From the Archives: Meet Mickey Rowe
Mickey Rowe is a young actor with an impressive resume featuring a long list of work with notable theaters. Rowe is also autistic and legally blind. In 2015, he published the thoughtful and widely circulated essay, “Our Differences Are Our Strengths: Neurodiversity in Theater.” In that essay, Rowe discussed the challenges and strengths of having autism and being a theater professional. According to Rowe, not only can a successful, professional actor have autism but also, because of his autism, he believes he brings a distinctive point of view to every role he plays. In this episode of the National Endowment for the Arts podcast from our archives, Rowe talks about how he developed an interest in the theater, why diversity and inclusion matter in the arts, and how being an actor with autism has shaped how he approaches his work.
Listen to our podcast with Mickey Rowe below.
To learn about the National Disability Theatre for which Rowe was the founding artistic director (he left the theater in June 2020), see the Related Content.
Music Credits: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith
Mickey Rowe: People with autism are much more comfortable when being very physical. And when doing theater or when doing circus skills, I get to spin around and tumble and move and it makes the world very comfortable for me.
Jo Reed: That’s actor, Mickey Rowe. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Mickey Rowe is a young, accomplished Seattle actor with an impressive resume. Here are a few of the companies that he’s worked with multiple times: Seattle Opera, Seattle Children’s Theater, Seattle Shakespeare, and The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Mickey spent a year with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and he’s created his own company, Arts on the Waterfront, which produces free theater in an outdoor Seattle park.
Mickey Rowe is also autistic and legally blind. He’s very public about his autism and last year published a thoughtful and widely circulated essay, “Our Differences Are Our Strengths: Neurodiversity in Theater.” In that essay, Mickey discusses the challenges and strengths of being autistic and a theater professional. April is a month we set aside to focus on Autism Awareness and that is Mickey’s daily mission. He thinks it’s important for people to know that a successful, professional actor can have autism and that, in fact, because of his autism, he brings a distinctive point of view to every role he plays.
Mickey Rowe came to the theater through circus arts. And among his many talents are tumbling, juggling and riding a unicycle – which is pretty astounding given the limitations of his eyesight.
Jo Reed: Well Mickey, you are legally blind.
Mickey Rowe: I am, yes.
Jo Reed: And you juggle?
Mickey Rowe: I do, yes.
Jo Reed: And sometimes you juggle on a unicycle with knives?
Mickey Rowe: That is very true.
Jo Reed: Okay, you have to piece this together for me.
Mickey Rowe: <laughs> First off, juggling wise, you can’t really focus on three things in the air all at the same time, so they’re all going to be blurry no matter what you do. And it’s mostly about the rhythm and throwing it in the right place so you know where it’s going. But my vision mostly actually affects my ability to read. So I’ve not read a book probably since elementary school, and I’m sure it was a very small book. I always listen to books on tape. And if I do have to read something, for instance, if I’m reading sides for a callback, it’s really important that those things are enlarged. Otherwise, I’ve been in a lot of messes of auditions where the audition wasn’t really about any acting or storytelling or connecting with people, it’s just – it’s almost like a vision test where the director is the doctor and he hands you the side and says, “Can you read the bottom line on this eye chart?” And you spend the next hour working out what that eye chart says instead of acting or showing them how you could collaborate together on a show.
Jo Reed: And when you say sides, that’s pages for those of us not in theater.
Mickey Rowe: Yeah, it’s the pages, scenes that they want you to read for the audition.
Jo Reed: You’re a successful actor in Seattle, so you’ve worked out strategies. What are they?
Mickey Rowe: You know, it’s hard, and I’m still figuring it out. And I think that as theater is starting to tackle more issues of inclusivity and diversity and accessibility, hopefully it’s going to start getting easier. But what I’ve tended to do is I just hope that I get the sides a day or two in advance, and then I can memorize the sides, read it once while recording myself reading it on my cell phone and then listen to that and memorize it. And that way when I go into the audition, I may hold the side in front of me, just so I look normal and no one knows anything different is happening, but I’ve had the sides memorized so I don’t really have to worry about my eyes.
Jo Reed: Now when did you first become interested in theater?
Mickey Rowe: Since I was born, basically, I have been beyond obsessed with stilt walking, which led to an obsession for juggling and unicycling and other circus type of skills. I went to an audition at the Seattle Opera because they needed a stilt walker for the Magic Flute, and at this time I was probably seven or eight years old. And the costume weighed a good 50 pounds, which is probably about how much I weighed, so that role obviously didn’t come through. But they called me in probably a year later and they wanted me to be in a production of The Barber of Seville, not on stilts or juggling or unicycling, but just on my own two feet, being an actor and that kind of kicked off my obsession with theater.
