Insights from an Autistic Actor

Encore invited actor Mickey Rowe to share his story.

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.

I am also legally blind—autism is often linked with vision or hearing problems—so I can’t perform very well in cold readings. If given a few days before an audition, I always memorize sides so I don’t read them off the page. I enlarge scripts so they are twice as big, just like all of my textbooks and tests were enlarged in school. I will often secretly record the first read-through of a play on my cell phone, hidden in my pocket, so that I can learn my lines and study the script by listening; my eyes give out after about fifteen minutes of looking at a page. But because I know this, I get off book damn fast—often before the first rehearsal.

Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job 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 on stage as an actor.

For instance, at a coffee shop:

Me: Hi, how are you doing today? [Smile.] Can I please have a small coffee? Thank you so much! [If it seems like more conversation is needed] Has it been busy today?
Barista: [Any barista response.]
Me: Oh yeah? Have a great rest of your day!

Or playing Edmond in King Lear:

Me: Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me 
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true.

It’s really no different. They’re lines I’ve learned, that I say often, but I’m making you believe they are mine, particular to this specific moment.

Acting is a dichotomy. A tension between what is safe and what is dangerous. What is known and what is unknown. What’s mundane and what’s exciting.

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. When a grand piano is gracefully lowered out of a window by a rope onto a flat bed truck, slowly spinning and dangling, the tension in the rope is what everyone is watching. In theatre, the performer is the rope, making the incredible look graceful and easy, making the audience complicit in every thought, every tactical switch. When the rope goes slack, the show is over.

There is a tension between what I am and what is conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes good theatre. 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. As an autistic I have felt vulnerable my entire life; to be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.

With autism comes a new way of thinking; a fresh eye, a fresh mind. Literally: a completely different wiring of the brain.

Being in front of an audience of 500 or 2,890 people is very easy for me. The roles are incredibly clear, logical and laid out. I am on stage; you are sitting in the seats watching me. I am playing a character and that is what you expect, want and are paying for. The conversations on stage are scripted, and written much better than the ones in my real life. On the street is where conversations are scary; those roles aren’t clear.

Mickey Rowe has been in productions at Seattle Children’s Theater, the Seattle Opera, Seattle Shakes, Book-It and many more. He is artistic director of Arts on the Waterfront, a theatre company working with homeless teen artists. Find out more about his work at his website.