Spring Awakening, about teenagers figuring out boundaries, is raw and dark. Photo by Joan Marcus.
No one should confuse Spring Awakening with happy musicals like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. This one is about teenagers figuring out their sexuality and boundaries. It is raw and dark. If it were a movie, they would give it an R, or maybe even an X rating.
Thanks to the ADA, Broadway’s theaters now all have spaces for wheelchair-using customers and their companions. Backstage it’s a different story. None are wheelchair friendly. Before Spring Awakening opened at the Brooks Atkinson, its producers added a stage door ramp and an accessible dressing room for Stroker. She didn’t have to ask. They just did it. Those improvements remain in the theater. “It’s exciting to think,” she says, “that now there is an accessible dressing room backstage on Broadway.”
Her role wasn’t written for a wheelchair-using actor. In fact, her understudy was a walkie. Stroker didn’t want her to fake using a chair. “I don’t think she could have learned to do what I did with speed and precision,” she says.
There is nothing unplanned in a Broadway musical. The director and choreographer got this one running like a Swiss watch, a Swiss watch on steroids. They had the 28-year-old Stroker starting, stopping, turning, singing and signing. “The whole show was like a machine,” she recalls. “All the pieces had to work together.” She fit in so seamlessly that The New York Times reviewer almost overlooked her. “Incidentally,” he wrote, “the cast also includes an actor in a wheelchair — a detail I so easily assimilated that I almost forgot to mention it.”
Only a very athletic para could have handled the part the way Stroker, a C7-T2 incomplete, did. To stop her from rolling off of the stage as she raced around, they put a little lip across its front. The floor of the stage in the 1926 theater had its own problems. “It’s warped wood, which created little hills,” Stroker says. “I could feel them as I rolled over them. It was really funny when I realized that when I stopped to sign something, I was rolling away.”
Performing in a Broadway show can be a grind. The curtain goes up six nights a week, plus matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “It is exhausting,” admits Stroker, “and definitely intense, but I found that if I got plenty of sleep, I can do anything. Sleep for me is the key. I made it a priority.”
Finding Her Passion
She began using a chair after being injured in an automobile accident. She was just 2 years old. “A life-altering experience when you’re young doesn’t feel life-altering,” she points out. She grew up with an older brother and a younger sister in Ridgewood, N.J., a pleasant New York City suburb. Her father is a teacher and coach there. He told her every day that she was a superstar. He encouraged her to compete. “I used to wheelchair race as a kid,” she recalls, “and I have this national record for my age, my injury, and a specific race. Yeah, I did really well. My dad always reminds me about it. It was fun, but I wasn’t motivated or driven to win.”
She was just 7 when she found her true calling, playing the title role in a backyard production of the musical, Annie. “We sang along with the tape, and we painted the sheet that was the backdrop,” she recalls. “It was really cute. It made me feel alive. That’s when I got the acting bug. After that summer my life opened up. I looked for opportunities to perform. I just wanted to be on the stage, to tell stories and play characters.” She started dreaming of being on Broadway.