ALI STROKER made history in June 2019 as the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. But even as she accepted her award for her performance as Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s contemporary revival of Oklahoma!, the marginalization of performers with disabilities was apparent. Stroker, unlike other Tony winners that night, came onstage from the wings and not the seats, since Radio City Music Hall didn’t provide access ramps from the house.

The irony wasn’t lost on former Thespian Nicole Kelly. Such hurdles fuel her desire to do more to create opportunities for people with disabilities, especially in theatre. Like Stroker, Kelly is an advisory company member of the new National Disability Theatre. She’s also a stage manager and frequent speaker advocating for accessibility in schools and other organizations.

Born without a left hand and forearm, Kelly grew up in Iowa with a love of theatre. As a sophomore at Keokuk High School, she was inducted into Troupe 6976, and, as an Iowa State Thespian Officer, she attended the International Thespian Festival in the summers of 2007 and 2008. “It was my favorite week of the year,” said Kelly. “My summers on University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus are why I ended up going to school in Lincoln.”

“I loved being onstage playing characters. But I think it was also the first space where I felt like I could control the stares I received,” she told Dramatics. Like many young women, Kelly says Wicked was one of her favorite shows growing up. But more profoundly than most of her classmates, Kelly knew what it was like to have a physical characteristic, like Elphaba’s green skin, that sets you apart from your peers. At the same time, she says that growing up in a small town in some ways created more high school theatre opportunities than she might have had in a bigger school district. “They always needed bodies onstage,” she laughed.

Kelly earned national attention when she won the 2013 Miss Iowa title and went on to compete in the 2014 Miss America pageant, making her one of the few contestants in the pageant’s history with a physical disability. She’s now based in Chicago, where she earned her master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her professional speaking and advocacy efforts, Kelly works in production management at Ravenswood Studio, a company that fabricates sets and exhibits for theatres, opera companies, museums, and corporate clients.

Nicole Kelly

Photo of Nicole Kelly by Jenn Cady.

She also now uses a custom-made bionic arm from Chicago’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). The device uses sensors that respond to muscle contractions in Kelly’s arm. Kelly’s videos about her learning curve with the advanced prosthetic, gathered at her website (missnicolegkelly.com) under the tag “My Bionic Life,” show the grace, charm, wit, and intelligence that undoubtedly stood out to pageant judges. In one, she jokes about going viral with a video of her dropping a glass of juice on her cat. “Learning to all of a sudden have two hands is a really hard thing,” she said.

When we met over coffee on a stormy Chicago day, Kelly told me she still tends to drop things — often to the displeasure of her new downstairs neighbors. Rather than endure their constant ceiling knocks when she dropped her phone or cup, Kelly decided to introduce herself and explain why she drops things more often than other people.

That direct approach to educating others characterizes both Kelly’s work and the work of National Disability Theatre. But, as Kelly pointed out in one of her videos, she didn’t hear the word “disabled” applied to herself until after she was selected to compete for the Miss America title at age 23. “It was not the way I identified, and I went to Miss America really shook up, and really not ready.” Through the pageant and surrounding media attention, she found a community of “people who were like me. I proudly found what it was like to be a disabled person living in the world.”

Despite her early love of performing, Kelly didn’t major in acting. While watching a video of a stage manager calling cues for “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, Kelly realized she had the organizational chops to be good at stage management. As an actor, she realized she’d be constantly in front of casting directors who “would limit what you could do because of the disability, and therefore I just thought, ‘I’m not going to break my heart doing this.’”

Instead, she got her undergraduate degree in directing and stage management at the University of Nebraska and worked during and after college at theatres around the country, including Williamstown Theatre Festival (where she was an acting apprentice), Santa Fe Opera, and Manhattan Theatre Club. She was working as a “child wrangler” on the latter’s production of Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties when the chance to compete for Miss Iowa came up.

What was the appeal of the pageant? As Kelly put it, “It was my loophole. Because I got to audition for a part that was 100 percent me. All I had to do was stand onstage and be me. And I can do that.”

There was an antecedent. At age 10, while attending a birthday party, Kelly remembers her friend’s mother calling them into the living room to see that year’s Miss Iowa, Theresa Uchytil Etler, who also was born without her left hand, competing for the Miss America crown. “It was the very first time I saw someone like me on TV,” she said. She didn’t become obsessed with entering pageants — until she won Miss Iowa, she had never competed in one — but Kelly said, “That subconscious seed that was planted told me that was a space where I could audition and be myself.”

Miss America contestants are expected to be knowledgeable about current events and political issues, and this aspect of pageant training benefits Kelly’s role as spokesperson and advocate. But Kelly did not fully integrate her interests of theatre and disability advocacy in a professional way until she met Mickey Rowe and Talleri A. McRae, the founders of National Disability Theatre, in 2015 during a weeklong celebration of the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in Washington, D.C. Kelly hosted the final night of celebrations at the Kennedy Center. She also helped with a group of “theatre accessibility nerds” running games and crafts for local kids, where she and McRae clicked. “We instantly became companions and started talking, and we haven’t stopped talking since,” Kelly said.

