The first-ever national disability theatre is spreading across the country and its co-founder, actor with autism Mickey Rowe is joining Jay for a one-on-one with exciting news
Mickey Rowe is co-executive director of National Disability Theatre.
He is legally blind and was the first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as well as one of the first autistic actors to get to play an autistic character ever. He has been featured in the New York Times, PBS, Teen Vogue, Playbill, NPR Huffington Post, and others. He is completing his MFA in Artistic Leadership. Mickey has worked in multiple theatres and productions, amongst those: Syracuse Stage, Indiana Repertory Theatre, the Seattle Opera, SCT, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Book-It Repertory Theatre, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival Midnight Projects
Jay Ruderman: Perception, stigma, lack of exposure, all lead to exclusion of people with disabilities. When we change perception, shatter stigma, and enhance visibility, we can change the world.
Announcer: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice, with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, and welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman. Have you heard about the new National Disability Theatre? It’s a professional theater company aiming to change social policy and the nation’s narrative about what people with disabilities can do and can be exposed to. Today, we’re joined by its co-founder, Mickey Rowe, who is the first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone in the Tony Award-winning play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and one of the first autistic actors to play any autistic characters. He’s been featured in the New York Times, PBS, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, and many more. These days, he’s making history as the co-founder of the National Disability Theatre. Hi, Mickey, and thank you for joining me today.
Mickey Rowe: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor to be on the show.
Jay Ruderman: Welcome. So, tell me, why did you become an actor? And what have been some of your challenges in becoming an actor?
Mickey Rowe: Growing up and being on the spectrum, as someone who’s autistic, I had no friends, so I spent my lunch breaks and recesses really pacing the hallways not knowing who to talk to or how to talk to them, or how to make a friend. So, I was really completely alone in my own head. But, my grandmother had a subscription to Seattle Children’s Theater, a professional theater for young audiences, and whenever we’d get to go, when I was sitting in the dark theater watching a show, that was really the one place that I felt seen, and I felt silently heard. So, that is what inspired me to be an actor.
Mickey Rowe: All actors face challenges, but for me, specifically, in addition to being autistic, I’m legally blind. What that means for me is that I can see things and I can read 18 point font or large print, but I can’t read text that’s smaller than 18 point font. A big part of getting acting jobs, as you may know, are doing what’s called cold reads, where they hand you a script and you read it. In my experience, I found that often if I would request the accommodation of having a script enlarged to 18 point font or photocopied at 150% for me, theaters didn’t really understand what an accommodation was besides maybe a wheelchair ramp and they often were unwilling to make that accommodation, or it would fall through the cracks because they’d be busy, and so they would choose to just not reply to the email asking for a large script and not communicate again with you at all.
Mickey Rowe: So, that’s been a big challenge for me, and that’s part of the reason I decided to become more public about my disability, because I thought it would help me navigate those conversations.
Jay Ruderman: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but there’s a show on television called The Good Doctor in which the lead character plays a doctor with autism, but he himself is not autistic. How do you feel about that portrayal and what does it make you want to do as a result of it?
Mickey Rowe: Ideally I would love to see that role be played by a brilliant actor who had autism, and I think there are a lot of really great actors with autism out there. But I think another part of the conversation, and it’s a great show, and if you want to just be entertained watching a great TV show there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think another really important part of the conversation is that autism is so much more diverse than what we see represented on TV. When we see autism on TV, it’s almost always a genius, right? What do we call it? Someone who is a prodigy and a genius.
Mickey Rowe: A know lots of really smart autistic people, but no one who’s necessarily a genius to the level that it’s portrayed on TV. And it’s always portrayed as white male, as well, to be honest. I think that’s problematic, oftentimes, because when someone goes to get diagnosed with autism, you’re not necessarily going to the expert right away. You start with a pediatrician or a general practitioner, and the place that those people pick up their perceptions of what autism looks like is TV.
Mickey Rowe: So, I think the fact that autism is always represented the same way on TV, that’s one of the reasons, I believe, why women with autism are so under-diagnosed, because it’s not what the pediatricians and general practitioners are seeing on TV, so they’re not expecting that, and that’s not what they … They don’t think to refer you to an autism expert.
Jay Ruderman: Well, listen, I mean, Hollywood and popular entertainment definitely has an impact on stigma and how people with disabilities are perceived in society. And many of us in the community know that whereas people with disabilities are 20% of the population, they are not authentically portrayed on screen. And we know that in the last 30 years that half the men that have won the Best Male Oscar have won for playing a disability. So, obviously, Hollywood wants to see disability, but not necessarily by actors with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: Yet, you know, there are shows, like Speechless on ABC, where the producer and showrunner, Scott Silveri, wanted a lead character with cerebral palsy and was able to find Micah Fowler, and Micah’s the star of the show. So-
Mickey Rowe: And one of our advisory company members, as well, Micah is.
