In his debut book, released today, Seattle-raised actor Mickey Rowe shares how autism guides, not stifles, his stage performance. Fearlessly Different offers behind-the-scenes perspective on disability, acting, and difference as strength.
Rowe discusses his new work tonight at Town Hall, and next week with the Seattle Public Library; both offer online viewing options.
Book Review: Fearlessly Different (2022), memoir by Mickey Rowe.
From the stage of the Gershwin Theatre, Broadway’s largest, Mickey Rowe looks out at a vast sea of empty seats. He’s trying to imagine what impact his words might have on the people sitting in them later that night, when he goes on — not to perform a character, but to give a keynote speech as himself, about his life with autism. And then, just as he’s getting settled into the spotlight and careful not to fidget, he’s interrupted; whisked away to his dressing room, the same one used by a star of the long-running, Tony Award-winning hit, Wicked.
He might not have imagined ending up on that stage, but a theatre audience is one of the first places Rowe found a natural fit. A theatre seat is one of the few places where you can be in and among the crowd, sharing equally in a group experience and doing exactly what’s socially expected of you, without having to talk with anyone at all. That lack of expected social interaction made it a refuge for Rowe, who’s autistic and legally blind.
As a child, Rowe’s communication was stifled on multiple fronts: he couldn’t speak for years, developing his own elaborate sign language to communicate with instead; he couldn’t see much, even through glasses, let alone well enough to read the tiny print of standard-font books; and he found it difficult to read social interactions, a common trait of the autism diagnosis he’d learn about many years later.
Those characteristics made friendships difficult to form, and his learning environments weren’t exactly supportive. School meant being jumbled together with all of the other children who required “special” attention — anything from a learning disability to the use of a wheelchair — and badgered by painful speech therapy.
Separated out from his peers, Rowe used his loneliness as a prompt for imagination, learning to perform and impress with magic, juggling, stilt-walking, and clowning; for while impromptu interactions were hard for him, performing in a clearly defined role was not.
This is just a bit of Rowe’s story, but it’s a theme of the trajectory he shares in his debut book, Fearlessly Different. In finding and honing his craft, Rowe has taken differences perceived as disadvantages and flipped them into strengths. His book glimmers with tidbits of his flourishing love for performance arts: stilt-walkers, initially indignant at an intruder on their turf, taking him under their tutelage; his much-beloved grandma, credited as the first person to treat him as a fully capable human being, introducing him to the stage via Seattle Children’s Theatre; his early performances in non-speaking roles at Seattle Opera and others.
Rowe’s book is at its strongest both when it’s telling personal stories like those and when it’s drawing from experience to make broader points. Arts organizations and corporate employers alike would benefit from putting Rowe’s instruction into practice in areas of audience and performer access, hiring and retention practices, and more.
The book strays a bit when it goes into areas where citations would provide desirable support and context because, well, there aren’t many of them. If a given figure (let’s take unemployment figures for disabled people as an example) is cited repeatedly, it helps to provide the reader with more support and context to draw on than a footnote to a short news bit.
Some legal analysis appears similarly without context. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell (1927) has never been expressly overturned, and both that fact and the decision itself are among the multitude of hideous sins in our legal system. But few lawyers or courts today would contend that the case should control as precedent. See, e.g., Disability Justice (observing that although the case “has never been overturned, its reasoning has been thoroughly discredited by subsequent case law”). But see Harvard Law’s Bill of Health (assessing why Buck v. Bell still matters, primarily in setting the tone for whose lives matter most).
I’ll make two observations here that I hope will (rightly) blunt those critical points. First, it’s Rowe’s contentions that have me reading and talking about disability justice on this theatre site today (which I’ve done before, but infrequently), and I expect will have others talking more, too. Second, the book isn’t really about dishing out statistics and case law (and there are plenty of sources for that already). Fearlessly Different is primarily what we don’t have nearly enough of: stories by and about people with disabilities who succeed at the top levels of their chosen pursuits, whether in spite of or because of their differences. The book’s biggest strengths are, quite fittingly, its differences.
Rowe, as both a theatre performer and an arts organization founder, can speak credibly from the inside to other theatre artists and organizations, in a way that’s understandable to non-theatre people alike. He has a boldness and courage in self-promotion that should be inspiring to other performers; as a NY Times feature profiling Rowe described, he is “[c]onfident enough in his performance to send a tweet to a writer for The New York Times, asking her to come and see (it worked).”
But the book’s biggest contribution may also be its broadest: that of challenging, as unnatural and unnecessary, a paradigm that promotes non-disabled people as independently able, versus disabled people as in need of support to accomplish anything. Accommodation is a tricky concept, because at first blush the word seems fitting — an exception to a usual rule or expectation that allows someone with a disability to accomplish something. It “accommodates” them. But who came up with these rules? And why do they persist as expectations?
Examples of these dubious expectations abound. The ability to make small-talk has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to accomplish most jobs (and arguably hinders them), but the lack of that ability will almost always be a barrier to landing that job, through the expectations of networking and the interview process. Performance standards that value “fitting the culture” are often code words for “how non-different from us are you.” The ability to read small font on a script has nothing to do with how well someone will speak or sing those lines when on they’re stage, off-book, performing for an audience; but ability to read that font size is used as an indicator of how well an actor will learn lines.
When these expectations are poor substitutes for how well someone will do the job, the idea of needing to “accommodate” around them seems laughable. (Why accommodate around an expectation when you could just dump it?) But for the large proportion of disabled people who have trouble landing employment, it’s no laughing matter. It shouldn’t be for employers who persist in it, either.
These inquiries are the types of questions Rowe’s book provokes. So while Fearlessly Different contains personal stories of an autistic person experiencing life to the fullest, it’s also an indictment of the systems that try to make his successes an anomaly.
Rowe may be fearlessly different, and inviting others who see themselves reflected in him to live fearlessly as well. But the title should be read also as a challenge to the way things are. If we’re serious about promoting equity by dismantling systems that take away opportunity, we need to be fearless about making them different.
Fearlessly Different author Mickey Rowe will talk about his book with writer Laurie Frankel during two Seattle events this month: at Town Hall tonight (tickets $6, here; in-person and online tickets both available); and through the Seattle Public Library on 3/24 (tickets free or $30 with shipped book, here; online-only event).
Fearlessly Different is available at booksellers ($25); see info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.