Jo Reed: Did you go to a school that had a theater program?
Mickey Rowe: Yes. I wasn’t very social in school; through elementary school and middle school was somewhat involved in the theater program. But in high school, my school did have a theater department and I would build a lot of the sets there after school and stay after school and paint things that I could. I had an IEP which is an Individual Education Plan, so I had to be in Special Ed for a portion of the day every day. And in elementary school, in middle school, that part of the day was taken up – in elementary school I was in speech therapy, all through elementary school and then in middle school, occupational therapy. But by the time I got to high school, that Special Ed time was sort of free time for me. So I’d always sneak out the back door of the Special Ed room and go to the theater and work on sets or hang out up in the catwalk.
Jo Reed: And what got you from the catwalk in that high school down to the stage?
Mickey Rowe: <laughs> Ever since I was little, my grandmother had a subscription to the Seattle Children’s Theater. I’m not sure if you know about the Seattle Children’s Theater, but it is – if not the, one of the leading professional theater for young audiences. It’s a full equity theater and they use professional actors in Seattle to put on shows for young audiences. So when I was really little, I’d always go and see shows there. And when I was in high school, my senior year of high school, I auditioned for a class there and took the class. And after that, Rita Giomi and Linda Hartzell, bless their hearts, started casting me at the Children’s Theater, and that was really the start of my theater career.
Jo Reed: When were you first diagnosed with autism?
Mickey Rowe: I was first diagnosed with autism fairly recently, actually. After I graduated from high school. When I got married, my wife strongly, strongly suggested that I see a therapist, and that therapist referred me to somewhere else, and they referred me to somewhere else, and I ended up at the University of Washington Adult Autism Clinic, and they said that this is what’s going on.
Jo Reed: And were you surprised?
Mickey Rowe: I was not that surprised, but I was very relieved because when you feel so different your whole life, and when one-on-one conversations or being social with people – or making small talk with the director during a callback or an audition – when that’s so difficult for you and there’s so many other things going on in your life, it’s nice to know that there is an explanation. That there’s a name for it; that there’s a community of other people who feel the same way and are going through the same things.
Jo Reed: So you were diagnosed with autism well after you’ve made a career in theater?
Mickey Rowe: That is correct, yes.
Jo Reed: Okay. We’ve talked about, very briefly, that – small talk is difficult. Was stage fright an issue? With standing in front –
Mickey Rowe: No.
Jo Reed: Okay, have you thought about why and what the differences might be?
Mickey Rowe: Definitely. Being in front of an audience of 500 people if I’m acting at the Seattle Children’s Theater now-- our opening night at the Children’s Theater is tonight-- or if I’m at the Seattle Opera in front of 3,000 people, it’s really easy for me. Because the roles are incredibly clear. You have a script. Someone has told you exactly what they would like you to say, you are playing a role, and you know where you’re supposed to stand. And on top of that, the audience knows that you’re playing a role. They know what to expect and they know what their role is. So everyone goes into the show knowing what to expect. The roles are incredibly clear. And the other actors on stage-- you already know what they’re going to say and how the conversation’s gonna to go. And you know that they’re there to take care of you as you’re there to take care of them. So I feel it’s infinitely easier for me to be onstage in front of an audience than it is to be walking down the street and seeing someone I know across the street, and trying to figure out whether I can hide or how to deal with that situation.
Jo Reed: Interesting. You wrote a really lovely essay about being autistic and being in the theater. And I’ve a few questions to ask you about that, but one of them is, what prompted you to be public about that?
Mickey Rowe: A few things. First off, I have a son now who is eight months old. And, you know, one of the things that everyone’s been learning about autism is that there is a genetic component to it-- not saying that my son will be autistic or is autistic, but the chances are a little bit higher definitely. And I just thought that if there is something you can do to help, it’s your responsibility to do that. And on top of that, I’d just come out of a year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and one of the things that you do when you’re at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is you learn a lot about inclusivity and diversity and this movement in theater. So it was sort of a collection of a lot of things happening at the same time that led me to feel not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s important to do as well.
Jo Reed: Well, in your essay, you write about – well you are on the autism spectrum – not as a disability, but rather it’s a new way, a different way of thinking, which means that you’re bringing this whole different toolkit to the stage.