Jay Ruderman: Yeah. He’s great.
Mickey Rowe He’s a great guy.
Jay Ruderman: He’s great. So, why don’t you tell me about the process, what led you from becoming an actor to a self-advocate? How did that process begin?
Mickey Rowe: Well, you really have to be a self-advocate, right now, as a person with a developmental disability, because you have to go above and beyond to prove that you are professional and that you can do the job. But what really, really, really, I can’t emphasize this enough, more than anything else, gave me the confidence and the tools that I needed to become an advocate for myself were the Ruderman white papers. Really, if it hadn’t been for the Ruderman white papers, I would have never been cast in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and National Disability Theatre wouldn’t exist right now. And I know that’s true for so many people my age pursuing careers in the arts and media. The Ruderman white papers are really what has inspired change, and also given me the tools that I needed to advocate for change.
Jay Ruderman: I want to thank you for that, because what we were looking for is to tell the story of discrimination of actors with disabilities, and we know that 95% of the actors that we see on screen playing the role of a disability, less than 5% of them have a disability.
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely.
Jay Ruderman: Are you concerned at all, by through your advocacy, being black-balled by the industry and being seen as problematic? Is that something that is a concern to you? Or is that an old-fashioned attitude that now activism is such an integral part of life that it’s just accepted?
Mickey Rowe: You know, that’s always a concern. There are always people who, when they receive helpful critique, and critique that’s supposed to be positive, and helping everyone move forward in a better way, there’s always going to be people who receive that by being defensive. And I think those companies just aren’t the companies, necessarily, that you would want to be working for. And also, those companies probably wouldn’t have hired you in the first place, no matter what. They would have already discriminated against you, I think, even if you hadn’t been advocated for yourself.
Mickey Rowe: I think what’s really important for people with disabilities to know is that if there are companies that don’t seem like they are going to be able to work there, or certain companies that don’t seem like they’re on the same brainwave with you, that’s not the end of the world, and there are just as many really wonderful companies out there who are excited about inclusion and excited about moving forward and including people with disabilities. They might just not necessarily know how to do that on their own, or have the tools to do that, or they might need someone to hold their hand and guide them and walk them through that a little bit.
Mickey Rowe: So, I think young people with disabilities who are trying to figure out how to navigate advocating for themselves versus being excluded for advocating for themselves, just know that you have to find the right companies and the right partners that are going to appreciate your help, and appreciate you holding their hand and guiding them in how to include people with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: Having just returned from Hollywood a few days ago, and having watched the latest Oscars presentation, it’s clear that diversity is part of the overall conversation in the entertainment industry. And diversity has really propelled different minority groups to the forefront of the entertainment industry, with African-American, Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ, and other minority groups. It still seems that disability is not being included in the diversity conversation.
Jay Ruderman: While it’s now seen as inauthentic to portray certain minority groups without actors who represent those minority groups, with disability, it’s still seen as great acting to act as someone who has a disability, even if you’re able-bodied. So, I don’t know, what are your insights into that dichotomy?
Mickey Rowe: I mean, that is 100% true. Everything that you said is completely accurate and is true both for Hollywood as well as for theater as well. I think one of the things is that people with disabilities are often a little more isolated. It’s a little harder. We have to go a little more out of our way to form that community with each other. We might come from families where there’s no one else in our family who has a disability. It’s a little harder for us to come together and form that community.
Mickey Rowe: Also, disability in itself is so diverse. There are people with mobility disabilities and limb differences, right? Cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, autism. We are all so different and we all experience the world, and our challenges, so different. So, part of the mission of National Disability Theatre is to find ways to bring together the whole disability community, bring together lots and lots of people from the disability community, together all in one room, with professional funding, professional resources, to get to create as a group together, and really form that community, and form that culture. Also, show the world what that culture can look like, and how valuable that can be to include in the diversity conversation.
Jay Ruderman: So, I want to get into what the National Disability Theatre’s approach is, but before I would get into that, I would say that there are-
Mickey Rowe: Of course.
Jay Ruderman: … champions out there.
Mickey Rowe: Absolutely.
Jay Ruderman: I’m thinking of people like Scott Silveri, and Glen Mazzara, and Edgar Wright, and Ava DuVernay, and Janelle Monae. There are people who understand that disability is part of diversity. And even in the studios, I think there’s an educational process being done, that they understand that this is an emerging community that’s no longer going to be silent, that they need to consider, as part of the overall diversity conversation.
