Spotlight on the National Disability Theatre

By Rebecca Sutton
Man in blue shirt sitting on steps and looking at camera

Actor and National Disability Theatre co-Executive Director Mickey Rowe. Photo by Sunny Martini

As an actor with autism, Mickey Rowe knows that performers with disabilities have to work harder because they have more to prove. “You are used to going above and beyond, overcompensating, and doing ten times more work just to show people that you are professional and capable,” he said. Which is why he stressed that when people see a performance by the National Disability Theatre (NDT), which he helped establish last year, they should not expect less. If anything, they should expect more.

Through high-quality productions, Rowe hopes that the company will begin to repair the disconnect between people’s perceptions of disability and the reality of highly capable, talented, and creative individuals. The company plans to exclusively hire people with disabilities both onstage and off, and all performances will be fully accessible for people with hearing, visual, mobility, and sensory differences. By partnering with regional theaters around the country to stage productions, Rowe hopes that NDT will begin to create a nationwide sea change regarding attitudes toward disability. As co-executive director of NDT, Rowe recently chatted with us about the company, his own experience with autism, and why disability can be a creative asset.

NEA: To kick off, I was wondering if you could tell me about the motivation for establishing the National Disability Theatre.

MICKEY ROWE: Right now, we’re at a time in our country where we really need hope, and we really need incredible artistry that can be used as evidence that our differences are our strengths. I’ve already seen from the number of emails and phone calls we’ve been getting every day from people excited about the company that National Disability Theatre is awakening people’s imaginations and giving people this hope, which is so exciting.

We really want to flip the script and eliminate the single story of people with disabilities, showing that we’re not inspiration for them or charity cases, but that we are powerful and ferocious professionals. Right now in our country, 20 percent of the American population has a disability, and only 2 percent of the roles that we see in the media have a disability. Ninety-five percent of those roles are played by non-disabled actors. So this makes people with disabilities both the largest minority group in the United States and the least represented. I’m autistic, and, for example, over 50 percent of college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed.

But then when we talk about access to theater, access not only affects this population’s ability to participate in the arts and culture, but also it affects their spouses’ abilities to participate and their families’ abilities to participate. So that’s a huge, huge percentage of the American population that until now has not felt very comfortable or welcomed attending the arts. So we strongly feel that by presenting world-class theater on a national scale through a lens of disability culture, and representing disability in authentic and innovative ways, understanding of disability is going to transform—not just for people with disabilities but for their non-disabled families, friends, and coworkers as well. So those are all the reasons why the need for National Disability Theatre is really great.

NEA: You mentioned how our differences are our strengths. I recently interviewed Regan Linton, who’s the artistic director of Phamaly Theatre, and she talked about how disability can be a real creative asset. Do you feel the same way?

ROWE: Definitely. Something that Talleri [McRae], our co-executive director, always says is, “Access and innovation go hand in hand. Including people with all abilities is a wildly creative act.” I think that’s what makes this work so exciting and visceral. Audiences are going to get to see beautiful and brilliant work that’s sexy, physical, and virtuosic and so aesthetically different than anything that they’ve seen before. When you put limitations on yourself artistically, then you have to come up with creative solutions, and people with disabilities are coming up with creative solutions in their life every day for how to navigate inaccessible spaces.

So creativity really is kind of core to disability culture and the disability experience I think. There are so many lived experiences that make up disability culture, from developmental disabilities to mobility disabilities to Down syndrome, not to mention every intersection with race, gender, and orientation. We are really excited to put together brilliant, professional ensembles made up entirely of the top working professionals with disability. It’s our goal to take all these brilliantly creative people and unify them all—we want to unify the whole disability community nationally and as a united front.

NEA: As you mentioned, there’s a lot of diversity within the disability community. Can talk about some of the ways National Disability Theatre is going to accommodate these various differences both among audience members, actors, and other theater professionals?

ROWE: We hope to integrate all of our audience services in terms of accessibility directly into the artistic designs for our shows. Captioning will be integrated artistically into our shows’ projection designs. There’s no reason that audio description can’t be built into a show’s sound design for every audience member. Access is going to continue after each show as the audience is welcomed to costume pieces and props that can be touched and felt onstage by anyone, including audience members with visual impairment or sensory-seeking neurodiverse individuals.

We’re huge believers that accessibility helps everyone—not only people with disabilities. So we are excited for our audience members who don’t have disabilities to experience some of these accommodations. We think it will help bring them on board in understanding what accessibility is really all about.

What is also really exciting is that we will be partnering with regional theaters and performing arts institutions around the country, which we think will be mutually beneficial. National Disability Theatre is going to gain access to those theaters’ administrative infrastructure, which will add to our organizational strengths, and our partnering organizations are going to receive NDT’s diversity and programming as well as an education on how to work with a whole spectrum of artists and audiences with disabilities. So after we leave any regional theater that we partnered with, all of these accessibility tools will have been added to that partner organization’s artistic tool kit and vocabulary. We hope they will continue some of these accessibility practices both for their performers and their audiences. So we really get to spread the seeds of accessibility all around the country.

NEA: What do you think actors or theater professionals with disabilities might bring to a production that a non-disabled individual might not?