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely. Definitely. Well, and I think that the same would be true for anyone with a disability in theater. Theater is not a – it’s not the Olympics where if you don’t have legs, obviously you’re not going to win a running race. But theater is just about taking the community that exists in the United States or in the world even, and presenting that in a real and honest way. We as theater artists, our job is to make the world a better place, and to help tell stories from unheard voices. And at its best, these stories are representative, which means that they are told by the people who have life experiences other than yourself. So I think that that’s really important. And it’s important that other people who have disabilities know that if you are different, or if you access the world in a different way, then theater needs you and the world needs you.
Jo Reed: And the fact that, to the roles themselves, because of your unique way of being in the world, it means you can perhaps--
Mickey Rowe: Access the roles a little bit differently –
Jo Reed: – apprehend characters – thank you, and access them differently.
Mickey Rowe: Right. And I think that everyone who plays a role is going to come at that character a little differently. So it’s great – instead of limiting the voices that are heard on stage, to instead, open that up. The point of storytelling is to connect us with people who we otherwise wouldn’t come in contact with, and to bring us life experiences that we don’t already have. And so that’s why diversity matters in the arts.
Jo Reed: Okay, what you’re saying is because, in theater, whoever tackles any role, if they’re an artist, they’re going to be bringing their unique self to them and so why close the door to this whole class of people?
Mickey Rowe: Right. And the other thing is, as an audience member, another question to ask would be: Who is theater for? What audiences are we trying to reach? And personally, I believe that everyone should be able to go to the theater, or turn on their TV, and see somebody like them – somebody who thinks like them. And on the other hand, everyone should also be able to turn on their TV or go to the theater and see someone who doesn’t think like them or who thinks very differently from them. And as a whole, as a community, I think that can only make us stronger and help to make us grow.
Jo Reed: And you don’t need to weigh in on this at all, but I’m just curious about what your thoughts are, because you know, as you know, Broadway recently was sort of in the hot seat for its failure to cast an autistic actor for a key role: the role of Christopher in the recent production of the Curious Incident of the Dog and the Nighttime. And I’m just curious what your thoughts are about that.
Mickey Rowe: Yes.
Jo Reed: And I get it’s complicated. I’m not asking you to come down on any side.
Mickey Rowe: Right, it is complicated. And you know, there’s no right or wrong answer. And I think the show is completely brilliant. And that that play is such a success and it has opened people’s minds to autistic characters in a new way. You know, so often in movies we’ll see a Rain Man-type character. I think we’ve seen that same sort of character, or – we just saw in the Imitation Game – that same sort of character plays out over and over and over again. And I think that the show is so brilliant and that it has taken a different – or more real autistic character – and put him center stage and shown people a different reality and a more real reality. The other thing I will say, though is – if I can address the TV and movies and things like that – possibly a little bit more than the Curious Incident, is that there is a lot of misinformation about autism. Too often we learn about autism from non-autistic people, instead of going straight to the source and learning about autism from autistic adults. And that would sort of be like learning about the experience of being a woman only from men; if you were only to learn about that experience from men. Or learning about the gay experience only from straight people, who have never experienced any part of the gay experience. So as a community, when we are learning about autism, or if we’re talking about autism, I think it is important that we do involve autistic adults and get their perspective because, really, that’s the best way to learn.
Jo Reed: And I’m sure that’s part of the reason why you decided to be very public about your autism.
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely, yes.
Jo Reed: Are there things, as a theater professional, that present certain challenges to you because of your autism? I mean we talked about the sight issues and the way – some coping strategies you’ve had with that. What about because of autism?
Mickey Rowe: You know, theater is a very collaborative art form, which is amazing. But also what comes with that is everyone who does theater – it’s such a small community that everyone is really friendly with each other. And I’ve heard it said more times than I can count that you know, once you got to a certain level in theater, everyone’s talented, that’s not a question. And the director’s going to hire the person who he wants to hang out with for a month of rehearsals, and the person who he wants to take out to drinks and hang out with after rehearsal. Because you’re really stuck in a room with someone 24 hours a day for a month or more. And so often, directors want – and anyone – want to be involved with people who are friends with them and who are social with them. And when you have autism spectrum disorder, socializing is – it just doesn’t happen very well if you’re on the spectrum. People misinterpret that if you’re not socializing with them or hanging out with them that you don’t want to be friends with them. And that’s certainly not true. And so that is a big barrier I think to people on the spectrum entering into theater. I’ll also say that in auditions – any given audition – 50 percent of the audition is going to be sides – which are the scenes that you read – and when it comes to the scenes, if it’s not something I’ve gotten in advance, I have to make the hard choice of: do I admit my disability to the auditor and ask them to enlarge the sides? In which case, if I do that, 50 percent of the time I’ll never hear from them ever again. And if I don’t do that, I’m not going to get the part anyway because I can’t read the sides. But then the other half of the audition is going to be talking to the director and shaking hands with them, having a chat with them about the show or about your life, and that part is exclusive a little bit to people on the spectrum. So there are definitely many challenges that get rather frustrating and come up.