Mickey Rowe: Your work with Yale, as well, and Jessy Yates. Jessy just invited us out the other week to speak to children and faculty at the Yale School of Drama, because of your work with her and with them. And they’re another group I would add to that, that is now really becoming a strong advocate and understanding disability is a part of diversity as well, now.
Jay Ruderman: Right. Well, thank you, and we at the Ruderman Family Foundation decided to partner with Yale Drama School because they were on the same page on this issue in terms of including more actors with disabilities, and they are a prestigious organization that has impact in the world of entertainment.
Jay Ruderman: But, let’s switch gears a little bit to the National Disability Theatre’s approach to work. What makes it different? What is the unique aspect of this theater’s approach?
Mickey Rowe: Beyond just only employing people with disabilities. I think often the conversation about people with disabilities ends at actors. We talk about actors with disabilities, but often the stories are actually created long before the actors are ever invited into the process. So not only do we only cast actors with disabilities, but also, we only hire directors and designers with disabilities. So, everyone from the lighting designer to the person who wrote the script, they’re all going to have disabilities.
Mickey Rowe: What’s been hard for us to communicate to theaters, as we partner with them, is that this isn’t an act of charity, and that because you’re including people with disabilities, it doesn’t mean that the work is going to be of a lower level. These are all professional people who do this full-time as their living, and that you’re going to get the same quality you always have.
Mickey Rowe: But so, really, we hope to flip the script on whose voices belong where, and who are valued. So, we’re going to into these big, famous, regional theaters, that maybe haven’t been accessible, or haven’t included people with disabilities before, and we’re convincing them to allow us to take over their stages, and to say to their audiences, by doing incredible productions, “Look how amazing and professional and capable we are. People with disabilities are. And our voices belong on this stage, too.”
Mickey Rowe: Some of the people in that audience will be employers, and business owners, and leaders. So, their perception of people with disabilities will be changed. We partner with regional theaters across the country. So, this is really mutually beneficial for us, because we gain access to those theaters’ administrative infrastructure, and scene shops, which adds to our organizational strength, but also, then, those theaters get our diversity and programming as well. And we hold their hands on this journey.
Mickey Rowe: I think, often, people can be uncomfortable at first working alongside someone with a disability. So, by putting a whole bunch of people with disabilities into an existing regional theater as directors, and designers, and actors, over the period of a few months or a year, that theater is going to get more comfortable seeing these people as their peers. So, hopefully, when we leave, the theater will be thinking more inclusively and accessibly on their own. In that way, we get to plant the seeds of inclusion in major regional theaters around the country, until hopefully, one day, they won’t need us to hold their hands any more.
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Jay Ruderman: First of all, I get the empowerment. The theater company run solely on employed people with disabilities as an empowering aspect of entertainment. But let me push back a little bit. Where is the inclusion model? I mean, isn’t the way to become more trenched in the entertainment industry is to be included in mainstream television, film, and not be an exclusionary group?
Mickey Rowe: There are already companies casting in that way already. I think about ACT Theatre here in Seattle has just cast a brilliant deaf actor as Romeo. Or I was just cast in Mozart in Amadeus coming up. So, often we will see theaters where one person with a disability is cast in the lead. It doesn’t always translate to people seeing that all people with disabilities are capable.
Mickey Rowe: A community that has really found a voice for themselves and been more accepted in popular culture has been the deaf community. It has done a really good job articulating why they’re valuable. I think a lot of that had to do with the Deaf West Theater Company, which had a really similar model to us, producing work with only people from the deaf community. That’s been really powerful in creating that inclusion more broadly.
Mickey Rowe: What I hear all the time from people is I hear that they want to cast people with disabilities, but don’t think the talent is there. They don’t think there is someone with this disability who could play this role. What we want to do is we want to get as many people with disabilities as possible on stages in major theaters, getting that experience, and showing their chops, so that people don’t have that excuse any more. So that people can’t say, “There isn’t someone out there who’s talented enough.” We can point and say, “No, look, this person just played this role at this theater in our production, and they’re more than capable.” And there will be reviews and all sorts of things to back that up.
Jay Ruderman: So, actually, it’s a very interesting idea, and I’m glad you laid it out to us. I know that many of your partners, people that I am friendly with and that I know personally, are excellent actors. People like Maysoon Zayid, Alex Stroker, Danny Woodborough, and Micah Fowler, and many more. Maybe you can tell us about what are some of your upcoming projects?
Mickey Rowe: So, we are actually just about to announce that … Your listeners will be the first to hear it … We, in our first year, are partnering with two really exciting theaters. In our first year we’re going to be partnering with La Jolla Playhouse in California, and The Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And as part of this partnership, we will be creating and commissioning two new plays, both written by playwrights with disabilities, for a cast of actors with disabilities, and the productions will be directed and designed by people with disabilities.