ROWE: I think people with disabilities are some of the most talented and hardest-working artists I’ve ever met. It’s so difficult to get work as an artist with a disability, so you are used to going above and beyond, overcompensating, and doing ten times more work just to show people that you are professional and capable. I think across the country today, many theaters are working to become accessible for certain disabled audience groups. Every so often, a mainstream production gets to see how hard-working and talented a single disabled professional is when they hire one or two people with disabilities. But we feel that this country needs a shining light to show that this isn’t enough, and that we can easily be more inclusive. It’s not just an odd one or two artists with disabilities here and there who are super talented and super hard-working; people with disabilities are just as talented as any other person across the board. We think that when you harness the hard work and visceral talent, hire artistic teams made up of people with disabilities, audiences are going to experience something that they are not going to forget quickly.

NEA: You mentioned how difficult it can be for a disabled artist to find work. Can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced as an actor with autism?

ROWE: So much of the entertainment industry is who you know. As a person on the spectrum, that type of relationship-building, socializing, and networking is near impossible for me. So because of my autism, I’m always going to fall short of my peers when it comes to connections and relationships. That’s why National Disability Theatre is so lucky to have such an incredible team of advisory company members helping us on this relationship front, people like Micah Fowler from ABC’s Speechless, and Gregg Mozgala and Ali Stroker, Ryan Haddad, Maysoon Zayid, Jamie Brewer, and Haben Girma. They’ve been the front lines in terms of helping us to form connections. One of the great things about having a whole team of people with disabilities is that we can take up each other’s weak spots. Where my autism might cause a challenge for me, there’s someone else where my challenge is going to be their strength, and they’re able to swoop in and take up the slack and help from that end.

NEA: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about how you often feel you’re acting in everyday life to pass as neurotypical. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and talk about how it translates into your professional work.

ROWE: Many people with autism use scripting in their daily life; we use scripting for situations that we can predict the outcome of. What that might look like for me is, at a coffee shop, I might say, “Hi, how are you doing today? Can I please have a medium coffee?” Then when more conversation is needed, I can ask whether it’s been busy or slow today. Then regardless of what the barista says, whether they say, “Oh, yeah, it’s been busy” or “No, it’s been pretty slow,” I can then reply “Do you like it better when it’s busy or slow?” So I can have my end of the conversation already scripted. That’s just something I’ve had to learn out of necessity being a person on the spectrum trying to pass as neurotypical.

It’s really the exact same job that I have as an actor onstage. As an actor, you’re given a script, and it’s your job to make people believe that the words you’re saying are your own and that you’re coming up with them spontaneously and that this is the first time that conversation has ever happened. So I think in that way, my job as an autistic person and my job as an actor are really the same. I think so many people with disabilities really have to do the extra work and perform every day in different ways, and that’s something that really shows onstage. When people talk about reasons why they would cast a non-disabled actor in a role that has a disability, I often hear people saying that there just weren’t any actors with disability who had the necessary experience. That’s such a complicated issue, because first of all, someone’s got to start giving people experience, or they’re never going to get experience. But also what these people fail to recognize sometimes is that when it comes to being people with disabilities, our lived experience is a type of experience that you can never get in a drama school or on a Broadway stage.

NEA: Why do you think having onstage representation can be a force for change, not just within theater but society as a whole?

ROWE: National Disability Theatre will impact industries beyond our own because what we’re doing is demonstrating that people with disabilities can efficiently and productively undertake professional work at the highest level, and that accessibility isn’t only right but also profitable. So when an employer sees a National Disability Theatre show or watches a video about our work or reads about us in the press or on your website, their perceptions about people with disabilities will be shifted. So the next time they are interviewing a person with a visible or invisible disability, they’re going to be looking at that person through a new frame, a new lens, and they’ll be looking at that person through a lens they might not have had before coming in contact with National Disability Theatre. Again, over 50 percent of college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed, so we can change this. It’s a part of our mission, and it’s something that National Disability Theatre is really proud to take on.

NEA: What else do you think we can be doing as a field, as people, as a society to make theater more inclusive?

ROWE: I think in terms of theater, it really comes down to who we as a society find appealing to see onstage. I think that if you ask a theater professional about the reasons why there isn’t more disability inclusion in theater, often accessibility is going be named as the reason; that there are too many accommodations needed or that it’s just too challenging from an accessibility standpoint.

I don’t think that that’s the real reason. I think it’s the easier reason to name, and the easier reason to talk about, but I don’t think it’s the real reason. I think that often accommodations are so much easier than people would expect. I know many, many of my colleagues don’t even need accommodations whatsoever in the theater process. For me, the only accommodation that I need is for scripts to be printed at 18-point font. I think the real reason that we aren’t seeing more of it is that it all comes down to who we find appealing to see onstage. So again, National Disability Theatre just needs to flip the script on who belongs where, and who is valued. We need to show that people with disabilities are neither inspirational nor charity cases, just powerful and ferocious professionals. We need to change the way people see people with disabilities I think. People with disabilities can be sexy and powerful, and I’m not afraid to say it.

Listen to our podcast with Mickey Rowe.