Jo Reed: Ok. What about an interview like this? Is this kind of one-on-one difficult for you?
Mickey Rowe: You brought up Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the book, which then became the Broadway show-- and this interview is reminding me of something Christopher says in the book. He says, “I think I would make a very good astronaut.” And he’s talking about all the reasons why he would be a good astronaut. And then re realizes that he’d have to talk to other people, and he says, “But I would have to talk to other people though from Mission Control. But we would do that through a radio linkup and a TV monitor, so it wouldn’t be like talking to real people; but it would be like playing a computer game.” <laughs> And I’m really lucky that in this interview here with you, I’m in Seattle and you are on the East Coast. And I’m here in a room all by myself with a clock on the wall and some lights I can look at and a microphone. It’s very different, this interview, than if we were face to face having this conversation in real life.
Jo Reed: Yeah. It’s really interesting because I consider myself a very shy person. Put a microphone in front of me, I’m fine.
Mickey Rowe: Yes.
Jo Reed: Because I’m not answering the questions, either. I’m just – I just get to be nosy <laughs>.
Mickey Rowe: Yes. Well, the other thing for me is it goes back to your earlier question about the roles that we play. If I’m with a peer, for example, or if I see a “friend on the street,” you know, the roles aren’t very clear. No one knows quite what’s expected, or how that interaction is supposed to play out. Whereas here, on the other hand, the roles are incredibly clear. You’re the interviewer, you ask questions, I answer them, and I’m supposed to sound smart. And, you know, it’s very different roles. And I think that’s another thing that people don’t understand about autism is just because someone doesn’t function so well in one circumstance or in one situation, doesn’t mean that there’s not a different situation you could put them in where they would function incredibly differently.
Jo Reed: You’ve worked with Seattle Children’s Theater a lot.
Mickey Rowe: Yes
Jo Reed: Does that make it easier for you to be more social with your colleagues there?
Mickey Rowe: It does. At any given show, but at the Children’s Theater none the less, for the first month of rehearsal. If all the actors sitting around a table socializing together, I’ll often be sitting in my own chair against a wall somewhere, drinking my tea or listening to a book on tape or a podcast such as your podcast. So I don’t socialize so much. And then as you get more and more comfortable with people and you move into tech, which is when you move down to the theater and get into the dressing rooms, and then when you open the show, you’re slowly getting more comfortable with those people which allows you to really blossom off stage as well as on stage more.
Jo Reed: You’re also the Artistic Director of Arts on the Waterfront?
Mickey Rowe: Yes, I am.
Jo Reed: Can you tell me about that organization?
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely. It is an organization that I started because – to be frank – I went from one year where I was working at equity theaters nonstop going from one contract to another, to about a year and a half where I didn’t work anywhere artistically. And so I decided to start my own company. And Arts on the Waterfront is a company where we do shows in the park, the shows are completely free to come to for anyone, and we pair those shows with a charity. So for instance, when we did Romeo and Juliet, we paired it with an organization, the Trevor Project, which helps to prevent suicide in the LGBT community. Which we thought was a nice fit because Romeo and Juliet is about two people who end up committing suicide because they love people the community says that they can’t love.
Jo Reed: Transgressive love. Yeah.
Mickey Rowe: Exactly. So we partnered with the Trevor Project for Romeo and Juliet, and then after the show, we asked that instead of people paying for tickets that they’d make a donation to the Trevor Project. And later we did Waiting for Godot. But we did it with younger people who are in very modern dress, and looked like they fit in perfectly on the pier with the homeless community on the pier. You really couldn’t tell who was on the pier just because that was their home, and who was an actor in the show sometimes, which was very cool. So we did Waiting for Godot, and then we partnered with Teen Feed, which is an organization that helps provide safe places for teens who find themself in a position without a home.
Jo Reed: You mention homeless people in the park, are they a big part of your audience?
Mickey Rowe: Oh, my goodness yes. Oh gosh, one of the most moving experiences I’ve seen was a homeless man who – he came up to us on closing night of Waiting for Godot. And he said that he had watched every single rehearsal that we did of the show in that space and every single performance as well. And he had Lucky’s monologue from Waiting for Godot completely memorized, which – if you know Lucky’s monologue – that is insane! It’s hard enough for an actor to memorize that monologue, let alone someone who just watched every single show. And he started doing Lucky’s monologue. And you know, Lucky’s hat – the hat that Lucky wears – plays a large role in Lucky’s character and Lucky’s ability to speak and say that monologue. And after he performed Lucky’s monologue for the actor who played Lucky, the actor gave this gentleman Lucky’s hat. That was an incredible experience, very cool.
