons’ retirements have been honored with an annual concert as part of the festival.
Pacio talked about how Modfest has become a lasting fixture for the Vassar community thanks to the efforts of the Wilsons: “I think the history of Modfest, as built and run so beautifully by Richard and Adene ‘Dee’ Wilson for 14 years, speaks for itself in the caliber of talent brought to campus. I also think that Dee’s efforts in reaching out to the community to share some of Vassar’s artistic resources has inspired other efforts on and off campus. I hope that we can continue these traditions of quality and meaningful programming for years to come.”
Most recently, Stroker appeared in the ABC show “Ten Days in the Valley” with Kyra Sedgwick and in an episode of Fox’s “Lethal Weapon.” Stroker is a Co-Chair for Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of NYC, and was one of the founding members of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign that tours the country.
Dunn spoke about how Stroker’s performance and conversation will hopefully address the conversation at Vassar surrounding ableism: “I hope that her performance and the Q and A afterwards will raise awareness about issues of access and inclusion for people with disabilities, not only in the performing arts but also at Vassar. At the moment there is very little if any institutional conversation around issues of disability and ableism at Vassar. I would like to see that change.”
Dunn’s concerns reflect a growing transformation of initiatives on campus on approaching the topic of ableism. At Vassar, two student organizations, ACCESS and the Disability Rights Coalition (DRC), have been at the center of this arrangement. In November 2017, the latter group worked with the Office of Health Education to present the exhibit “Unmasking Stigma: Ableism & Ability Through Student Art” at the Old Bookstore. While ACCESS is more advocacy-focused through tangible policies, the DRC is centered on community building and creating a safe space at Vassar for members of the disabled community to exist and belong.
Vice President and Programming Director of the DRC Carina Cohen ’19 spoke about how Stroker’s journey resonates personally with her own life. “Two of the big things in my life are disability advocacy and music, so when I heard about this event, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I need to come to this. This is perfect.’ On top of that, when I was little, my dream was to be on Broadway. And once I got sick a decade ago, I realized that I could never pursue that dream. Actually hearing someone who’s gone through fighting this disability label and to be successful I hope is going to be inspirational and informative.”
This semester, the DRC is planning on hosting a film screening in Blodgett Auditorium on Saturday, March 3 of “Unrest,” the 2017 documentary directed and produced by Jennifer Brea about her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, with a moderated talk afterwards about disability and the media and a panel the following day comprised of students, faculty and alumni on how to address disability at Vassar.
President of the DRC Robin Corleto ’19 addressed how Stroker’s motto “Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities” is incorporated with the assumptions surrounding disability that the org hopes to disprove: “We were talking about ‘Mean Girls’ and how this applies to the DRC, that ‘The limit does not exist.’ Basically I think that once you’re labelled as having a disability, you’re immediately assumed to not have the capability of doing certain things physically, mentally, emotionally.”
The DRC also hopes to work more closely with various departments and committees on campus, particularly the Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, to increase awareness as well as create a stronger sense of community and address various issues of accessibility that are prominent throughout campus.
“Disability is everywhere. It’s not just one subset tucked away in a corner,” Cohen said about the assumptions surrounding disability. “It’s not that we’re limited. It’s not that we automatically are less. It’s just that we have to go about things differently and that’s what society doesn’t understand. We’re not less, just different.”