Rowe made history when he became the first autistic actor to play the role of Christopher, a young man with autism, in the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In a phone interview with Dramatics, Rowe explained the impetus for founding NDT. “Twenty percent of people in the U.S. have a disability, yet 95 percent of all disabled roles we see in theatre, on TV, and in film are played by nondisabled actors,” he said, referring to a 2016 study by Ruderman White Paper. Referencing Stroker’s Tony win, Rowe added, “There are a few really beautiful, exciting success stories, but the number of success stories there are, I can easily count on one hand.”

Rather than pursue a brick-and-mortar venue that provides opportunities for theatre artists with disabilities, NDT aims to tell stories through a disability lens in partnership with existing regional theatres. The organization is working with southern California’s La Jolla Playhouse and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre on a co-commission with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Christopher Shinn, who had part of his left leg amputated in 2012 as a result of bone cancer. Rowe and McRae, a disability studies scholar and theatre artist, are in residence at La Jolla for the 2019-20 season.

La Jolla is also working with NDT advisory member Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy, for its performance outreach program, which tours local elementary schools. The 2020 touring production, Emily Driver’s Great Race Through Time and Space, written by Mozgala and A.A. Brenner, follows the title character’s time-traveling journey with her “worn-out wheelchair,” where she meets disability rights activists and finds a way to fight for herself and others.

AJ Abelman Photography 2
Photo of Nicole Kelly by AJ Abelman.

Where does Kelly fit in? As a trained stage manager, she speaks about “how to make the theatre space more welcoming for people with disabilities.” That includes audience members, but it also means making venues accessible and comfortable for theatre workers with disabilities. In 2019, Kelly participated in a conversation about disability and theatre management for the HowlRound site with Jenn Poret, booking coordinator at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in northern California, who has a type of dwarfism known as Pseudoachondroplasia. For Poret, lots of walking can cause pain and strain her joints, so her coworkers often volunteer to run errands if they notice her sitting more often. The company stores stepstools around the facility, so she doesn’t have to carry one with her everywhere she goes.

Kelly mentioned to Poret that she would love to see an “accessibility checklist” adopted as standard procedure for all theatres, including not just ways to make productions accessible through interpreters, touch tours, and sensory-friendly performances, but also education and resources for employees and more physical adjustments such as ramps, push doors, and accessible parking spaces.

As she told Poret, Kelly advocates for a change in attitudes “around the idea of taking extra time and energy to care for disability needs. Tools we use are not a luxury, and I want others to understand that.”

At the same time, Kelly says it’s important to let people with disabilities decide how to define and present themselves, particularly in early arts training. “I was in Grease in high school as Patty Simcox. I will always remember that there was a cheerleading scene, and they gave us pompoms. It was after that scene that the director said, ‘I think I want you to wear your prosthetic for the show.’ At the time I had one that looked like my hand. It was skin-colored. ‘I want you to have that look.’ I was very upset by that. Why can’t I be the one-handed Patty Simcox? I don’t even remember how I got out of it. There must have been some adult who came in and immediately cut [the director] off at the pass.”

Rowe echoed the need to avoid pigeonholing performers with disabilities. “What’s exciting is not necessarily more stories about disability, which can often be problematic and less helpful in normalizing disability. What’s much more exciting is telling stories that are not specifically about disability, or at least where the central conflict in the play is not because of a disability, and telling these stories with casts and creative teams entirely made up of people with disabilities.” He also notes that speaking about disability often leads to discussions of “charity” and said, “We want to flip the script and say, ‘You know what? We don’t just want to be audience members because we are powerful and fierce professionals as well.’”

Kelly is aware of the need for intersectional discussions in her work as an advocate for people with disabilities in theatre. She’s been talking recently about collaborating with Free Street Theater, a company that has created community-driven work, often around social justice issues, for the past 50 years. Free Street’s home space in a Chicago Park District fieldhouse isn’t fully accessible for people with disabilities, so part of her job will be helping them figure out how to negotiate barriers.

Kelly recognizes that, at Free Street, “the works they are doing are very heavily into issues of race and culture that I, as a white 29-year-old, have no business trying to direct or put my voice into. So I’m trying to enter their space in a way where I am learning and fully supportive, but also able to speak up to say, ‘Wait, for my community and for my culture, if you want to be welcoming, this is a place where we could make changes and do something different.’”

Thoughtful pragmatism may be something that comes naturally to Kelly, a self-proclaimed lover of spreadsheets and checklists. But it’s also something that fills her website as she demonstrates how she performs daily tasks, such as curling her hair. Creating results-oriented practical tools helping people with disabilities negotiate the world of theatre seems a logical next step.

When asked what advice she has for students with disabilities who wish to pursue careers in theatre, Kelly said, “Whether you like it or not, your disability is going to become the starting conversation. So, you need to make peace with that before you go forward, and that is a whole process. You need to understand the social structures standing in your way and get loud and proud about understanding the discrimination. [Kelly cohosts a YouTube series on disability called “Loud & Proud.”] But then it’s also about encouraging people to build those bridges and build those connections and finding the people who say yes.”

With Kelly’s help, National Disability Theatre is poised to become one of the places where “yes” is the answer for people with disabilities.

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