Jo Reed: It tells you so much about the ability of art, no?
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely. Well, and the expectations we put on who’s smart enough to see art, or understand art, or who art is meant for, what audiences are we trying to target with art, and who are we welcoming into the lobby, and who are we welcoming into these spaces; these churches that we create for storytelling.
Jo Reed: And what happens when we move location, and who that allows in.
Mickey Rowe: Right. Absolutely. Or what happens when we put artists on stage who are different than the artists that you usually see on stage? Then, how does that make different communities feel more welcome in a space that they might not have felt quite as welcome in previously?
Jo Reed: And tonight, opening night of Cat in the Hat, you are Thing 1?
Mickey Rowe: I am Thing 1 and … and a kitten. We have a little 30 second quick change in there. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Are you on a unicycle?
Mickey Rowe: I am on a unicycle, yes. We have a bicycle in the show. The play follows the book word for word exactly. And Buddy has a bicycle, and at one point, Thing 1 rides the bicycle very chaotically off one side of the stage and you hear a crash and a boom and a bump. And then the brilliant painters at the Children’s Theater and props artisans made a unicycle that looked identical to the bicycle, and there’s a spare bent up tire and wheel and a handlebar, so then I come riding out on the unicycle as if it’s the bicycle that’s been broken apart into many pieces.
Jo Reed: And this opens tonight, April 15th, and you’re running until –
Mickey Rowe: May 22nd is our current closing.
Jo Reed: Okay, wait, I have to ask – there’s another question, when I was looking at your resume and your skills. You are a table cloth puller.
Mickey Rowe: I do, yes.
Jo Reed: And this is not something I take lightly, and believe me, my mother, were she alive, could verify that. Okay, how did you learn how to do that? And is there a trick you can describe?
Mickey Rowe: You know, you don’t want really, really light plates on the table. You want everything to have a little bit of a weight for it, because of physics. The heavier something is, the more it wants to stay in place where it is. But then the way that I learned – you know when you go through all of elementary school and middle school and high school not really having friends that you hang out with very much, you get a lot of other spare time to learn skills that you’re obsessed with. And the other thing I’ll say is that you know, a lot of people who are on the autism spectrum, we really see the world in pictures and we think very visually and physically. And often people with autism are much more comfortable when being very physical. And when doing theater or when doing circus skills, I get to spin around and tumble and move and it makes the world very comfortable for me. People on the autism spectrum, often move around a lot or will flap their hands or their arms because it helps to tune out other negative input that’s coming in through the senses. And when I’m doing circus skills, or when I’m doing theater if I was playing Puck or at the Children’s Theater, I get to dive over people and tumble, and unicycle around and juggle. And it really feels comfortable to be physical, and helps to tune negative sensory input out.
Jo Reed: How would you like to see the arts work with people – well let’s focus on autism, but people who are just simply different – and I’m really using inverted commas here, from what we think of as the norm? Because I, for one, am really hard pressed to define the norm.
Mickey Rowe: Right. I think that there’s a false dichotomy right now, where people say: the most talented person should get the part. And that’s true, the most talented person should get the part. But we’re not doing a very good job right now of assessing who’s talented, or what talent means when you’re asking an actor to read text that is far too small for him to read or to do things that really aren’t about what’s happening on stage. You know, that’s not what they’re job is going to be once the show opens, and it doesn’t affect their job. I’d hope that one day, there could be an autistic person playing Hamlet, or playing King Lear and that the story wouldn’t be about autism. They would just be a person who happens to be autistic and who happens to be the Prince of Denmark or an aging king, and that there wouldn’t be too many questions about that. But until we get there in the meantime, it would be really nice to see when we see amputees in the movie – if it was actually played by an amputee; that someone was given that opportunity to shine when if there’s not other roles they would be given to shine in. Or if we see someone with a disability on stage, it would be nice to see people representing their own community accurately the way that community would hope to be represented.
Jo Reed: Okay. Mickey, it was really such a pleasure to talk to you.
Mickey Rowe: So nice to talk to you, Jo. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a huge honor.
Jo Reed: You’re welcome.
Jo Reed: That’s actor, Mickey Rowe. You can see him in The Cat in the Hat at Seattle Children’s Theater until May 22. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.