Book Review: Fearlessly Different, An Autistic Actor’s Journey….

People thought Mickey Rowe was a weird kid. By the time that weirdness was officially deemed a disability and given a diagnosis, he was a senior in college and had already begun working as a professional theater artist. “I am a great actor, and that is because of, not in spite of, my autism. My differences are my strengths,” Rowe writes in  Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage (Rowan & Littlefield, 167 pages.) The book is both a stirring memoir of a tenacious talent, and, less successfully, a combination motivational lecture and political pamphlet on disability rights.

Born prematurely in Seattle, Washington in 1988, Rowe was not just autistic, but legally blind, and unable to speak clearly until well into elementary school after years of painful speech therapy.  He writes that he received little support  at home — his mother frequently shunted him off to stay at his grandparents – nor at school: “Often teachers in middle school, high school, and college would tell me that they would be giving me an unfair advantage by giving me large-print materials. “

But he found a home in the theater – as an audience member, but also remarkably early as a performer. He had always been most comfortable shedding his own identity and portraying characters; he dressed up all the time as a clown or as a pirate. So when his grandmother took him to a performance of Seattle Children’s Theatre, “I was heartened to see actors interacting with the world by playing a character instead of being themselves, just like I did every day. “

He became obsessed with circus performing, and mastered the art of juggling, riding a unicycle, and walking on 10-feet tall stilts.  He was too shy to have friends, but he had nerve: Before he turned ten years old, he started showing up at county fairs on his stilts, pretending to have been hired as a stilt-walker. Not long afterwards, the Seattle Opera House needed a stilt-walker to play an ostrich for its production of The Magic Flute, and he leapt at the chance to audition. He didn’t get the part, but they hired him for their next production as a street urchin. He was cast from then on throughout the rest of his childhood into his early adult years, both at the opera and the children’s theater, always in nonspeaking roles.

He worked his way through college in these roles, and also by performing as a busker in the streets of Seattle.  He would have preferred to be hired for a conventional job, he writes, but prospective employers were always turned off by his behavior during the interview process.

So he created his own opportunity. This has turned out to be a pattern in his theatrical career. There is a long, eventful account of his auditioning to portray the autistic character Christopher Boone in the Broadway touring production of  Simon Stephens’ Tony-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” They flew him to New York twice to audition, but he didn’t make the final cut. But afterwards, “with a push I rallied from the disability community,” he was cast in the role at two regional repertory companies, first in the Indiana Repertory Theater and then Syracuse Stage. He wrote to journalists across the nation to drum up publicity as what he claimed was the first autistic actor to portray this autistic character (and in the book, he claims the first to portray any autistic character.)

Mickey Rowe in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

This can’t be substantiated (there were no openly autistic actors on Broadway or on Broadway tours, but there have been many productions of this play, and not every one of them has had as effective a publicist.)  It’s worth pointing out,however, that, if not necessarily the first, he was first-rate.  Laura Collins-Hughes of the New York Times, one of the journalists he hounded, went up to Syracuse to interview him and see the show, and gave him a rave review: “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.”

Subsequently cast by Syracuse Stage in “Amadeus,” he was reviewed by Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, who also praised his acting: “The supporting cast is marvelous, with Mickey Rowe giving a madly zany performance as Mozart. He reminded me at times of the young Jerry Lewis (and yes, I mean that as a compliment!).” The production was shut down by the pandemic.

But even before then, the flurry of national attention from his Curious Incident role hadn’t resulted in a flurry of acting jobs. He didn’t sit back. He co-founded the National Disability Theatre,

 There is much more than just Rowe’s theatrical career in “Fearlessly Different.” He captures what it’s like to live with autism. “I’m grateful to have found my ways of navigating a world that is not sensory friendly. Headphones, V-neck shirts, the subtle clenching and unclenching of a fist.” We learn a new way to view “stimming,” the repetitive or unusual movements or noises that many autistic people use to manage their emotions. (”Nonautistic people seem to be easily worried by my movements,” he writes, and goes on to explain why they shouldn’t be.)  He tells variously enlightening, disturbing, and gratifying stories about a complicated life; he’s on his second marriage in a blended family, a father with four children (one of whom has been diagnosed on the spectrum.)

His book offers an unusual and therefore valuable perspective,  demonstrating that, as Rowe writes,  “autistic people can speak for themselves and tell their own stories.”  Or, in the succinct motto of autistic people that he often repeats: “Nothing about us without us.” He is outspoken in the ways that theater (and society) falls short in its treatment of people with disabilities, and specific in how it could improve.  He advocates, for example, for what he calls universal design — ramps at airports, curbcuts, captions on videos and in a theatrical production’s projection design – that make theater (and society) more accessible for the disabled, but also more convenient for the nondisabled.

But “Fearlessly Different” was also in great need of a more hands-on editor. There are aspects of the book that are infelicitous at best, and others that are inaccurate, or at least misleading. This starts with the subtitle. His “journey to Broadway’s biggest stage” was not to perform, but to give a speech — public speaking seems to have become his main career — and indeed, much of the book reads like one. His speechifying is often motivational/self-help/inspirational, and probably geared specifically to people on the spectrum.

But Rowe also casts himself as a spokesman for all people with all disabilities in America. This is an understandable approach;  seeking common ground is an effective tool for building political movements. But in this case the writing feels sloppy.

“…since 1989,” Rowe writes, “50 percent of actors who won the Oscar for Best Actor won for being nondisabled actors who played disabled roles “

This is one of a whole slew of statistics in the book that didn’t sound right to me, and one of the several I checked. The footnotes at the back of the book cite the Web address of an article on Groundswell for this statistic, but the link didn’t work. So I did my own counting: Since 1989, 11 out of the 33 Best Actor Oscars went to actors who are nondisabled (as far as we know) portraying characters with any kind of disability, defined broadly. One-third, not one-half. That’s still a lot, but it includes Anthony Hopkins playing the insane serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” – hard to argue that the role should have gone to an actual insane serial killer – and Tom Hanks and Matthew McConaughey portraying two characters living with HIV/AIDS, which falls under the American with Disabilities Act definition of disability. This presents some distinct issues:  Should an actor auditioning to play a character with AIDS be required to reveal their HIV status?

Rowe’s basic point here is certainly valid, the argument compelling: Why can’t actors with disabilities portray characters with disabilities?  

But, rather than taking the time permitted in a book to explore such issues in depth or with any nuance, Rowe repeats some (suspect) statistics over and over again as if in a series of stump speeches.

I have mixed feelings, however, about his political gesture in the longest chapter in the book, the last one, which is simply a list of the names and ages of people with disabilities, from 2014 to 2019, who are known to have been killed somewhere in the world by their families, taken from the website Disability Memorial. It’s a long list.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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