The First Actor with Autism to Play Curious Incident’s Autistic Lead Speaks Out
Mickey Rowe opens up about the milestone moment and the underrepresentation of actors with disabilities.
Come this fall, actor Mickey Rowe will play the lead at the center of the Indiana Repertory Theater and Syracuse Stage productions of the Tony-winning Best Play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Rowe is an actor with autism, and he is the first actor affected by autism to play Christopher, a character with autism. Here, Rowe shares his personal thoughts on this milestone theatre moment.
I am so honored to get to play Christopher Francis Boone and represent the autistic community at the incredible and beautiful Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) and Syracuse Stage directed by Risa Brainin. You may ask yourself, what is an autistic doing working at a traditional theatre company? I often ask myself that question. But I believe that in theatre, my “weakness” is one of my strengths.
If you see me walking down the street, I most likely have headphones on. I nearly always wear a blue T-shirt—V-neck so nothing touches my neck. And I don’t wear coats or jackets when it’s cold out, which drives my wife crazy. I was late to speak, but I invented my own incredibly detailed sign language to communicate. I had speech therapy all through elementary school and occupational therapy all through middle school.
There is a tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theatre. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky.
I am also legally blind—autism is often linked with vision or hearing problems—so I can’t perform very well in cold readings. If given a few days before an audition, I always memorize sides so I don’t read them off the page. I enlarge scripts so they are twice as big, just like all of my textbooks and tests were enlarged in school. I will often secretly record the first read-through of a play on my cell phone, hidden in my pocket, so that I can learn my lines and study the script by listening; my eyes give out after about 15 minutes of looking at a page. But because I know this, I get off book damn fast. Often before the first rehearsal.
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Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job onstage as an actor.
For instance, at a coffee shop:
Me: Hi, how are you doing today? (Smile.) Can I please have a small coffee? Thank you so much! (If it seems like more conversation is needed) Has it been busy today?
Barista: (Any barista response.)
Me: Oh yeah? Is it nicer when it’s busy or when it’s slow? Have a great rest of your day!
Always stick to the script. It makes things infinitely easier.
Or playing Edmond in King Lear,
Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? ...
It’s really no different. They’re lines I’ve learned, that I say often, but I’m making you believe they are mine, particular to this specific moment.
These all may seem like reasons why I should never be an actor. But acting is a dichotomy. A tension between what is safe and what is dangerous. What is known and what is unknown. What’s mundane and what’s exciting.
There is a tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theatre. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky. When a grand piano is gracefully lowered out of a window by a rope onto a flat bed truck, slowly spinning and dangling, the tension in the rope is what everyone is watching. In theatre, the performer is the rope, making the incredible look graceful and easy, making the audience complicit in every thought, every tactical switch. When the rope goes slack, the show is over.
I put my dichotomies to work for me. It’s about doing the work and being in control so the audience trusts you to lead them, and then being vulnerable and letting the audience see your soul. The skill, study, and training help create the trust. The challenges make the vulnerability. You need both of them. As an autistic I have felt vulnerable my entire life—to be vulnerable onstage is no biggie.
With autism comes a new way of thinking; a fresh eye, a fresh mind. Literally, a completely different wiring of the brain.
A lot of people ask me about how physical the show is. I personally love physical stimulus—especially in the way of choreography and circus skills. About half of autistics really have a hard time with physical stimulus and the other half crave it and go out of their way to find it. I love it. So Curious Incident won't be a problem for me. I'm really excited to work with the show's choreographer Mariel Greenlee; it's one of the parts of the show that most looking forward to. (And no, we will not have to change anything about the show to accommodate any special needs except for enlarging the script to 18 pt. font.)
Being in front of an audience of 500 or 2,890 people is very easy for me. The roles are incredibly clear, logical, and laid out. I am onstage; you are sitting in the seats watching me. I am playing a character, and that is what you expect, want, and are paying for. The conversations onstage are scripted, and written much better than the ones in my real life. On the street is where conversations are scary—those roles aren’t clear.
Sure, there are lots of things working against me at any given time. According to the CDC, one in seven American children have a developmental disability and people with disabilities make up the largest minority in the United States. According to the 2010 census, 20 percent of the adult U.S. population has a disability.
Yet, according to a recent Ruderman Family Foundation Report, less than 1 percent of TV characters have a disability. The worst part being that 95 percent of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. The rate is even lower when it comes to developmental disabilities like autism.
Disabled people also had a 10.1 percent unemployment rate (in 2015), which is double that of people without a disability.
This means all too often when we learn about autism on TV, in the movies, or onstage we are learning about autism from others instead of going straight to the source and learning from autistic adults.
But that is why it is even more important that young actors with disabilities see role models who will tell them that “If you are different, if you access the world differently, if you need special accommodations, then theatre needs you! The world needs you!”
I am so looking forward to getting the chance to show young disabled people that they can represent themselves honestly onstage and tell their own stories.
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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs September 22–October 15 at Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT) and October 25–November 12 at Syracuse Stage. It is directed by Risa Brainin. Tickets at irtlive.com and syracusestage.org.