The World Really Is a Stage, Scripts and All, to an Actor With Autism

The World Really Is a Stage, Scripts and All, to an Actor With Autism


A boyish 29-year-old Seattle native with the slight but toned build of a gymnast, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand when we met. On our table, he placed a sheaf of papers face down — scripted notes it made him feel better to have, which he consulted if I asked a question he wanted to be careful answering. His vocal tone, timid at first, soon had the resonance of an actor’s voice.

“This is easy-ish for me because you’re a reporter; I’m the interviewee,” he said when we’d been talking awhile. “We have specific roles. If we met on the street, that would be more scary.”

That’s how he’s felt about performing, too, ever since he was little: perfectly comfortable as long as he knows the part he’s meant to play.

Whether Mr. Rowe is the first autistic actor to play Christopher is hard to pin down, given the number of “Curious Incident” productions around the world. Even Mr. Stephens, the playwright, said that while Mr. Rowe is the first he’s heard of, he can’t be sure.

Photo

Mr. Rowe with a “Curious Incident” co-star, Elizabeth Ledo.

Credit
Michael Davis

Casting Mr. Rowe was the result of a deliberate effort by two professional regional theaters, Syracuse Stage and its co-producer, Indiana Repertory Theater (where the show opened this fall), to audition actors both with and without autism for the role. At a time when theaters are discussing diversity, there is a heightened pressure to include performers with disabilities. “Uncommon Sense,” Tectonic Theater Project’s new Off Broadway play about people with autism and their families, has an actor on the spectrum, Andrew Duff, in its ensemble.

Robert Hupp, the artistic director of Syracuse Stage, said that seeking out actors on the spectrum “made logical and irrefutable sense” for “Curious Incident.” To him, Mr. Rowe’s performance is clear validation.

“To anyone who ever had any concerns or doubts or wondered, ‘Could an actor with autism play this role? Would an actor who falls on the spectrum be overwhelmed by this production?’ the answer is definitively no,” he said. “Not if you’re Mickey Rowe.”

Mr. Rowe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from the University of Washington, found out when he was a senior there that he had autism. Legally blind, he struggles to read print smaller than 18-point type (he wears contacts onstage and glasses “in real life,” he says), and was in special education classes for his vision throughout childhood — years he spent friendless, obsessed with magic tricks and circus skills: stilt-walking, juggling, unicycling.

It strikes him as telling that he got speech and occupational therapy, too. He suspects his parents knew he had autism but didn’t want to label him, and if so, he understands. He hasn’t asked them, though; he said they don’t have that kind of relationship.

It was his girlfriend — now his wife and the mother of their two small children — who urged him to get help with issues like interpreting social cues. At the university’s Adult Autism Clinic, his diagnosis came as “a big relief, because you know your whole life that something is different,” Mr. Rowe said. “You don’t know why or what it is or if you’re stupid or what’s going on.”

Still, he didn’t tell people about his autism. So it was unsettling when, in an acting class he took around the time “Curious Incident” opened on Broadway in 2014, the teacher handed him one of Christopher’s speeches and said, “You need to do this monologue. This is you.”

“I remember thinking to myself afterwards: Does she know I’m on the spectrum?” Mr. Rowe said. “Like, do people just know?”

He is not Christopher, though, and he and Christopher occupy very different spots on the spectrum. Even so, he recognized enough pieces of himself in that monologue that he went home and listened to the novel, by Mark Haddon, that Mr. Stephens adapted into the play.

Photo

Mr. Rowe and other cast members after a performance.

Credit
Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

Not long afterward, struggling to get work, Mr. Rowe threw in the towel on trying to pass as neurotypical. In an essay on the theater industry website HowlRound, he wrote about being an actor with autism, noting the “tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor.” He hoped his disclosure would change the way people looked at him, just enough to give him a chance.

The piece raised his profile and put him on the radar of anyone searching for an actor with autism, but in practice nothing changed. Going out for roles, he still faced immediate roadblocks: the small talk, the eye contact, the instant connection an actor is supposed to make with the director.

“Just how you walk into the room and shake hands with the person when you first meet them is a huge part of the audition, and people on the spectrum aren’t very good at that,” he said.

So his résumé was comparatively slender when the Indiana/Syracuse production asked him to submit a video audition. Soon the show’s California-based director, Risa Brainin, flew to Seattle to see if he had the chops. If he didn’t, they weren’t going to compromise.

“We couldn’t,” she said. “It’s too major of a role, and too difficult of a role. What we wanted to do was give the opportunity.”

In Syracuse, where the production runs through Nov. 12, Mr. Rowe plays Christopher with an agile grace, an impish humor and a humanizing restraint that seems directly connected to his experience of autism. When the stage directions say that Christopher barks like a dog, for example, Mr. Rowe chooses to underplay it.

The attention the show has gotten has been positive for him. For one thing, Lincoln Center asked him to speak at its autism-focused Big Umbrella Festival next spring. And the ripples extend farther. Marissa Wolf, who is directing “Curious Incident” this winter at Kansas City Repertory Theater, in Missouri, said Mr. Rowe’s casting inspired her to choose an actor with Tourette’s syndrome, a condition often associated with autism spectrum disorder, to play Christopher in her production.

Mr. Rowe worries a little about being pigeonholed, because he also wants to play roles that have nothing to do with autism. At the same time, he sees characters in the canon who he thinks could be on the spectrum — like Bobby, the young misfit in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” and Jason, the awkward adolescent in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”

Eager to work with Mr. Rowe again, Mr. Hupp and Ms. Brainin have been scheming about future projects, pondering which roles — maybe something in Shakespeare? — would be a great fit for him.

What Mr. Rowe wants is a life in the American theater, probably with a stint in graduate school on the way. He can envision himself as the leader of a regional theater, and he is undaunted by the socializing that would require. Mingling may not be in his skill set, but to him, an artistic director is simply playing a role. And knowing that takes the fear away.

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