I’ve never gotten over the trauma of being fired from a play, mere weeks before tech rehearsals, when I revealed to the director that I have an invisible disability.
When I told this to Mickey Rowe, author of Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage, he was empathetic, yet unsurprised.
As an autistic and legally blind actor, Rowe spent years auditioning for a field that was entirely content to keep him out.
“When theaters think about making themselves accessible to people with autism or people with other disabilities, they normally think about how to make them accessible to audience members with disabilities,” Rowe tells Observer. “They are not thinking about actors or directors or stage hands or costume designers or lighting designers with disabilities.”
From refusing to provide large-font sides at auditions, to telling him he’d be getting an “unfair advantage” if he were sent sides in advance of his auditions so he could enlarge them himself, theater companies were complicit in gatekeeping him from an industry where 95 percent of disabled roles are played by non disabled actors.
Despite last year’s March on Broadway, which called for greater BIPOC, trans and disability inclusion on Broadway’s stages, Rowe says that too often, disability is an afterthought in conversations about diversity. “We don’t just want to be audience members. We want to be employed, and want to be active parts of the conversation about disability.”
To that end, despite living in Seattle and not having an agent—or an acting resume with credits beyond non speaking roles—Rowe set out to get himself an audition for the lead role in Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—and succeeded.
As he recounts in his book, named a “Staff Pick” by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Drama Book Shop, Rowe did some Googling, found the name of the Broadway casting director, and discovered he was also the resident casting director at Lincoln Center Theater. When Google failed to provide his email address, Rowe sent his headshot and resume to the only Lincoln Center email address he could find—the box office.
“I’m sure this confused the guest services employees, seeing as Curious Incident wasn’t even playing at Lincoln Center, but at the Barrymore Theatre twenty minutes away,” Rowe says in Fearlessly Different. “I knew it was a long shot, but it was my only shot.”
It paid off. The note Rowe sent to Lincoln Center’s box office along with his headshot and resume, detailing why he believed an autistic actor should have the opportunity to audition for the (autistic) lead role of Christopher Boone, got the attention of Broadway’s casting department for the show. A month and a half later, he received an email asking him to send in an audition video.
Soon after, Rowe found himself on a plane for the very first time in his life, traveling to New York for an in-person Broadway audition.
“I think people with disabilities are some of the best creative problem solvers in the whole world,” Rowe tells Observer. He succeeded at getting an audition for the lead role in a Broadway play because of, not in spite of, his autism. “Because we have to be creative problem solvers everyday to navigate a world that wasn’t designed for us.”
Rowe made the final callback, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time closed on Broadway without an autistic actor ever having the chance to play the role.
“More than anything, it just felt like a missed opportunity,” Rowe tells Observer. “Not for me, but for the world. Inclusion in the arts, inclusion in books, inclusion in theater, leads directly to inclusion in life.”
Which is why Rowe was hopeful when he was asked to audition for Broadway’s national tour of The Curious Incident. The role of Christopher Boone would be double cast, as it had been on Broadway, due to the physically demanding nature of the role.
“Circus skills had been my refuge and obsession throughout my whole lonely life,” Rowe explains in Fearlessly Different, “and I so strongly felt that it had all been in preparation for this moment.”
He was one of six actors up for consideration for two roles, making his chance of getting the part one in three. Of the six actors up for the part, he was the only actor who was actually autistic. Despite the good odds—and his extensive background in acrobatics, stilt walking and unicycle riding—Rowe lost out to two non-autistic actors.
Looking back, he questions whether he was ever seriously considered for the role, or if he was being used as a token—a PR ploy to brand Broadway as more inclusive than it really is.
While careful and deliberate with his words to Observer, stressing that he can’t speak to the producers’ intentions, only his own feelings on the matter, Rowe says “I so frequently see in Hollywood movies, or big budget TV shows, where they feel like if they just audition one actor with a disability for the roles, then they can forever say, ‘Oh, well, we tried to cast inclusively, we auditioned the actors and it just didn’t work out’.”
Pointing to the film, Music, which outraged the disability community when its writer and director, Sia, defended—with repeated ableist comments—the decision to cast a non-autistic actor to play an autistic character, Rowe says that merely auditioning disabled actors for disabled roles does not warrant brownie points.
“People with disabilities are just as talented and just as capable of being professionals in the theater industry as anyone else,” Rowe tells Observer. He proved that when he received a glowing review in the New York Times for defying Broadway and becoming the first known autistic actor to play the role of Christopher Boone at Syracuse Stage and Indiana Repertory Theatre.
It’s a point of pride that the New York Times noticed that Rowe did nine shows a week all by himself—while riding a five foot unicycle every night—unlike the Broadway and national tour productions, where eight shows a week were split between two actors.
“I don’t mean to glorify overworking or glorify basing people’s value on capitalism,” Rowe clarifies to Observer. In terms of making theater more accessible to actors with disabilities, Rowe says it would be fantastic if Broadway would always double cast roles, “so that if you don’t have the spoons to do the show one day, there’s another actor ready to do it.”
But it did feel like a righteous eff you to the national tour director of Curious Incident, who pulled Rowe aside at auditions and condescendingly told him he was free to “sit out” the movement part of his audition if he wasn’t “comfortable” doing it. “They’re not going to change the whole show,” Rowe tells Observer, simply because an actor doesn’t “feel like” doing the movement required.
It was comments like this that gave Rowe the impression that casting “spoke to the other five actors as if they were professional actors, and spoke to me as if I were part of Make-A-Wish Foundation.”
From plying him with fancy sports cars to drive him around New York, to long, exhaustive conversations in which Rowe felt producers were attempting to make sure he was “autistic but not too autistic,” Rowe tells Observer that it seemed like producers were trying to give him an “experience” rather than an actual shot.
Rowe founded the National Disability Theatre, in partnership with La Jolla Playhouse, not to fulfill wishes or placate disabled actors—but to give them actual opportunities. In 2019, during Rowe’s tenure as artistic director (before COVID-19 disrupted business-as-usual) the National Disability Theatre not only employed disabled actors under proper Actors’ Equity contracts, it also boasted impressive hiring statistics for other marginalized groups. Some 50% of actor contracts went to BIPOC actors, 27% of all individuals hired belong to the LGBTQIA community, and 55% were non-male.
Believing that people with power need to pass the baton onto those who are traditionally left out (hear that, Broadway?) Rowe, a straight, cis white man, resigned as artistic director of the National Disability Theatre in May of 2020 to let a BIPOC or trans disabled person take the reins.
Because “the obstacles that get in our way when it comes to participation in the theater industry don’t actually have to do with our disabilities,” Rowe tells Observer, “as much as they have to do with ableism.”