Mickey Rowe: One of the productions will be created just with La Jolla Playhouse, and then the other production will be a co-production with both La Jolla Playhouse and The Goodman Theatre, specifically for those two theaters first. What’s really exciting about this partnership for us is that National Disability Theatre is going to be the artists in residence at La Jolla Playhouse for a year, and we’ll get to work really closely with their design shop to rethink audience access services.
Mickey Rowe: So, our goal for our theater company is that instead of audience accessibility being an add-on that comes at the end of the design process, that certain audience members have to opt-in to or ask for, that our whole production will be accessible to everyone from the start. So, captioning isn’t a separate add-on but is integrated artistically, and directly, into the projection designs and the set design. And audio description can be integrated directly into the sound design.
Mickey Rowe: So, not only is this more satisfying for those people who use these services, but it’s also more affordable, and we think that modeling these accommodations for all of our audience members, not just those who need it, is an important educational tool.
Jay Ruderman: It sounds very exciting. You’re going to start in regional theaters, and my sense is that your plan is to end up in New York, on Broadway, and really challenge the national theater culture to really take a serious look at this. Is there anyone from the entertainment industry that’s really gotten behind this yet? Or are you more at the beginning stage of this whole process?
Mickey Rowe: Right now, we are mostly just talking with producers at regional theaters. A big part of Talleri and my job every day is hoping on the phone and taking meetings with regional producers across the country, theater producers across the country, and understanding what their needs are, what they’re excited about, and then trying to sell inclusion to them, and sell our model to them as something that would be really exciting for their audience members, and affordable.
Mickey Rowe: When we were at Yale, one thing that Talleri, our co-executive director said that I thought was so interesting, is that often theaters get scared when they hear accessibility because they think that it’s going to cost a lot of money. And sometimes that can definitely be true. So, what we try to educate these theaters on is that if you’re thinking about accessibility and inclusion right from the start, then it doesn’t necessarily cost more money, because you are already using things like projectors, and microphones, and audio description, and all these things that make something accessible, you have those tools already. If we creatively think about how we use those right from the start, then all it takes is creativity, and not necessarily more money than you’re used to spending.
Jay Ruderman: You have this company that’s committed to these productions. I assume that at the same time, since I know many of these actors, they’re also auditioning and acting in more mainstream productions.
Mickey Rowe: Right. So, our advisory company members definitely get the right to first refusal for any role that they would like in our shows. But we have a huge list that we have accumulated of hundreds and hundreds of really talented professional actors with disabilities, who we don’t necessarily know well enough to have as advisory company members, but we have hundreds and hundreds of actors with disabilities at our disposal that can audition for these theaters.
Mickey Rowe: As well, we hope to work with really wonderful agents, like Gail Ford Williamson in LA, who can help us to cast our productions with professional actors with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman:Where’s the pipeline coming from? You’re a regional person some place in the United States, you’re an actor with a disability, you want to become part of this National Disability Theatre, one of the productions. How do you access this talent pool?
Mickey Rowe: Well, luckily for National Disability Theatre, because of our website and because of some of the press we’ve gotten, we have a lot of them reaching out directly to us. But what I would say for a company that doesn’t necessarily have that resource, if a director or a company is thinking about including people with disabilities, and doesn’t know where to find them, I would say reach out to the community. Reach out to people like National Disability Theatre who can connect you with the talent, or Gregg Mozgala who can connect you with the talent, or agents like Gail Ford Williamson. There are a lot of resources out there, and oftentimes if you’re worried about finding the talent, all you have to do is reach out to an existing company that’s a part of the community, and they can help guide you to where that talent is.
Mickey Rowe: I think that’s another reason why it’s really important for theaters to be able to see a whole company made up of people with disabilities, because when you go and see a show and every single person in that show has a disability, and they were all completely talented professional actors, that helps to dispel the myth that the talent isn’t there, and that there aren’t that many actors with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: If our listeners want to learn more about National Disability Theatres, how do they access the website, and find out about what you’re doing?
Mickey Rowe: They can go to www.NationalDisabilityTheatre.org, is our website.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you, Mickey, for joining us today. I really think that this project, the National Disability Theatre’s, work will be extremely impactful in breaking down stigma about actors with disabilities by making them visible in theater productions, and also inspiring the next crop of young actors who may see themselves on stage and say, “I can do this, because I’m seeing someone just like me up on stage.”
Jay Ruderman: I wish you a tremendous amount of success. Look forward to seeing one of your productions, and I look forward to seeing you on Broadway or in LA.
Mickey Rowe: Thank you so much, Jay.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you very much. Thanks for taking the time to join us today.
Mickey Rowe: It was great chatting with you.
Jay Ruderman: Thanks. Be well.
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