Photo credit: Playbill
Mickey Rowe is hitting the Indiana Repertory Theatre staring in the Tony-winning Best Play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a 2003 novel that has become a Broadway smash hit. Rowe has autism spectrum disorder, and will be the first person with ASD to play the role.
A new Christopher
The lead character of the novel and play is a fifteen-year-old boy named Christopher, who likely has autism due to his behavior. Now, the role will finally be played by someone who can actually relate in their daily life.
Rowe, who is from Seattle, stated that he is so glad to have the opportunity to play the character. He explains why he thinks his casting for the role was important, "I think in theatre and in the media, we usually always learn about autism from people who don't have autism. This is what creates a lot of the misinformation and stereotype around autism. As an autistic I have felt vulnerable my entire life - to be vulnerable on stage is no biggie."
This ability to be vulnerable helped him nail his audition, which highlighted the versatility of Christopher's character.
Mickey's feelings on being Christopher
Mickey considered it an honor to be able to represent the autistic community. However, he doesn't let his autism spectrum disorder be viewed as a dismissed weakness. In fact, he considers it his strength as well. He explains why, "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."
Mickey says that everyone with autism spectrum disorder is a regular user of scripts, even if they aren't actors. He explains that an interaction in a coffee shop is planned out to the minute details, with each and every word prepared. He says it's the same as acting out a work of Shakespeare, saying "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." Either way, the lines have been rehearsed, but the audience must be convinced that they are unique and entirely improvised.
In fact, Mickey even argues that performing in front of huge audiences, even thousands of people, is easier than having normal conversations on the street. He says this is because roles in theatre are very clear, and everyone knows what to expect whereas in real life, anything can happen.
The edge that autism offers Mickey could be what pushes him to stardom; however, it is not the only difficulty he battles. He is also legally blind (vision and hearing problems are common among those with autism), which sometimes gives him a disadvantage in cold readings. He says that when he has the opportunity to look over the script beforehand, he will memorize where the borders are to stop him from reading off the page. To make it easier, he will also enlarge the scripts to double their size, a trick he learned in school for textbooks and tests. To combat this difficulty, he will secretly record the initial read-through of a play by hiding his phone in his pocket, enabling him to learn the lines by listening instead of reading. After about fifteen minutes, his eyes will begin to give out, making this a necessary practice.
So, does this weakness turn into a strength for him? It sure does. While he might not be able to read as easily as other actors, his need for early memorization enables him to get off book in a fraction of the time. He says that sometimes he even reaches this point before even the first rehearsal.
Mickey explains his strengths further by stating "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."
He says that autism gives you an entirely different way of thinking, which people respond well to.
There are no changes needed to be made to the show for Mickey to be involved in it, he requires no specialties, only his large font script.
Physicality of acting
Mickey mentioned that many people have asked him how physical the show is, knowing many who have autism struggle with physical stimulus. However, Mickey isn't one of them. He loves physical stimulus, so choreography and circus skills of onstage performance are great for him. Needless to say, the show will not cause a problem. He even says that working with choreographer Mariel Greenlee has been one aspect of the show he has been most looking forward to.
Making a change
Mickey recognizes that most people don't get to experience the same kind of opportunity he has been given, and knows he is fortunate. He cites that according to the CDC, one in seven American children have a developmental disability, and overall those with disabilities constitute the largest minority in the country. The 2010 census even showed that 20 percent of adults have a disability.
However, this leads one to wonder why they do not receive proportionate portrayal on television, or in media in general. Less than one percent of television characters have a disability, and out of those, 95 percent are played by able-bodied actors.
The rate becomes even lower for autism and other developmental disabilities. With these statistics, it isn't surprising that those with disabilities have an unemployment rate that is double than those without a disability, at 10.1 percent.
Mickey points out that this is a problem because it means the general public is learning about these disabilities second-hand instead of from the people who actually live it.
Another aspect of why this is a problem is that it stops those with autism or other disabilities from seeing people like them on the big screen, enhancing the idea that they wouldn't be able to be actors. However, Mickey is sure to ignite change on that front.
The Indiana Repertory Theatre took this opportunity with Mickey to learn more about how they could assist the autism community as a theater, and planned a sensory-friendly student matinee as well as a public performance for those with autism or sensory sensitivities.